According to Brian Lowry at Variety, “being as dirty as the guys” is the worst thing that Sarah Silverman can do for her career. This Sarah Silverman? That Sarah Silverman?
But that’s the headline of Lowry’s problematic review of Silverman’s upcoming HBO special, We Are Miracles. The most blatant issue, obviously, is the proud sexism on display. In Lowry’s world, there are comics and then there are lady comics, and they ought to be playing by different rules. He’s not attacking the culture of dirty comedy overall, even graciously allowing that sometimes female comics can “work blue.” His argument is actually that Silverman’s material is off-putting to the industry because a pretty girl like her could easily have an acting career.
As a criticism, it’s probably one that Silverman has been hearing for her entire career – the 20-year-long, Emmy-winning, TV-show-creating, movie-starring career which she built around her shocking-but-clever standup. The irony of that seems lost on Lowry, who cites her passed-over NBC pilot as a measure of her mainstream failure, saying she’s “frittered around the edges of breakout success beyond standup."
And really, his definition of success as moving “beyond standup” may be Lowry’s biggest problem. To a TV critic, Silverman’s monumental career in standup means little if it hasn’t translated to a mainstream film or television career; standup is just a means to an end, and a special is little more than a show reel for Hollywood executives and casting agents.
He doesn’t appreciate, for instance, that Silverman’s decision to record her latest special in the 39-seat bar at Largo is part of a larger trend in comedy that plays with the structure and predictability of standup specials, from Maria Bamford’s Special Special Special (recorded in her living room for her parents) to Greg Proops’s latest Live at Musso and Frank (taped at a restaurant in Hollywood). And when he claims that her “well-defined comedic persona” is diminished by her “commitment to pushing past the edge in a way that blunts her appeal,” he misses entirely that her comedic persona IS someone who pushes the boundaries of good taste – and for many fans, that is the appeal itself.
For some reason, Lowry seems insistent that Silverman is a marginal figure in entertainment. He references a recent Maureen Dowd column about her by saying the comedian “still has admirers” – something her 4.8 million Twitter followers already knew. But mostly perplexingly, he seems almost angry that she hasn’t prioritized fame and fortune over exploring and perfecting her own comedic voice. “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,” he writes. “As for going much further with those self-inflicted restrictions, that would be the real miracle.”
Clearly, the sexism of the piece is real and deeply ingrained, as he's insinuating that a female writer should stifle her voice so she doesn't scare anybody away. But even more infuriatingly for a comedy fan, any of these so-called debates about whether a woman can be funny and attractive and still "as dirty as the boys" have been dismissed long ago. Frankly, we're past that. If the folks at Variety intend to review standup, they need to keep up.