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October 4, 2007

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Pretty Ladies

Humor me a moment here. Sarah Silverman and Ann Coulter share an obvious similarity: they each make a rather nice living saying things that would be unspeakable if they were not attractive Caucasian women, veiling their statements beneath a gossamer cloak of irony. I’m kind of tying my brain in knots trying to figure out whether they don’t actually share the exact same appeal for our culture. It seems any statement I could imagine applying to one — “Well, clearly she doesn’t actually believe the things she says; she’s playing a character” — applies to the other just as nicely. Or is patently untrue in both cases — e.g. “No one believes what she says; people understand she’s just joking.”

Sure, many people who adore Silverman would say they revile Coulter. But the grip she holds on even their attention seems to belie that — if Coulter were a man, she’d be Fred Phelps, ridiculous enough for them to gawk at once in a while, but not a fixture of the talk-show circuit. Certainly not a bestselling author. If we get right down to it, mightn’t we perversely enjoy the maniacal utterings of Ann Coulter as much as we do Sarah Silverman’s shtick? You can almost imagine either woman on stage, grinning flirtily, and saying, “Six imams removed from a US Airways flight from Minneapolis to Phoenix are calling on Muslims to boycott the airline. If only we could get Muslims to boycott all airlines, we could dispense with airport security altogether.”

Reading that line, though — which is Coulter’s — maybe it’s all just a matter of wit. ‘Cause actually, I can’t imagine Silverman saying it, not just like that, at any rate. Silverman’s lines are constructed, Coulter’s lines are merely dropped. Coulter might say a lot of over-the-line stuff about high pregnancy rates among young black women, but she doesn’t have the art or the timing to craft the line, “The best time to have a baby is when you’re a black teenager.” Coulter gets attention merely for saying the incendiary, Silverman’s principle skill is drawing her audience out for several lengthy seconds, trying to figure out how she’s going to end her sentence, then delivering a punchline that’s offensive in the most delightful, unexpected way.

But is that all that distinguishes the two? Wit? Really? I’m missing something obvious, aren’t I?

Posted October 4, 2007 at 8:19 | Comments (19) | Permasnark
File under: Society/Culture


Maybe it's too obvious to mention, but it's worth considering that one is an actress/comedian, and the other is ostensibly a nonfiction author and political pundit. We have different assumptions for sincerity when people speak in these two different roles.

Silverman can plausibly say that she's speaking as a character, that you can't attribute what she says to "Sarah Silverman," the biographical individual. If Ann Coulter tries to play off an offensive comment by saying "Oh, come on, lighten up, it's a joke," it just sounds like what a bully says after they've finished making fun of you.

Which leads to the second distinction -- Silverman's jokes just as often implicate herself. Ann Coulter's "jokes" are always from above, never on her -- she really is just a bully.

The problem is that the first line, between entertainment and politics, is blurring. The value of political pundits, especially partisan ones, and perhaps especially on television (and to some extent radio), lies more directly in their entertainment value than, say, their keen analysis, moral sense, or policy advocacy.

It reminds me again of the exchange between Tucker Carlson and Jon Stewart on Crossfire; you can't hold comedians to the political standards of a news network, especially when the news network only holds itself to the standards of a comedy show. Pundits are less politically responsible than ever, but comedy is as politically fraught as it's ever been.

But -- on the positive side -- some of this blurring of entertainment, feigned sincerity, self-parody, and shock is fodder for good comedy -- as I think the Comedy Central Stewart, Silverman, and Stephen Colbert prove.

Just wanted to commend the awesome post about something I haven't thought about but is certainly true. I love Silverman and revile Coulter. I think one big difference, even though they both say things for effect, is that I don't believe Silverman believes much of what she says, but I do think Coulter does. The difference is in the intention, too - laughs versus affecting people's views.

I don't think you understand what either Silverman or Coulter are doing when they talk about things like race, gender roles, or religion.

Silverman takes delight in how absurd the bigot's world-view is. She also pokes fun at the rest of us by framing the friction between polite society and our inner voice. The first joke she got in trouble for had the punchline "I love chinks," and it drew humor from the juxtaposition between the earnest hippie and the unapologetic bastard that live side-by-side in her stage persona. She found this funny enough to put in her act not because she's a bigot: she just finds bigotry funny.

