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Feb. 16 2010 - 10:22 pm | 2,030 views | 0 recommendations | 10 comments

Sarah Silverman Sucks

Sarah Silverman at the Tribeca Film Festival

Image via Wikipedia

Sarah Silverman sucks? Well, that’s what some people at the big TED conference last week in Long Beach think anyway, including the TEDmeister himself, Chris Anderson, who now famously tweeted “I know I shouldn’t say this about one of my own speakers, but I thought Sarah Silverman was god-awful…”

Silverman fired back: “Kudos to @TEDChris for making TED an unsafe haven for all! You’re a barnacle of mediocrity on Bill Gates’ asshole.” Ouch! (Gates was at TED, although I don’t know if he was in the audience for Silverman’s performance.)

After sleeping on the matter Chris Anderson reflected today:

—Yes, we did know we were taking a risk booking her.

—She’s a smart provocateur with a wide range of material.

—We did ask, though not clearly enough as it turned out, that she’d tailor something specifically for TED and avoid her more extreme content.

—TED talks work best when the speaker shows up for the full conference and takes the time to absorb audience and context. Didn’t happen.

—Call me stuffy, but I still think humor about terminally-ill “retarded” kids is an acquired taste.

—And not a taste I personally want to acquire.

I attended nearly every session of TED 2010 after speaking in the first session on Wednesday morning (“The Believing Brain”). I’ll comment on the rest of TED in a later blog, but here I’ll note that I was right up front in the speaker’s section for her 18-minute show (we all got 18 minutes), which in my view was hit and miss, mostly miss for my tastes, which run roughly parallel to Chris Anderson’s, judging by his selections of speakers and performers over the years for TED (“Technology, Entertainment, Design” means a wide variety of people).

Maybe Chris and I are a generation too old to appreciate Silverman’s style, but it was mostly potty humor focusing on bodily secretions. For example, she had a slide featuring the number 3000, but it was rendered more as 3ooo, with the tiny o’s centered on the indentation of the 3, which when rotated vertically with the o’s below the 3, she said, reminded her of the curves of an ass with three poops coming out, which then made her think of boobs taking a shit. Hilarious!

Since she grew up Jewish, Silverman riffed through a series of standard Jewish stereotypes (e.g., picking up pennies from the sidewalk…39 of them!) and recounted conversations with her conservative mother about her wild sex life, all of which was reasonably funny; but her lovely singing voice (accompanied by a guitar) led to a song about fitting a penis in your anus. Side-splitting!

The “retard” routine was aimed at Angelina Jolie, she explained in the lead up to the bit, but afterward I was told that Silverman was actually targeting Sarah Palin and America’s PC hyper-sensitivity to the word “retarded.” Okay, so this was a Lenny Bruce/Borat-style bit to get us to see the stuffiness of language and the absurdities of such categories, and to shake things up a bit politically. Fine. People were squirming in their seats a bit until she added the “terminally ill” provision for adopting such a retarded child (in order to avoid the problem of being 80 with a 60-year old dependent), which, in conjunction with her admittedly infectious smile, did release the tension in the room and generated a rowdy laugh. The tension-release combo is a standard technique of good comedy, and Silverman definitely employs it effectively.

If this were a boxing match I would say that the audience rated her performance in a split decision, with a good mix of raucous applause (and even a standing ovation by some) and subdued silence (which doesn’t sound like much in comparison). Having attended TED twice now (you can see my first talk here) I don’t think this is the venue for Sarah Silverman. It isn’t that she’s too “edgy” (whatever that means) for this audience. It is that her humor is not what TED is about. Admittedly this is difficult to define, but had she hung around for a couple of days I strongly suspect that she would have done an entirely different routine. Comedians definitely should have a place at TED (see, for example, Julia Sweeney’s brilliantly funny TED talk here), but all would be speakers and performers would be well advised to spend a few hours watching TED talks in order to absorb what this unique event is all about before stepping onto the TED stage.


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  1. collapse expand

    Her deal is that she looks cute and innocent but she says dirty things. No one finds her funny except the producers at comedy central, for reasons I can’t understand.

  2. collapse expand

    Sarah Silverman isn’t so much a comedian as she is an ironist. She is highly capable at taking her ‘difference’ – as a woman, a woman with a potty mouth, a Jew, etc. – and contrasting it with what’s considered normal in society, but then making herself out to be the normal one. That’s the whole concept behind ‘Jesus is Magic’, Silverman basically asking whitebread Christian America “What the hell is it with all of you people anyway!?’ It’s also the same thing with her terrific Comedy Central TV show, where she’s a person who can barely get out of bed everyday, yet somehow always comes out on top. It’s an act, and an f-ing brilliant one.

    The annoying thing about all of this talk is how all of you TED people are being such gatekeepers. Yeah, I know a lot of people paid a lot of money to attend TED. But if you’re going to disparage someone’s performance, release it to the public so we can see if you’re all being shrinking violets or if Sarah, who I hope I’ve made it clear now I’d like to marry and settle down with, had a bad night.

    What’s worse, you all keep couching your criticism as, “She wasn’t right for TED” like that matters to anyone who doesn’t attend TED. TED to me is a series of videos that get circulated far and wide on the Internet and mostly watched by people who have a lot of time on their hands. Sort of like re-runs of the Sarah Silverman show. So I’m not really sure why I should care so much about this rarefied audience’s judgment of one of the finest comedians of the past decade.

    If the video is eventually released, and the world thinks it’s really funny, the TED organizers and audience members are going to look pretty bad. But it’ll look worse if the video never gets officially released because the TED crowd decides it’s too inappropriate to be published under their banner.

