Sarah Silverman Sucks
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.