Thursday, December 25, 2008

Sarah Silverman as camp?

Lately, I've been thinking about camp as a subversive strategy employed by Jews and how this might have figured into Borscht Belt and more recent Jewish comedy. When it comes to Queer Theory, people are very receptive to the idea of camp as subversive, but I don't think anyone has even considered Jewish camp -- though there's tons of it. (I guess this goes back to 'how queer are Jews?') So that was on my mind as I was watching Sarah Silverman's Jesus is Magic while the Korean side of my family (to be) was deciding what Chinese food to order for Christmas. So naturally I googled "Sarah Silverman Joan Rivers." This is perfect:
And there, in a gloriously vulgar nutshell, is Rivers’ stage persona—which she has perfected in recent years, not as a big-wheel celebrity, but rather as a stand-up comedian, improbably reborn, playing to a strange New York cult of Jews and queens. She is dirty, greedy, tacky and acerbic, uttering words and beliefs that we are instructed to abandon long before old age. Most extraordinary is Rivers’ knee-jerk nihilism—her eagerness to pull down her daughter’s pants for money and a laugh. And does anything else in life matter? To Joan, the cartoon embodiment of yenta callousness, the answer is a defiant no. The only question is which reward she values more.
I really couldn't ask for better than "a cult of Jews and queens" to prod me further. Though there's a lot to plumb in that article, there's also something worth highlighting about comedy as comedians see it, worth considering when it comes to Silverman. There's plenty of criticism of this view, much of it cogent, but it is the view I expect most comedians have of their art.
The comic’s Manhattan performances deviate from her road act, which is geared toward larger audiences and is thus more structured. “They’re paying more, and it’s a concert thing,” Rivers says, “so I give them easier stuff. They don’t have to decide, ‘Can I laugh at this?’ Whereas at the Cutting Room, it’s all about making decisions.”
For the comedian, and this is probably true of camp as well (though I can't say I'm terribly familiar with Camp Theory or even fond of most camp), the audience is an active participant, deciding what their values are as they decide what to laugh at. In this way, our unspoken assumptions become apparent and can be critiqued in a way that's not possible otherwise. For the Jewish comedian, the use of Yiddish archetypes like the Yenta or the schlemiel and schlimazl at the center of Seinfeld, serve particularly to ground and invite that criticism.

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