On a recent episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast, comedian Sarah Silverman said that she'd been fired from a recent movie project over a picture of her in blackface from 2007.
The kicker? The picture was taken out of context from a comedy sketch for The Sarah Silverman Show wherein Silverman was attempting to make fun of racism.
On the one hand, there's really no such thing as non-racist blackface. On the other, there's a huge difference between wearing blackface to be racist and wearing blackface with the express intent of making fun of racism. The former is straight-up racist. The latter, while problematic, is still an honest attempt to pick apart social norms—the life blood of comedy.
In comedy, context matters. Sarah Silverman's entire shtick revolves around being ironically un-PC when she is so clearly liberal. Arguably, her comedy only makes sense within a liberal bubble where Silverman's viewers are in on her joke, aware that her character is supposed to be a send-up of terrible people who actually hold terrible views. So in 2007, when Silverman's blackface aired on Comedy Central, her viewers, regardless of whether or not they were offended, recognized the intent of her sketch. But when that shot is taken out of context 12 years later, it only serves to make Silverman appear racist.
Silverman told Simmons, "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 cancel culture promotes a sort of "righteousness p*rn." 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.'"
Therein lies the danger of mixing cancel culture with comedy. Great comedy relies on its transgressive nature. A comedian's job isn't just to make people laugh. Oftentimes, it's to reflect the evils of society in a fresh, funny way. But society changes over time, which means comedy must, too. And due to comedy's intrinsic ties to the larger social climate surrounding it, comedy ages more quickly and more poorly than most art forms.
As a result, something that was funny ten years ago most likely will not be very funny right now. Sure, some comedy remains timeless (most of George Carlin's work, for example), but a lot of it doesn't (did anybody ever find Howie Mandel funny?). With that being said, in order for great comedy to exist at any point in time, comedians need the freedom to experiment with their material. Some of it will be funny. Some of it will fall flat. And some of it might be offensive.
But if we start combing through comedians' decades-old work, removing it from its context and holding them to task for crossing our modern sensibilities, we're essentially killing comedy as an art form. We're saying, "Sure, you can make jokes, but if any of them age poorly, there will be consequences." This outlook cripples comedians. It takes away their ability to make biting commentary on society now, because nobody can truly predict the sensibilities of society later.
None of this is to say that Sarah Silverman's blackface sketch didn't age poorly; it obviously did. But that doesn't mean it didn't fulfill its purpose in making fun of racism to its intended audience at the time it came out. While it may seem bad now that our bubbles have burst and we all know America is chock full of actual racists, it's not fair to act like Sarah was attempting to make fun of black people when she clearly was lampooning racism itself. Pretending otherwise is not arguing in good faith.
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