Sarah Silverman and Sacha Baron Cohen are two of my favorite comedians. Unfortunately, while I enjoy their comedy, I also feel conflicted, because they both can be quite cruel.
Earlier this month, MTV Video Music Awards host Sarah Silverman showed no mercy toward Britney Spears after the pop star’s embarrassing performance on the broadcast. Silverman said of Britney: “She’s 25 years old and she’s already accomplished everything she’s going to accomplish in her life.” And then, as if piling on after an already-humiliating episode weren’t bad enough, Silverman took aim at Britney’s innocent children: “Have you seen Britney’s kids? Oh, my God, they are the most adorable mistakes you will ever see!”
Sacha Baron Cohen can be even worse, as he often targets normal, everyday people. Sure, he sometimes finds deserving targets, such as racists, antisemites and anti-gay bigots. But almost as frequently, his targets are people whose only crime was to show kindness and hospitality to a seemingly clueless Kazakh reporter. I’m thinking of the scene in the “Borat” movie in which Baron Cohen mocks the appearance of a woman who has agreed to participate in a discussion of feminism. Or the time when Borat was welcomed into an unsuspecting home and mocked the hostess’s appearance. These people, of course, wound up as objects of ridicule in a major motion picture.
I confess, I find Silverman and Baron Cohen to be hilarious, even — and sometimes especially — when they’re being mean. They make me laugh. But is laughter the highest value? Does it trump decency, kindness and consideration? Does getting a laugh justify being hurtful toward innocent people? Should I feel guilty for enjoying these two comedians?
Catie Lazarus replies:
A short while ago I returned from a trip on a flight into Newark airport. I live in Brooklyn, and as it was late at night and I wanted to get home, I decided to take a cab.
No sooner than I got into the cab did I realize I had taken my life into my own hands — the driver was an old man, visibly in pretty poor control of his own car. I’m pretty sure he was suffering from something like Parkinson’s (his hands were shaky and unsteady), and from his erratic merging it seemed he was having severe difficulty seeing other vehicles, lane lines, etc. in the dark.
I also got the sense (from an extremely ill-advised cell phone conversation I overheard during the ride) that he was fairly poor, that this job was his only means of income.
On the one hand, I’m inclined to report a driver who poses such a hazard to himself, to me and to anyone else on the road who might cross his path. But I worry that this could lead to his effective ruin: How employable could an unhealthy old man, who happens to have limited command of English, be? So I’m really torn: Do I call the cab company to complain?
SHAKEN AND STIRRED
Catie Lazarus replies:
With the Days of Awe fast approaching, and thoughts of atonement and who shall die by fire and who by water and who by beast and whatnot bearing down on us, we could all use a little comic relief. So we turned to one of the Forward’s funniest friends to serve as this month’s Bintel Brief guest advice columnist.
You may know Catie Lazarus from her comedy, whether it’s her storytelling with the Moth, sketch comedy as part of 8 Track, stand up at clubs or hosting the popular variety show, “Fresh Meat with Catie Lazarus.” Or perhaps you’ve seen her writing in Time Out New York, Gawker, the New York Post or in the pages of the Forward, even. She is also a real Samaritan, volunteering her time for Seeds of Peace, Children of Abraham, Just Vision and other worthwhile causes. For the month of September, she will be our resident Samaritan, trying to help our readers out with a little advice.
“Oprah and Dr. Phil may know the secret, but I know the answer. Whether it’s to your issue is another question,” Lazarus said. “Anyway, I am happy to give my two cents, or, at least, the Forward’s. And don’t worry. I won’t be offended if you are coming to me for a second, third or even 10th opinion. (I tabled my dignity after being turned down for the non-speaking role of a wife whose husband is recovering from Crohn’s disease in a commercial for the Sci-Fi Channel.)”
Are you facing a Jewish dilemma, an ethical conundrum or a personal problem? Could you use a little advice? Send your questions for the Bintel Brief to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters selected for publication will be published anonymously.
Check the Forward’s Web site Mondays in September for new installments of the Bintel Brief, featuring comedian Catie Lazarus.