Coulter doesn't tell jokes per se; her oeuvre is almost entirely "insult comedy," where she simply attacks others. It's seen as funny because it's so outrageous. When she calls someone a "towelhead" or a "faggot," people aren't laughing because of the witty way she snuck it in or the lead-up or the ironic twist. They're laughing because *they* don't like towelheads or faggots and, finally, someone said it out loud.

Even Andrew Dice Clay (who was in a similar vein to Ann Coulter but not as vicious) was so over-the-top that you got the feeling it was all a put-on, that he was being ironic. But Ann Coulter will tell you herself: she means it all, every word. She's not a performer for godsake. She's a *pundit*.

Also, Sarah Silverman is hot. Ann Coulter, on the other hand, looks like SKELETOR.

Posted by: Lee on October 5, 2007 at 12:11 PM

I'd also like to point out that neither Silverman nor Coulter are "caucasian." The former is Semitic, and the latter is Anglo-Saxon. And, yes, this distinction is very important context-wise.

Posted by: jennyy on October 5, 2007 at 01:16 PM

Silverman's point is to make you laugh and think; Coulter's is to confirm your basest, reactionary suspicions. Silverman plays with stereotypes; Coulter plays on them. Silverman entertains - or tries to; Coulter incites and provokes. Silverman plays an innocent idiot; Coulter pretends to be informed. One is very funny; the other is clearly mad.

Furthermore, their milieu is entirely different: Silverman plays in comedy clubs or on Comedy Central with fellow comedians; Coulter 'performs' on 'news' channels.

Making jokes about racism or classism or sexism is not at all the same as being a racist or classist or sexist. Sarah Silverman and Ann Coulter are similar in the same way a funny person is like advanced metastatic cancer.

Re: Tim

Obviously it's not too obvious to mention the difference between a comedian and a nonfiction author/pundit, because apparently this clown doesn't see it.

Is Silverman's comedy outrageous and occasionally "over the line"? Sure, but when was the last time she appeared as a "political analyst" on Kudlow and Company? Coulter, you see, does not claim to be kidding. It's just what people imagine to be the underlying motivation for her hate speech.

I'm disappointed in Barry Ritholz for linking to this.

Posted by: lowellfield on October 6, 2007 at 05:23 PM

What an interesting formulation, above: "She's not a performer for godsake. She's a *pundit*."

Is that really such an stark binary distinction? Seems like, e.g., Al Franken's rather seamless transition from comedian to pundit to, indeed, CANDIDATE says otherwise.

And come on. When you see Tom Friedman on TV, you know he's a performer, too. I'm sure it's conscious on some level: He is doing a routine, playing a role, that he knows is successful and probably thinks is valuable & useful in the world, as well.

This is all a little beside the point re: this specific case -- of course claim and intent matter a lot, & Matt says as much in his post -- but I'm surprised at how starkly folks want to divide the world of pundits & performers. They seem very close to me!

One is charged with the responsibility of making us laugh; the other does so as well, albeit unintentionally.

For my part -- and I think Matt is asking a much more nuanced and complex question than some of the other comments would indicate -- I wouldn't draw the line between performer and pundit. Rather, comedians and pundits are both, clearly, performers. So are virtually all politicians, and many journalists. But, pundits, like journalists and politicians, are both taken somewhat seriously and held responsible for the things that they say.

This is both a fine and a permeable line. At some point, Michael Moore, who used to be more like Jon Stewart, is now more like Al Gore. And you can't just say anything -- Michael Richards and Don Imus found themselves on the other side of the line for a very different reason.

I can't really speak to Matt's question about Silverman and Coulter having the same source for their cultural appeal, just as I can't vouch for the right and true motives of everyone who finds Borat or "Chapelle's Show" hilarious.

But I really do think that Silverman, like Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Sasha Baron-Cohen, and her comedic cohorts, do speak to this blurring of truthfulness and entertainment, purported expertise and sheer volume, and the notion that sex appeal and a quick wit equates to both wisdom and a shield from all attacks. In other words, if it makes sense to talk about Bill O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh with Stephen Colbert, then it might make sense to talk about Ann Coulter or Maureen Dowd with Sarah Silverman. Not because they're aesthetically, politically, or morally identical, but because the latter clearly seems to be making comedic gold out of the media-world straw of the former.

