Sarah Silverman’s Bad Career Move: Being as Dirty as the Guys

Sarah Silverman's Bad Career Move: Being

HBO special 'We Are Miracles' highlights how edgy material is limiting a promising career

There’s something simultaneously fascinating and maddening about Sarah Silverman – graced with genuine talent and a well-defined comedic persona on one hand, and a commitment to pushing past the edge in a way that blunts her appeal on the other. Despite all manner of career-friendly gifts – from her looks to solid acting chops – she’s limited herself by appearing determined to prove she can be as dirty and distasteful as the boys, an attribute very much on display in her HBO special “We Are Miracles,” which premieres on Nov. 23.

Silverman has frittered around the edges of breakout success beyond standup, from her Comedy Central series to her recent NBC pilot, “Susan 313,” which she posted on YouTube after the network opted not to order it.

Like most Silverman-related exercises, the prototype had its quirky, offbeat moments of cheerful, self-absorbed cluelessness, but also exhibited a certain preciousness that explains why the network might have balked at it. Specifically, Silverman’s idea to incorporate focus-group-type comments about how narrow the pilot is into the show was kind of funny, but also felt so inside baseball as to be better suited to an audience even more niche-oriented than NBC’s existing comedies, which is saying something.

SEE ALSO: Sarah Silverman: ‘I’m Older and I’m Smarter and I’m Different’

In similar fashion, “We Are Miracles” captures what’s best and most frustrating about Silverman’s act, which can be disarmingly funny right before veering into bad-taste territory. Granted, such judgments are highly subjective, but it’s easier to be on board with her material about the Make-a-Wish Foundation – that since the first wish would be to cure the fatal illness, maybe it should be called Make Another Wish – or self-gratification (“Don’t forget: God can see you masturbating”) than joking about rape, or a song in which she simply repeats the “C” word over and over.

Comics often impress each other with that kind of bawdy fare (see “The Aristocrats”), but Silverman frequently seems to be playing more toward those peers and a loyal cadre of fans than a broader audience that’s apt to be turned off by the questionable stuff, which feels more about shock value than cleverness. And if she really think saying “c—t” repeatedly is a form of artistic expression, more power to her, but in commercial terms, indulging those impulses comes at a price.

SEE ALSO: Sarah Silverman Opens Up About Her Rejected NBC Pilot ‘Susan’

This isn’t meant to suggest that female comics can’t work blue. The lament here is that in the wrong hands it can feel gratuitous or become a crutch, whereas unlike many of her contemporaries, Silverman has enough tools that she can and should do more.

As it stands, Silverman still has admirers like New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who recently wrote a column in which she essentially just palled around with the comic – even soliciting advice for Hillary Clinton – for reasons that, like a lot of Dowd’s random pop-culture-related musings, must have made sense to her.

Nevertheless, the HBO special – in which Silverman plays to a 39-seat room, the most intimate of standup settings – offers a pretty good metaphor for her career, opting for the intimacy of a side room instead of the main stage.

Frankly, it would be a shame if Sarah Silverman wound up confined to Comedy Central roasts and the occasional special, but that’s about as much mileage as can be expected from her act as presently constituted.

As for going much further with those self-inflicted restrictions, that would be the real miracle.

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  1. To follow up, how funny that since this is a man writing this critique of a woman, we have women saying he’s sexist, misogynistic, and other choice words. I’m not sure we’re reading the same critique. He’s obviously a fan of her work. He says, “This isn’t meant to suggest that female comics can’t work blue. The lament here is that in the wrong hands it can feel gratuitous or become a crutch, whereas unlike many of her contemporaries, Silverman has enough tools that she can and should do more.” Maybe those people are too quick on the draw when it comes to commenting. I think Silverman can handle criticism.

  2. I see what he’s saying. No need for name-calling, but then maybe Liza meant it ironically? He’s speaking about a hard truth about the opportunities Sarah Silverman is missing. She is one of those people I too like as an actress. She’s beautiful, witty, and I completely has potential as an actress. But I too can’t watch her as a comic. I’m not her audience for sure. I don’t like listening to male comics let alone female ones who crudely joke, curse and make light of the vulgar and more unseemly and seedy side of life. The writer didn’t say she wasn’t therefore without talent. I’m agreeing with what he wrote: she can do better. She is a great actress. She should be in line for roles that have gone and continue to go to comics like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and more recently Amy Schumer. I don’t think that means she can’t change though and make that happen. Maybe it’s her agent’s fault. Who knows who tells people what “sells” and what doesn’t.

