Laughing at America

Sarah Silverman’s I Love You, America suggests that white guilt is only a distant feeling

On a 2015 Watch What Happens Live appearance, Sarah Silverman was asked if she had ever regretted any of her jokes. She answered, yes and no. No, in that she enjoys looking back on her work and cringing—that means she’s growing. Yes, in that she doesn’t regret wearing blackface for an episode of The Sarah Silverman Program, but she regrets posting a still of it on Twitter because now “it’s forever there” and looks “totally racist out of context.”

If Silverman is, simply, a victim of context, I wonder why she, though normally self-assured and incisive, defends herself so clumsily. People use the term “white guilt” to refer to an inconvenient feeling of culpability white people have for their historical collective sins. A historical collectivity that is in fact preferable because it suggests that white people’s contemporary guilt is just the residue of a distant feeling rather than a continuous and present-day crime white people commit by actively profiting off of and contributing to systems that currently oppress people of color. Silverman was asked a banal question on a Bravo talk show, and she acted like she was hooked up to a polygraph test. If she’s not guilty, then why is she sweating?

Silverman devotes a large part of her 2010 memoir, The Bedwetter, to defending herself against claims of racism. In the memoir, the main incident in question is a 2001 appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, where Silverman used the racial slur “chink.” Following her appearance, the head of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, Guy Aoki, said that Silverman's joke was racist and called for her apology. Silverman then wrote him an email—included in her book—which could be considered an apology, if you’re being generous, but mostly functions as a lengthy explanation of why her joke is not racist. Silverman explains that she is using irony and “playing the role of the ignoramus” to “turn the public toward the bigotry that goes unnoticed.” She explained to Aoki, a civil-rights activist who has dedicated his life to creating a nonprofit that monitors Asian representation in media, “We obviously have different approaches to addressing racism,” which, if nothing else, is undoubtedly true.

In Silverman’s letter to Aoki she claimed that she is aware that laughter isn’t the only measure of success, and also that she cares about the source of her listeners’ laughter. Because her fan base is “multi-ethnic,” she is sure the laughs are coming from a good place. Earlier in her book she contradicts herself, though, as guilty people often do. She mentions a run-in with a famous singer who she doesn’t name, but heavily implies is Journey’s lead singer, Steve Perry. The singer approaches her and says, “You have the best nigger jokes!” She explains that the man “has a mouth full of blood laughs,” which is to say that he is laughing at the use of the slur and not the intended irony behind it. It’s possible that the singer simply misinterpreted Silverman’s joke, but if someone like that singer thought they were on my team I might reevaluate how “ironic” my “ironic” racist jokes were.

If Silverman paid more attention to her audience, she might find that her fan base is less multi-ethnic than she thinks. For many people of color, racist slurs are not “bigotry that goes unnoticed,” as Silverman calls it, but integral to their daily lives, whether or not they choose to notice it. The fact that many people of color have the words “nigger” or “chink” leveled against them in ways that can’t be described as ironic, but are still met with laughter, makes me question who exactly these “ironic” racist jokes are supposed to be cathartic for.

Silverman has, for the most part, discarded ironic racist jokes from her act in recent years. She’s traded irony for sincere political activism: She campaigned for Bernie Sanders and then eventually Hillary Clinton, and even spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Since the election, Silverman has often taken to social media to criticize Trump and his family, at one point seemingly calling for a political coup against him on Twitter, and she spoke at the tax march in New York this April, urging Trump to release his tax returns. Though Silverman has long identified as a “liberal,” her posture as anti-Trump is interesting in the context of her altercation with Aoki. In truth, Silverman’s language to defend herself against Aoki’s claims of racism mirrors much of the language Trump and his supporters use to defend our current presidency. Silverman cites Bill Maher’s defense of her chink joke as a defense of “subjectivity” and “free speech.” If she understands white women using racial slurs on national TV to be a triumph of free speech, it’s funny—or, rather, ironic—that she didn’t foresee a major presidential candidate calling Mexicans “rapists” as the logical next step. Still, the idea that it would require a great deal of effort for Silverman to understand the mindset of a Trump voter is the premise of Silverman’s new comedy/talk/variety show, I Love You, America. A press release for the show states, “Silverman feels it’s crucial, now more than ever, to connect with un-like-minded people, creating a show setting out to expose the fact that we are all the same.”

I Love You, America premiered in October 2017 on Hulu, almost a year after the 2016 presidential election. Silverman starts the premiere episode’s monologue by prefacing the show’s tone, “Sometimes it’s gonna be aggressively dumb and silly . . . and sometimes it’s gonna be totally earnest.” This is a warning to viewers expecting the “ironic” racist she portrays in her 2005 special Jesus is Magic or the sharp-tongued insults she employs on Comedy Central roasts. It’s true that this new incarnation is Silverman’s most earnest. Her monologues can feel like a mixture of diary entry and confession. On the anniversary of the election she admits that when it was official that Trump had won she “had the sudden urge to buy a gun and stockpile water and weapons and canned goods.” And she finally concludes, “It’s that feeling of fear that makes us the same.”