One question I would have -- assuming that anything I wrote above makes sense at all -- is how certain people seem to be able to move between these two points while others can't. Jon Stewart is a great example -- he doesn't speak in character, and regularly calls people "douchebags" or worse on his show, but nothing ever seems to stick to him, and while he's far from a pundit, I think his political opinions are taken seriously by many people. How does he pull that off?

They are both opportunistic attention whores playing to their specific audience. Both audiences lack any amount of taste. One audience is simply more hateful than the other.

Posted by: NoFate on October 7, 2007 at 03:09 PM

HAHAHA! Ann Coulter and attractive in the same sentence! How blind can you be? There is nothing remotely attractive about her. Also I'm fairly certain that women aren't supposed to have an adams's apple.

Posted by: jillian on October 8, 2007 at 07:33 AM

Yes, you have some points there. The only problem is that I don't know anyone who actually takes Sarah Silverman seriously, but there's a whole bunch of Fox viewers who believe what she says and are greatly influenced by her mean and vile personality.

Yes, Sarah Silverman and Ann Coulter are exactly the same. (If by 'same' you mean 'opposite')

I agree strongly with Tim's response. Very well thought out and eloquently put.

I also agree with Lee. Sarah Silverman is hot. Ann Coulter is a shriveled, sunken-eyed bag of bones. Her cold, lifeless eyes are enough to get any Republican's dander up.

Because it bears repeating: Sarah Silverman is a comedian. She is not pretending to be a political pundit/policy wonk/news analyst. She makes outrageous statements in order to make people laugh. Ann Coulter's statements are made under the heading of legal or political analyst (she's a lawyer).

Also, I'm pretty sure Sarah Silverman was born a woman. Ann, well, I'm not so sure...

Posted by: Susan on October 9, 2007 at 03:55 PM

The vicious "Coulter does not conform to the stereotype of docile femininity so we can mock her for being a shriveled man" lines aside, I think you underestimate Coulter's writing ability. She doesn't have the physical timing that Sarah Silverman does - which is why she writes for a living instead of acting. That's probably the most salient difference: Coulter is funny in print, Silverman is funny on camera. Different skills which probably also mean that they appeal to different communities - it's a difference that makes a difference.

Smart & civil point, Omri. In the same way that I think it's useful to pick up a 'Left Behind' book and actually read a few chapters, it's probably pretty useful to flip through a few pages of Coulter's work, too.

Humor is always such a hard point to argue. I've never seen any humor in Coulter's work, either her columns or books. I would speculate that I find Coulter unfunny for the same reason that I (and, ahem, at least a handful of others) found Fox News' "Thirty Minute News Hour" unfunny: it's not really in the business of telling jokes so much as reaffirming what its audience already "knows" and offering thinly veiled wish-fulfillment.

I'd like to say that it's revealing that even conservatives go to the Daily Show for laughs instead of The Thirty Minute News Hour (based, if nothing else, on their comparative ratings—it's not just liberals giving Jon Stewart his numbers, and Fox News didn't take TMNH off the air because they ran out of material), but there's a completely different problem, if one cares to think about it, to Sarah Silverman. Let's call it the Dave Chappelle argument: it's easy for me to say that I watch her and find her funny because she makes me confront prejudice and absurdity, but within society and myself, but not everyone who's laughing when Sarah uses an ethnic slur is laughing because she's presenting a parody of a vapid, self-satisfied, deeply privileged white person. Some people are laughing at Sarah Silverman for the same reason that they laugh at Ann Coulter.

Is Silverman responsible for that? Maybe not. But if she's a good person, it makes her at least a little bit uncomfortable, just as it should, if she's doing her job right, make me a little uncomfortable every time she makes me laugh.

Oh, and by the way, I have picked up the Left Behind books. They would be good for a laugh if they weren't making some very scary people very rich and far more influential than I'm comfortable with them being.

ann coulter once said that you can't be anorexic if you have a boyfriend. ah, ann coulter, she's the old school elizabeth hasselbeck.

i don't find silverman funny. is that because i'm a girl?

Posted by: kitty holmes on October 10, 2007 at 08:19 PM
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