  3. LIZA says:

    You sound like a small minded, misogynistic ass hole. So Sarah is too pretty to be dirty is pretty much what your saying. Then you basically paint Maureen Dowd to be someone with made her sound like some scatter brained git.

  4. Amanda L. says:

    This is the last time I click through on a review published in Variety. Sarah Silverman has chosen her values, which is more than I can say for Brian Lowry or the people who let this piece of projected shame get to print.

  5. Eric says:

    Sarah Silverman is as funny as actually having a heart attack, not seeing someone having one but experiencing it for yourself.

    She is shit, her jokes are shit and she needs to go away back to whatever cesspool she crawled out of.

  6. seriously this writer should be ashamed of himself on so many levels artistically, sexistly, repressively, to name a few from the little i have seen of sarah silverman she is breath of fresh air genuinely funny and has avoided completely sterotypical comedy and the article is if you are more pg you will have a larger audience in middle america great advice along with you could make more money if you sell your soul.

  7. bexwhitt says:

    From a British point of view, I see nothing shocking in her language, surprisingly we aren’t as prudish as many Americans, the odd naked breast or the word fuck pass at an appropriate time of day with no comment

    We have the watershed rule over here, after 2100 on the TV you can use what ever language you feel is necessary for the show and they regularly do.

  8. texshelters says:

    I don’t see a double standard, except that a quote around “dirty as the guys” might help. You don’t have to use c#n@ or Pri@% or naughty words to be funny. In essences, it’s lazy and lacks the fundamental elements of comedy: originality and surprise. There is nothing edgy about saying pu$$y unless it’s used in a clever and surprising way. This article highlights my complaints about Silverman too. Thanks.


  9. Double standard and sexist headline.

  10. This guy’s a little late to the party, no? Rent The Aristocrats. Or just watch anything she’s done to GET TO THIS POINT IN HER CAREER. Guess those would be all her other bad career moves? Get a grip & stop pretending you know anything about popular culture.

  11. Holly Jensen says:

    Bob Powers’ brilliant breakdown of why this review is ridiculous– and lazy, lazy writing.

  12. Nelle Fisher says:

    “This isn’t meant to suggest that female comics can’t work blue.” seems to be in direct contradiction to the headline. Did you read your headline? or your article?

    I, personally; am not a fan of Silverman but I think the word “c__t” is central to “artistic expression” that is immediate and real in a landscape that demands you critique her as a “female comic” instead of a comic.

    Also what’s your problem with Maureen Dowds interview with SIlverman? That she actually spoke to the comic? That it was a conversation between 2 *gasp* WOMEN and it got published? Dowd didn’t even really offer an opinion on Sarah’s comedy – in fact most of the article was about politics and gender issues – so it didn’t even contradict your point…and yet you’ve included this random paragraph with a clear tone of disdain for the article…it doesn’t even tie in to your point.

  13. Cousin Crispy says:

    Thanks for alerting me of this special – I’ll be sure to watch it – I love Sarah.

  14. Percival says:

    I watched it and it was 90% unfunny, I was embarrased for her during multiple periods of no laughter, mini bombing so to speak. She needs to just write or go work at Der Winerschnitzel on Pico, shes just not funny, the female Anthony Jeseldouche

    • bexwhitt says:

      ” shes just not funny” in your opinion, I and many others would disagree.

      • Peter Principle says:

        Really, Doug? It took you TWO YEARS to respond and THAT’S what you came up with? Really? Wow, talk about delusions of adequacy…

        What major mental malfunction causes you to think anyone gives a skinny rat’s butt about what you think funny or not? Silverman is a highly successful top tier comedian. Who the flip are you?

      • Doug says:

        Really. Sarah Silverman is funny. Enlighten me. Name something she has said that is actually funny. And “jokes” that she repeats over and over again don’t count.

