How a Review Changed Both Sarah Silverman and Our Critic

In 2005, A.O. Scott, co-chief film critic for The New York Times, panned “Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic,” which was based on her one-woman show and involved taboo-breaking jokes about a range of topics including race. Suggesting Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor as reference points, our reviewer wrote, “She depends on the assumption that only someone secure in his or her own lack of racism would dare to make, or to laugh at, a racist joke, the telling of which thus becomes a way of making fun simultaneously of racism and of racial hypersensitivity.”

The critique “hit me hard,” Silverman later said, and led her to take another look at her act.

It’s rare that a review has that kind of effect, and as part of a series of wide-ranging conversations Scott is having with artists, he and Silverman recently sat down via video call to discuss that moment and why admitting you’re wrong (as Silverman asked our critic to do as well) can be freeing. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

A.O. SCOTT I want to start out talking about our strange history because it really is a unique event in my life as a critic: Somebody I wrote about in a critical way responded by engaging it and taking it seriously. It almost always happens that people ignore it completely, or if I said something nice, they were happy about it, or maybe they get defensive and push back. But in like 25 years of writing criticism, no one has ever done what you did and I’ve thought about it for a long time.

I was impressed with your response, but I also felt bad. Because when I look back, I feel now I was singling you out for something that was bothering me that was going on in comedy and elsewhere in popular culture. It wasn’t entirely fair of me to scold you the way I did.

And it’s gotten me thinking over the years about some of the challenges both of doing comedy and of writing criticism: You’re supposed to be honest, and you’re supposed to tell the truth and not worry about giving offense. On the other hand, what you do, what I do has a risk of hurting people. So I wanted to talk about that, about comedy and your own work and your sense of it is now.

SARAH SILVERMAN I still haven’t looked at “Jesus Is Magic.” I find it torture to look at old stuff I’ve done, for the most part, especially stand-up.

Just looking back 15, 16 years, I know all the places where it’s problematic and probably some I don’t remember, as well. This sounds corny, but that’s what I love about art, especially comedy. It’s not evergreen. It changes so much every time you return to it, and as the world changes and as hopefully you change. That’s how art can teach us, whether it’s good stuff or bad stuff, problematic or inspirational, it’s all the same.

Let’s go back to your review. It was I think, my one real bad review, and I probably take umbrage with a bunch of points. I’m sure it bummed me out, and there were things that felt like projection onto me, you know?

SCOTT I think that’s right.

SILVERMAN Like me trying to be Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor. I didn’t even know of Lenny Bruce, and I barely had seen Richard Pryor, embarrassingly. You’re wrong. Those weren’t my intentions because I was ignorant of them. They actually weren’t my heroes. I was a Steve Martin gal, and I never wrote stand-up by topic or by what’s taboo. I know it seems like I do, but I just don’t. That’s never been my process.

Surprise, however, is what’s ingrained in me as wanting to instill. So, it’s not like you’re totally wrong. The answer is that my dad taught me to swear when I was 3, and I saw this immense approval by adults, despite themselves, and I became addicted to that feeling.

I think that’s the impetus of a lot of my material then and, of course, led to a total identity crisis for me subsequent to “Jesus Is Magic,” because if your thing is surprise, and you want to give them what they expect, which is surprise, you know?

SCOTT Right.

SILVERMAN It ended up being cathartic because I [realized you’ve] got to throw it all away and start over and bomb again. Now you’re bombing as someone who people paid money to see, and there are stakes, but comedy dies in the second-guessing of what people want to see.

But the thing you wrote that kind of changed me on a molecular level, which is what, I think, you were kind of onto at the time was completely what I was abusing — and you saw that before anyone else, and you made me see it — which is I’m liberal, so I’m not racist, so I can say the N-word, because I’m illuminating racism.

My intentions were good but ignorant, and it’s funny that in that movie and in the subsequent series I did, my character was ignorant [and] arrogant, but what I didn’t realize was [that I] myself was arrogant [and] ignorant. So, I forgive myself, if that’s OK, because I just think that’s how you move on.