Silverman is sincerely talented. She’s a gifted actress and performer, with a deft and original comedic sensibility. But her level of fame is inexorably linked to her use of “ironic” racism. In her book, Silverman recalls how when she first started performing standup at 19, she was earnest, and would often be the only one in the room not laughing at jokes that played on racial stereotypes. She did stand-up about her sex life and drug use, and then a shift occurred: “At some point, I figured that it would be more effective and far funnier to embrace the ugliest, most terrifying things in the world—the Holocaust, racism, rape, et cetera. But for the sake of comedy, and the comedian’s personal sanity, this requires a certain emotional distance.” It seems Silverman realized what hit a nerve with her audiences early on, and though she is sure she could distinguish between those laughing at her “ironic” racist persona and those laughing with it, I am not as sure. By Silverman’s own admission, there were shows where she’d deliver the line, “The best time to have a baby is when you’re a black teenager,” and then be greeted by fans backstage telling her they love her “nigger jokes.” If ironic racism is a genius rhetorical tool used to expose the evils of the world, why do I suspect it’d be almost impossible for a comic who isn’t white to reach Silverman’s level of prominence with such hastily repackaged violence? It’s more likely that “ironic” racism is simply a lazy yet poisonous way in which Silverman cashes in on the spoils of white supremacy. So, of course Silverman loves America: It’s a place where a pretty white girl can say a racial slur with a smile on her face in the name of comedy, make a million dollars off of it, and still be hailed as “edgy.”

The first clip from I Love You, America to be circulated online featured Silverman having dinner with a white Trump-voting family from Chalmette, Louisiana. Silverman is surprised that she gets along with the family, and she quickly bonds with their young son. Then the conversation turns political. One of the women says, “I just think Obama took what it means to be an American out of America.” She explains that Obama didn’t value hard work, he just gave handouts to everyone. Race is not the subtext here but the text. Silverman attempts to counter by inquiring if the woman is taking advantage of Obamacare, which she is. The same woman then suggests Obama was not born in America. Her family members and Silverman protest, and then they all laugh it off. This woman, like Silverman, isn’t guilty of anything; it’s just a joke between friends. At the end of the segment Silverman’s voiceover states that, “We learned that we don’t have to be divided to disagree”—a flaccid conclusion to a muddled premise. The only thing this segment seems to illuminate is the fact that, in the context of her show, Silverman has no interest in genuinely confronting unironic racism.

In a segment on a later episode, Silverman visits an especially conservative region of Texas and asks a group of gun-owning firefighters, “You’re not feeling like a stand-your-groundiness with me are you?” I’d find the joke funnier if I didn’t know that Stand Your Ground laws are twice as likely to be used to justify violence against a person of color. When entering these white spaces, Silverman seems either unwilling or uninterested in investigating how her experience would be different if she were a person of color. She doesn’t consider that these well-meaning white people aren’t deserving of any more airtime, that maybe they’re actually guilty of a crime.

For all the lip service Silverman paid to how important it is to raise awareness about racism, the so-called earnest political talk show rarely discusses race at all. The show has released eight episodes so far, and as of now DeRay Mckesson is one of Silverman’s very few nonwhite guests. Randy Bryce, Paul Ryan’s opponent in his upcoming reelection race, seems to be the only other nonwhite adult Silverman has spoken to directly on her show. Perhaps Silverman, Trump, and his supporters have a similar idea of who “America” includes. Like so much of Silverman’s comedy, her interview with Mckesson seems tailored for a group that couldn’t be described as multi-ethnic. She prompts Mckesson by saying that Black Lives Matter’s goals can seem ambiguous, and asks what he would say to someone who didn’t know what their goals are. It’s worth noting that I don’t think the role of comedian as ambassador is a futile exercise, just that Silverman is uniquely unqualified for the role. Mckesson was also a guest on Chelsea Handler’s current talk show, and it’s interesting to compare the two interviews, especially since Handler is also a comedian who once profited off of “ironic” racism and has now shifted to sincere political discussions. When Handler discusses NFL players kneeling during the anthem in her interview with Mckesson she becomes incensed, “I get mad at white people. I’m mad that Tom Brady wasn’t on his knee. I get mad at white people that [are] standing there with their brothers that [don’t] get down on a knee.” Here, at least, Handler identifies a crime, and herself as a member of the guilty party.

Because Silverman still hopes to convince us that she is not guilty, she delights in framing the guilty as a distant and alien species. In a segment from a recent episode Silverman visits the man who sells her eyeglasses, a Trump supporter who pulls up a picture he took of a woman in a burqa at the DMV as evidence that the country is “turning disgusting.” Michael Sheen, Silverman’s boyfriend, tweeted the clip, joking that he’s jealous of Silverman’s chemistry with the man. Indeed, she seems more angered with Guy Aoki than with this racist salesman. Still, Silverman is committed to portraying herself as diametrically opposed to white Trump voters, perhaps to distract from how much she has in common with them, so she won’t have to admit that white supremacy is a far more noxious gas than partisanship. Silverman frames bonding with white Trump voters as benevolent, depicting a version of racism that doesn’t require white people to atone for their crimes or help dismantle the violent machine they’ve created.