  15. Gary Sause says:

    I watched Sarah Silverman’s special on HBO and it was great. I was entertained and I loved it. I don’t think you know what you’re talking about. I think Sarah Silverman’s special was clever and that your review wasn’t clever. You missed an s on think in the fifth paragraph.

  16. Ian Osmond says:

    You certainly are not required to like her stuff. But “I don’t like it” isn’t the same as “it’s bad”. There are plenty of people who don’t think she’s funny. There are plenty of people who do. If there are enough people who think she’s funny enough to pay money that she can make a living, and she’s not breaking any laws, and people who don’t think she’s funny can just go ahead and ignore her, I don’t see the problem.

    The argument here is, “If she was different than she is, I would personally like her better.” I’m sure that’s true.

    It’s just not an interesting or relevant critique.

    • Doug says:

      I think what’s relevant is that if Sarah Silverman didn’t look like Sarah Silverman, she would just be recognized as the annoying, self-absorbed person that she is. She would not have a career in comedy.

  17. Free bird says:

    Sarah’s infinitely more charming than most of the single hit boys…isn’t that what he’s saying?

  18. Jerry says:

    Guess I must have missed the rule that said she wasn’t allowed to be “as dirty” as the guys.

    There is a good reason why comics like Sarah and Chris Rock failed on SNL.

    It’s because they have brilliant, one off voices that defy being put into somebody else’s box.

    Nobody that pushes boundaries like her is ever going to have a “perfect” set, not even Sam Kinison, but I’d much rather watch her hit into a few double plays, then blast a few over the fence than watch a guy like Jay Leno single me to death.

  19. Free bird says:

    I thought this review was excellent…. I don’t think it was sexist…I think he’s saying she placates misogynists.. Another blue female comic:

  20. Joan Robman says:

    Sarah Silverman is just not funny. You can take a bunch of college kids who are drunk and do the same material as this so called comic does. How talented do you have to be to say c–t or pussy, etc? That’s why people laugh because they are embarrassed by the material. Now I will say sometimes she will come up with something clever. For instance the bit on religion and talking about people who tell you to get a dog from the shelter, not a breeder. Silverman said that it’s always these women with lots of children that make this statement. She continued, why don’t they adopt from a shelter? I also laughed when she sang a song called “c—“. I guess singing this song in such a serious way was funny to me. Unfortunately her cleverness shows once in a while, which is not enough. Maybe now she can get away with this material, but as she gets older, I doubt it.
    She has appeared in various films and has done a good acting job. Possibly this will continue and we will see and hear less of her off-color material.

  21. So what you’re saying is “girls should be pretty and spoke when spoken to?” That seems to be your opinion of women.

  22. Johnny says:

    Definitely a sexist review which is very odd and akin to a blatant case of trollin’. Boooo! The special was really not very good and quite disappointing thou. A better case would have been made by saying that it’s hopefully less damaging to be bombing in front of 39 people than 1, 500. Come on Sarah please go back to the drawing board and write the top material we’ve been accustomed to.

  23. Diana Tortolini says:

    No one needs to see the special to comment on the point of the article. When a writer makes a blatant statement that because a comic is a woman she shouldn’t express herself as raunchily as a male comic, that’s sexism, and it deserves to be called out.

    Your comment about not liking the special isn’t sexist. You didn’t give any clear explanation as to why it was mediocre compared to her others, so at most someone could criticize you for not backing up your opinion, but that still isn’t particularly bad.

    You do know what sexism is, and why it’s a problem, right?

  24. LauraSucks says:

    To the people scoffing at this sexist pig’s claims that Silverman can act: go see “Take This Waltz,” then get back to me. Silverman is stunning in that film. (You get to see her bush, too.)

  25. Thomas Lawson says:

    I like that virtually no one here had seen the special, but felt the need to weigh in. I love Jesus is Magic, and the Sarah Silverman Show. That being said, there’s only a couple good laughs in this special. It’s just not that well done. Nothing to do with how dirty it is, it’s just mediocre from what I’m used to. Call me a sexist. I’ve loved her since the beginning. This one is poorly written.