SCOTT Of course, and I think when you said I was projecting, you were right in a few different ways. For one thing, probably projecting my own comic tastes and ambivalence. I also like Steve Martin. I think the first comedy record I ever bought was “Let’s Get Small.” But I think one reason I wrote about the show the way I did was that I recognized a problem that I had, too. One of the things I would change or take back about the review is not implicating myself, judging you but not making it clear that also there was a self-critique in it: that is, I think that the problem you just described as “I’m liberal, so what I say is OK,” I’m saying it in quotation marks. I have these oven mitts of irony on that, so no one’s here going to get burned, and also not just [me], but everyone in this room. We all know.

SILVERMAN If you’re offended, you don’t get it.

SCOTT Right. You don’t get the joke, and — —

SILVERMAN You are allowed no feelings.

SCOTT Right, and the thing is I think a lot of people of our age and general background use that and had that idea, whether we were professional stand-up comedians or not, that it’s OK for me to say these things because I don’t really mean them.

SILVERMAN I think, to a degree, in comedy, if you’re playing a character — I’m not defending that, especially because I agree with you on so many levels — but there is nuance if you’re playing a character.

SCOTT Right. Of course.

SILVERMAN I’m sure this is referenced to death, and I’m not comparing myself, but you know, Carroll O’Connor [playing the racist Archie Bunker in “All in the Family”], that character was very pointedly a character.

SCOTT Right. Right.

SILVERMAN And certainly, in [my] special, I went the direction of always saying the opposite of what I thought or felt, and hopefully the transcends through it, but I am agreeing with you completely.

SCOTT There’s a thing I always have thought about, a “Saturday Night Live” sketch with Eddie Murphy [reading a “fan” letter from] Ronald Reagan that had all these racist jokes, and Eddie Murphy was horrified to read these jokes, but the thing is, he read the jokes. And what I remember is going to school and kids were telling the jokes, white kids. Dave Chappelle talked about this after his show [when he abruptly departed “Chappelle’s Show,” he said among other reasons, “I was doing sketches that were funny, but were socially irresponsible”]: You can’t quite control where it goes and what it means to people.

SILVERMAN You can’t. It’s not yours anymore. But do you not speak to an adult audience because a young audience might get ahold of it? I had a friend who used to call it a mouthful of blood laughs. Because it’s when you say something intended to be perceived a certain way, and it’s inferred in a very different way, it’s horrifying, and you can’t control it. You can only control what you put out. But I think it makes a big statement when Dave walked away but continues to make incredible stuff.

SCOTT I guess you reach a certain level where the public is there, and you’re not sure who’s in the room and whether it’s landing the way that you had intended.

SILVERMAN That’s why you’ve got to try stuff over and over again. The invention of cellphones with cameras was awful for comedians because you’re figuring out where the line is, and you’re saying terrible things. You’re testing things out. You can’t just practice in front of a mirror.

SCOTT There’s also the phenomenon of social media that immediately becomes this broadcast medium that puts you out there. Are you on social media? Does it affect how you work and how you think?

SILVERMAN I was walking my dog today and — this is so obnoxious — I thought of tweeting, “Don’t ask me to blurb anything,” and then, I was like what a [jerk], that these are my problems.

I’m on social media, but I don’t feel beholden to it. I don’t mind being wrong and getting my mind changed, so I don’t have as much fear. I’ve [messed] up so many ways, publicly, and I don’t apologize if I’m not sorry, but I do always apologize when I’m sorry. I can tell you it’s not for fear of being canceled.

It’s such a thing seeing people’s chip on their shoulders. Entire political spectrums just cannot be wrong. They’ll build a whole house of cards on needing to be right. It’s such a prison but also just from being in relationships and experiencing people who cannot be wrong — that’s an awful, terrible way to live. If they only knew how easy and wonderful it is. It makes people feel good, you know?

I like seeing stuff from the past and going, wow, that’s so [messed] up, because it shows how far we’ve come. Your piece for me really put a finger on something that was important to point out, but there are things in that same article that I would find problematic today. I think the nicest thing you said about me was that I was “reasonably pretty.”

SCOTT That was awful. That is exactly the point: You say things at the time that seem reasonable and that you read them 15 years later, and you think, my God, what?

