Cute Girls With Dirty Mouths: Are Chelsea Handler And Sarah Silverman Funny?S

This weekend's profiles of Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler raise the question: does being cute and telling offensive jokes count as a persona? And is it still funny?

Sarah Silverman's pigtails 'n hipster racism routine has already been chronicled extensively, but New York Magazine's Will Leitch summarizes it well:

Audiences see Sarah Silverman and assume she's a nice Jewish girl, but oy! The trash she talks! She is the joke. The confusion over whether she's exploiting stereotypes or puncturing them is what gets her into trouble.

This confusion might have been kind of interesting circa 2005 (around the time of Silverman's turn in The Aristocrats), but it's getting pretty played out — at least one of the Silverman jokes Leitch quotes is many years old. And the fact that Silverman keeps pissing people off with her routines on such subjects as adopting a terminally ill retarded child may speak less to her edginess than to the fact that she often seems to simply parrot stereotypes rather than playing on them. But rather than summing up his piece with an analysis of Silverman's comedy, Leitch turns to her advancing age:

In December, Silverman will turn 40. She's aware of the implications without being paralyzed by it. "I can't be in my forties with pigtails and a football shirt," she says. "It turns into something different then."

Silverman goes on to explain her need to grow as a comedian, which makes sense, but the specter of her post-cuteness looms over the entire final paragraph. Part of this is her own doing — even her Aristocrats appearance relies on a little-girl affect that she must've known carried an expiration date. Part of it, though, may have to do with the way cuteness, or hotness, or physical appearance in general, becomes part of female comedy acts in a pretty restrictive way.

See, for instance, Brook Barnes's Times profile of Chelsea Handler. If any Handler fans can point me to her more amusing bits, I'd be grateful, because Barnes's piece just makes her sound awful:

"Black people think they can just make stuff up and get away with it," she says during one bit that is more than a tad unsafe. "No, I'm sorry — Shoniquodonk is not a name."

No, I'm sorry — this is what passed for edgy racial humor among annoying guys at my high school in 1998. Barnes does delve a bit into whether Handler is actually funny, but there's also plenty of analysis of Handler's looks. Perhaps most tellingly, Barnes quotes Jay Leno:

What I love about Chelsea is that she shows we've reached a point where comedy is comedy - it's not male comedy or female comedy. When I was a kid, it was Phyllis Diller. To be a comedian she had to make herself more unattractive than she was. But Chelsea Handler can walk out onstage looking like a Playboy centerfold if she wants and still be funny.

Of course, male comedians have long played up their own unattractiveness for a laugh, and I'm not sure that the freedom to "look like a Playboy centerfold" is actually a big step forward for women. In fact, what Handler and Silverman reveal is that while being conventionally attractive and telling racist jokes has become an accepted niche for the female comic, it's not a terribly versatile one. It requires relative youth, for instance — Barnes devotes some upsetting ink to the fact that some of Handler's fans apparently think she looks older than 35, and that she needs better lighting in her TV studio. And it relies on humor that shows its age far more than either Handler or Silverman do. Silverman tells Leitch that she's developing new material, and she comes off as smart and thoughtful enough that she might be able to break out of the cute-girl-with-a-dirty-mouth box. Let's hope she does, because I'm sick of jokes like Silverman's "I don't care if you think I'm a racist. I just want you to think I'm thin." I just want to think she's funny.

I'm Chelsea Handler. And You're Not. [NYT]
Animal Magnetism [NY Magazine]