  26. Diana Tortolini says:

    You’re not concerned about Silverman’s career. You’re concerned about your erection.

    Yeah, I’ll jump into the pile-on: I think it’s telling you wrote an article making almost the exact same claims about Amy Schumer’s act, even going so far as to write about her, “…the real test ultimately being how many germs of genuine comedy would survive if you washed her mouth out with soap.”

    Gosh, thanks, Dad. Patronizing, much?

    Plenty of *successful* female comics tell raunchy jokes: Joan Rivers, Margaret Cho, Chelsea Handler . . . ever seen Kathy Griffin live? Your opinion that women can’t garner a broad comedy audience for being brash and telling sex jokes is undermined by, well, fact. So I’m not even going to address that as a debatable point.

    You’re doing to Silverman exactly what you did to Schumer. These are pretty white women, and you don’t find it “ladylike” when they turn to the dirty side of comedy. You want to see “clean” acts from pretty white women so they continue to be palatable to your sexual fantasies. The “career threat” you’re talking about is your own personal choice to not tune into them because their shtick doesn’t give you room to get off.

    Wake up and smell the 2013, dude.

    Actually, can I have your job? I’m pretty sure I could write TV reviews without being a sexist.

  27. “This isn’t meant to suggest that female comics can’t work blue.”

    Thou doth protest too much, because the whole piece certainly reads that way.

  28. CB says:

    It’s genuinely funny that Lowry is so focused on judging Silverman’s “career moves” while making such a colossally bad “career move” himself with all the negative attention this article is getting ;-)

  29. Idiot pundit’s bad career move: Dense, humorless, old white sexist jackhole makes giant hairy ass of self on the interwebs…

  30. Sarah Silverman’s career is more prolific and successful than your own, and somehow you glossed over the fact that she had a 3-season run on a successful series with her name in the title. And I guess Brian Regan and Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Cosby are examples of how all successful male comedians are always dirty, right? Way to play into stereotypes and miss the mark entirely. This is just ridiculous.

  31. John Thomas von Thomas says:

    How does this Lowry person even have a job as a “critic”? I hope Variety didn’t actually pay this guy $$ for this bit of idiocy and chauvinism.

  32. mattand says:

    Hey, Brian:

    In the future, maybe Ms. Silverman could do her act with a sock stuffed down her pants. Maybe that would make you feel better.


  33. Fixed: How dare she not sell out?! She’s built to sell out! by Brian “I’m a special kind of sexist” Lowry.

  34. strangefriend says:

    Brian Lowry, you are an idiot.

  35. Rick says:

    From the comments (all 100+, really not that many), there apparently shouldn’t be free speech in our country any more. Fire the writer? Good grief. I didn’t see this as sexist at all. Silverman is not a household name and won’t become one on the track she is taking, that’s what he’s implying. If that’s fine with her, great. Not really a story in reality.

    • Um, Rick, no, it’s not a free speech issue in any way. Free speech doesn’t mean immunity from the consequences of what one says, duh. Not to mention, the freedom of speech guaranteed in the 1st Amendment applies ONLY to government attempts to limit speech, duh.

      But hey, other than that…

    • CB says:

      Hey commenter “Rick”,
      When people publicly complain about some writer for being ignorant, bigoted, dumb, *whatever*, and even advocate for a private company to choose to fire said writer, this has nothing to do with the right to “free speech in our country”.

      Despite what many think, our rights to “free speech” mean that *the government cannot censor speech*, by force or whatever means; it does *not* mean people can’t get together as a community and decide they don’t like someone’s public speech, and it does *not* mean they cannot publicly advocate for a private company to decide to fire that person over speech the community finds offensive.

      Have a nice day!

    • mchasewalker says:

      Hey Geoffrey, while what you’re saying may be technically true, an intolerant society too overly-sensitized to differing opinions, criticisms and views may not be government-imposed censorship exactly , but perhaps, much worse i.e. a citizen-imposed censorship. Either way it’s censorship, intolerance, and an extremely parochial world view. While I’m sure Ms. Silverman would reject many of Mr. Lowry’s comments, she would be the first to denounce calls for his firing.