  3. collapse expand

    She’s kind of stupid/gross funny. Her comedic style reminds me of Family Guy. Seems funny at first but grows repetitive and unoriginal very quickly.
    Kind of funny that she took a stab at Sarah Palin. Seeing as I think they have a few key things in common. Such as, being attractive, using their looks to further their career, and not being highly talented otherwise.
    Can’t really say a whole lot of bad things about Sarah Silverman as a comedian when people still think Dane Cook is funny. (but when aren’t hyperactive people who play down their religion!?)

  4. collapse expand

    Good points, MR. Sounds like the TED conf expected Sarah Silverman to adjust her performance to suit the audience. But Sarah Silverman never does what’s expected. She looks at reality and distortion and puts them through a blender. She does social commentary, in her own way. The tagline at ted.com: “Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world.” You can like it or dislike it, find it funny or not, but TED shouldn’t pretend to be open-minded and then close ranks around this.

  5. collapse expand

    Sarah Silverman’s not funny. She’s GenX’s Rita Rudner.

  6. collapse expand

    Mr. Shermer, You admit that what TED is about is “hard to define” and yet you suggest that Sarah would have changed her act if she’d hung around for a couple days to get what TED is about. I think quite the opposite is true. Had Sarah hung around for a few days, she probably would have thought “these people won’t get me,” and, being Sarah, would have gone even more overboard to make the point.

    Would you, if invited to speak at a fundamental;ist revival, change your regular presentation and proclaim you devotion to Jesus and/or belief in miracles? Of course not, this is not who you are. And it would be just as ridiculous for the revivalists to be surprised at your presentation as it is for TED organizers to be shocked at Sarah’s. It reminds me of the time MTV had Andrew Dice Clay host their awards show and then express outrage over his going way overboard. What did they expect?

    I agree with 90% of Michael Roston’s comment here (I enjoy much of what’s on TED – he doesn’t seem to). He gets Sarah’s act. I think those who don’t get it suffer from some infantile revulsion at bad words. I see the same with many of Matt Taibbi’s critics. Never mind that Sarah is funny and insightful – or that Matt is intelligent and informative – some people just can’t get past the fact that they both use words like “pussy” “dick” “douche” and “fuck”! (Of course, Matt calling public officials crooks, liars, and sellouts is the same, as they are “bad” words in the political press.) The TED crowd needs to grow up.

    I’m a fan of yours, of TED’s, and of Sarah’s. If TED doesn’t put Sarah’s appearance on their website, I’ll drop them from the list. TED supposedly celebrates excellence in all fields, and there’s no denying that Sarah is excellent at what she does. One need only look at the challenge her appearance seems to be to them as proof of that.

  7. collapse expand

    “Comedians definitely should have a place at TED (see, for example, Julia Sweeney’s brilliantly funny TED talk here), but all would be speakers and performers would be well advised to spend a few hours watching TED talks in order to absorb what this unique event is all about before stepping onto the TED stage.”

    So to properly understand the ‘unique’ TED event one should watch a few hours of TED talks? In doing so one would see that the talks range from “Einstein the Parrot” to “Stew says “Black Men Ski,” to “Elaine Morgan says we evolved from aquatic apes”, in short they are topically all over the place. One commonality is that the videos reflect people talking about their particular shtick leaving one to understand that TED talks may be more about inventing a new edge than pushing a defined edge.

    So basically the understanding to an invited speaker is “talk about your particular shtick, it will be recorded and shared with folks all over the internet who will be able to watch, and publicly rate and comment on the performance. It is interesting to note that some of the rating categories are ‘obnoxious, ‘unconvincing’ and even ‘jaw-dropping.’” They’ve clearly built in a mechanism for measuring the quality or lack thereof of a speaker’s performance.

    The organizer’s job is to grock the invited speaker’s work before inviting them to speak. Anderson’s job could not have been easier when it comes to Sarah Silverman; her shtick is ironic, provocative and irreverent comedy and her performances are all over the net. It’s not like he had to go to some lab or science conference to figure out how, say, Morgan performs when telling us about how we evolved from aquatic apes.

    What I find more troubling is the post performance fall out initiated by Chris Anderson and fueled by posts such as this one. Anderson’s tweet: ‘I know I shouldn’t say this about one of my own speakers, but I thought Sarah Silverman was god-awful.’ When you KNOW it will be wrong to say something, trust your instincts. Anderson basically turned on his own invited speaker and Shermer joins him in this crazy ‘she’s not one of us’ public stoning.

    To add insult to injury the both attack Silverman making statements like “Sarah Silverman Sucks” and “Sarah Silverman is god-awful.” Such ad hominem attacks demonstrate a crassness and ignorance far worse than anything Silverman could have served up in her performance. In short, they made it personal and launched their attack publicly.

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    About Me

    Dr. Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine and editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an Adjunct Professor at Claremont Graduate University. His latest book is The Mind of the Market, on evolutionary economics. His last book was Why Darwin Matters: Evolution and the Case Against Intelligent Design, and he is also the author of The Science of Good and Evil and of Why People Believe Weird Things. He received his B.A. in psychology from Pepperdine University, M.A. in experimental psychology from California State University, Fullerton, and his Ph.D. in the history of science from Claremont Graduate University (1991). He was a college professor for 20 years, and since his creation of Skeptic magazine he has appeared on such shows as The Colbert Report, 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, and Larry King Live (but, proudly, never Jerry Springer!).

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