SILVERMAN I’ll just say one more thing.

SCOTT Yes.

SILVERMAN [Reading from the review] “Like many … Jewish comedians, Silverman falls back on her ethnic identity as a way of claiming ready-made outsider status.” Would you say that today, or would you ever say that about any other minority?

SCOTT You know as a Jewish person, I would say that because it’s sort of an internal argument, but I don’t think I would say it that way. I don’t think I would say it again without including myself in it.

SILVERMAN Listen, obviously, I agree, and I partake — as so many Jewish comedians do — in this self-deprecation that is Judaism. But as “a false way to claim outsider status” is the actual problem with this gas in the air that is anti-Semitism, especially on, I hate to say it, the left. It’s assuming that Jews are not to be worried about and do not merit allyship. Racism is defined by racists, not liberals, and they don’t like Jews. So, when people say Jews are white, I’m as white as you can be, but if you ask a white person, they’ll disagree.

SCOTT All right. Point taken.

SILVERMAN Sorry, I get passionate.

SCOTT No, I think that’s fair.

SILVERMAN You would never say that about another culture, who also in comedy uses their culture as a way in with — —

SCOTT Oh, I think, actually I would broaden it out because I think that the claiming of outsider — actually, you know what, you’re right, because I think that the appropriation of outsider status is a problem that many, many comedians have.

SILVERMAN As a crutch, it’s one thing. But it’s also a way in, using what’s different about you as a way in to connect with all people.

SCOTT That’s true, and I think that often the sense of vulnerability or of outsider perspective is important and is authentic if it’s part of what someone lived through. I think the problem is to assume a sort of equivalence between all of them.

I was thinking about a documentary some years ago [with] a bunch of comedians — I don’t think you were in it — talking about comedy. It wasn’t particularly illuminating. It was almost all white males talking about being outsiders and feeling different. I’m sure that’s an authentic feeling. Like, I was beat up and made fun of as a child and felt often like a miserable outsider, but to say that therefore I have some share in broader social and cultural experiences is, I think, a little bit risky.

SILVERMAN If we’re only talking about [comedy], sure. I agree. People go, cis white men, blah, blah, blah, and I find myself doing it too, but everyone’s got their story. Even the most marginalized can have compassion for people less marginalized than them.

SCOTT In a way that connects with what you were saying earlier about being willing to say you’re wrong. In the sort of the climate you’re talking about, of everyone walking around with chips on their shoulders, there isn’t a lot of room for changing your mind.

SILVERMAN There’s what I call “righteousness porn” about canceling people, or whatever you want to say, with no path to redemption. I love being right, but I find, when I realize I’m wrong, thrilling. I like being uncomfortable.

SCOTT Righteousness porn is such a good phrase. I think there’s also an unfortunate counter-tendency any time certain subjects come up that people want to talk critically about, racism or sexuality or gender or feminism. The sirens go off and people start talking about “cancel culture,” which always seems to me a reason to tune out talking about any of those things that make us uncomfortable.

SILVERMAN That may be the case on social media, but I think, in practice, it is not the case. The past year or two, I’ve worked with several people who are they/them, and I’m so excited to embrace it. [I mess] it up constantly, and my experience is they go, “It’s fine, you’re trying.” We learn how to say Galifianakis and Schwarzenegger like nothing. Why can’t we figure out pronouns?

[The conversation winds back to reviews and review excerpts.]

SILVERMAN I wrote a book, and much to HarperCollins’s chagrin, I would not ask anyone to blurb my book, because I just think it’s just such an imposition. I made up fake reviews.

SCOTT Publicists or the marketing people will send me the quotes they want to use, and sometimes it’s just 11 random words from the review but all squished together. There was one, I don’t remember what the movie was, and I said, if you can tell me what that means, then I’ll let you use it. It’s certainly not anything I wrote.

SILVERMAN When it’s just adjectives, like daunting — —

SCOTT Well, adjectives are the terrible crutch of criticism. I try to teach students, don’t throw a bunch of adjectives at something and think that that’s a review.

SILVERMAN No adjectives?

SCOTT Then you end up with things like “reasonably pretty,” and it comes back to haunt you.

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