  36. Gordon says:

    leave her alone she is great.
    Gordon xxx

  37. Sarah Stava says:

    Dear Brian Lowry,

    Why don’t you hold men up to the same standard you apparently hold women up to?
    Oh, because you’re a misogynist!

    • laura says:

      I think that his review is pretty generous. He says she can act? It’s really not fair to call this guy sexist just because he finds her profanity gratuitous? Her entire career is based on taking full advantage of the “shocking” things that she says. If he’s guilty of anything, it’s of caving to her hype.

      • LauraSucks says:

        You CLEARLY haven’t seen “Take This Waltz” with Michelle Williams and a surprisingly grounded Seth Rogen. Sarah Silverman was the best part of the movie — fearless (she goes full frontal), reckless, and heartbreaking.

        And even though she never appears onscreen, hiring her as Penelope in “Wreck-It Ralph” was a genius casting choice.

  38. mchasewalker says:

    FIRE HIM!? Where do you people come from, Planet Falwell? The 700 Club? However disagreeable the guy has a right to opine and critique. Respond all you want, but seriously, to ask for his removal is more idiotic than the opinion is…

  39. Steven says:

    You should probably stick with Bill Cosby; I think he’s more your speed there, old-timer.

  40. “This isn’t meant to suggest that female comics can’t work blue.”

    She’s a comic, not a “female comic.” Can Variety hire a critic who gets that?

  41. Eric says:

    Wow. Clueless, sexist garbage. You clearly don’t get it.

  42. John says:

    Brian Lowry were you born without a sense of humor? TERRIBLE article. terrible author

  43. Bob Kitson says:

    Umm….. no

  44. Go back to reviewing shows, silly! says:

    Hmm. I consider this really bad journalism. As a matter of fact, this seems more of a rant than an actual analysis of the show. Are you implying that women should not and can not tell “dirty jokes”? Are people like Tosh.0 and Dane Cooke the only eligible candidates due to the fact that they have a penis, so its laughable? Also, if you have looked at any of her work, she is more than just some special on comedy central. It takes a lot to have your own show, win an Emmy, and be part of make a wish foundation, so I guess your comment is void that she’ll end up being stuck on Comedy Central Specials. Where are your facts, sir? I don’t see anything but your rant about how horribly distasteful Sarah Silverman’s show is and that “she’ll be confined in Comedy Central roasts”, but what I see is that you should probably stick to reviewing shows, and stop ranting. It’s making you look bad. Like extremely bad…

  45. Brennan says:

    I can’t believe something this sexist would get published. No one at Variety saw this and thought, “That isn’t going to go over well, Mr. Lowry.”?

  46. abrosenfeld says:

    I guess he never saw Belle Barth. Must have been scared by girls in Junior High….

  47. Um…she’s like the most famous female comic alive who isn’t married to Portia de Rossi…..has this guy been living under a rock?? “Well this Sarah Silverman has talent, but I don’t think she’ll go far because she’s too edgy, its a shame to see a promising career cut short…you know what would be a great idea? Sliced bread!”

  48. Angela says:

    Sexist and weak-minded. I’m not even mad at this writer so much as I am astonished this was approved by other people for publication. Seriously, people?

  49. Thebeastmark says:

    Wow. Your views are from the 1950’s. Just because she isn’t filling the shoes of what you think a woman comedian should sound like doesn’t mean she’s not funny.

    I think you come off as Male Chauvinist rather then a critic. On twitter you mention that you know a George Carlin quote for any situation.

    Well did you know this one? It’s one of his most famous

    “There are 400,000 words in the English language, and there are seven you can’t say on television. What a ratio that is! 399,993 to 7. They must really be baaaad. They must be OUTRAGEOUS to be separated from a group that large. “All of you words over here, you seven….baaaad words.” That’s what they told us, right? …You know the seven, don’t ya? That you can’t say on TV? Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits.”

    Why is okay if he uses these words but not a female comedian? Your double standard is unethical. If you’re going to pass judgement on women like that I’m going to use ageism against you. It might be time that you retire you old fart. It seems that your views are out of touch with the mainstream.

    I’m a female comedian and I’d easily say Sarah Silverman is one of my favorites.

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