I’ve never been a Sarah Silverman fan but what happened to her recently is sort of interesting. She was fired from a role in a film after producers saw images from her old show in which she wore blackface for a skit. From the Guardian:
Guesting on The Bill Simmons Podcast, Silverman said that she was let go the day before shooting on her scenes was due to start because of the photo, taken on the set of The Sarah Silverman Show.
“I recently was going to do a movie, a sweet part,” she said, “then, at 11pm the night before, they fired me because they saw a picture of me in blackface from that episode.
“I didn’t fight it. They hired someone else who is wonderful but who has never stuck their neck out. It was so disheartening. It just made me real, real sad, because I really kind of devoted my life to making it right.”
The skit in question was part of season two of the Sarah Silverman Program (circa 2008?). Comedy Central has apparently pulled down the clips of the skit but copies of it still exist on YouTube. In the skit, Silverman is complaining about how hard it is to be Jewish when a black man overhears her and says it’s harder to be black. Silverman then dresses in blackface for the rest of the skit (which you can see below).
Getting fired caused Silverman to reflect on “cancel culture” which she admitted was mostly a problem on the left:
“I think it’s really scary and it’s a very odd thing that it’s invaded the left primarily and the right will mimic it,” adding that she dubs it “righteousness porn”.
“It’s like, if you’re not on board, if you say the wrong thing, if you had a tweet once, everyone is, like, throwing the first stone,” she continued. “It’s so odd. It’s a perversion. It’s really, ‘Look how righteous I am and now I’m going to press refresh all day long to see how many likes I get in my righteousness.’”
Last year GQ did a fawning profile of Silverman in which she said she was horrified by the blackface skit:
“Comedy by nature is not at all evergreen. So if you’re doing it right, you look back at your old stuff and you’re horrified,” she tells me. “I don’t stand by the blackface sketch. I’m horrified by it, and I can’t erase it. I can only be changed by it and move on.”
Did you, at the time, have some awareness that it was fun to get away with a lot of the jokes you performed? Was there a small kick?
“I was praised for it! It made me famous! It was like, I’m playing a character, and I know this is wrong, so I can say it. I’m clearly liberal. That was such liberal-bubble stuff, where I actually thought it was dealing with racism by using racism. I don’t get joy in that anymore. It makes me feel yucky. All I can say is that I’m not that person anymore.”
To be fair to Silverman, she’s not endorsing blackface in the skit so much as she’s mocking the stupidity of her own character on the show. Still, blackface has become a third-rail issue in American life. Megyn Kelly was fired after she suggested that not all blackface was equally offensive, i.e. kids dressing in costumes for Halloween. However, Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia was found to have a blackface photo in his medical school yearbook and, somehow, he’s still around. He eventually claimed that a) it wasn’t him in the photo but b) he had dressed in blackface before for a dance contest. Despite the admission, Northam is still Governor.
What’s most interesting to me about the Silverman incident is that she seems to be getting closer to what an older generation of comedians have said in recent years about the encroachment of politics into humor. John Cleese, Jerry Seinfeld, and Mel Brooks have all suggested political correctness would be the death of comedy, even as the current crop of late-night hosts seem eager to abandon being funny for the sake of making political points. But the fact that Silverman is apologizing for her old material rather than telling people to lighten up suggests she’s straddling an increasingly fraught dividing line between being a comedian and being a woke celebrity. After all, Ralph Northam showed us that politicians can survive these situations if they vow to be sufficiently woke going forward. It’s still not clear if comedians can survive.