A B-Day gift arrived this morning from a good friend of mine in the States. I’d received an e-mail from her with a pre-emptive apology, explaining that the gift “wasn’t much”, but she was just being modest, because when I opened the Jiffylite® envelope a copy of Sarah Silverman’s Jesus is Magic DVD slid out! Hurrah! If you knew how obsessed I’ve become with Silverman recently, based purely on tiny bits from the Amnesty International gig, and a recent TV showing of The Aristocrats, then you might be able to appreciate how excited I was. Having the slowest modem in the entire Western hemisphere, trying to download clips off YouTube was painful at best… especially since the only thing to do while waiting for the little red bar to creep along is read the deeply pathetic comments people leave on those pages. Now, hosanna, I have all the videos I’d come to love in their juddery smallness at my fingertips, in full-screen Dolby stereo! And an extended version of her Aristocrats riffing. At some point I’ll try to figure out a way of justifying how much I love her work, but right now I’m still reeling from the shock. Bless her. Of course, there’s no comparison between watching a comedian work a live audience on TV, and actually being part of that live audience, so I appreciate the way that Magic weaves in and out of the stage show. It adds more to the viewing experience, and helps take some of the edge off the envy. Also, she’s got some terrific, toe-tapping tunes working for her, which I could never play with the windows open, but are fun to listen to in the privacy of my own astonishment.
The weird part is, as I put the DVD aside this morning, resolving to “save it for after lunch”, I honestly believed that it was the most “edgy” and disturbing thing I would see on TV today. I was wrong. Very, very wrong. Oh so, painfully, stomach-churningly wrong. When I first settled down with my sandwich and flipped on the Channel 4 news, all was well… David Beckham was being cheered by fans, and the QEII cruise liner had been bought by some chaps in Dubai. Good-o. Then a special report came on, featuring Lucy Liu, of Ally McBeal and Kill Bill fame. She had been visiting the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on behalf of UNICEF, to help highlight the continuing strife and suffering in that part of the world. There were various images of her visiting a village, drinking the local water and making nice with the children. All of which, of course, played on my conscience, but wasn’t in itself especially graphic… that was simply a warm-up, however, for the live, in-studio interview. “So,” the presenter asked, “what sort of people did you meet on your visit?” A fairly innocuous question, which could be answered in a variety of tones and forms. Liu chose to go straight for the jugular. I’m not even going to get into the details, but the word “fistulas” came up, as did “chronic incontinence”…. and all this while I’m sat there, halfway through my sandwich. It’s fair to say, I was a tad taken aback! And really, after hearing about the atrocities that were actually being committed there in the DRC, I couldn’t blame her for the way she spoke out. Anyone who complained about their lunch being ruined would need a refresher in the meaning of the word “perspective”, because even full-blown nausea would be a treat compared to the concerns of the children she had encountered. Nevertheless, I was glad I had a comedy DVD as back-up, to help pull me out of that particular downer… even if the comedy in question was also fairly uncomfortable viewing, in its own way.
One could argue that humour influences behaviour, and it’s certainly true that the more “sophisticated” propagandists have often used jokes and cartoons to peddle one prejudice or another. It shapes attitudes, to some extent. This afternoon, I was in the very peculiar position of seeing two women addressing roughly the same issues and topics, but for entirely different purposes, and stimulating entirely different responses from me. But how can that be? I suppose context is everything. Liu was describing a very real situation, which she had witnessed with her own eyes, about which she cared deeply. Silverman was playing with absurd, imaginary scenarios, dropping in and out of different personas, never dwelling long enough for any real disgust to build up. Or that’s how it seemed to me, but it’s possible I’m just a sick puppy. I’d be more worried if I hadn’t reacted with any sadness or sickness to the news report, but still, with that reality so fresh in my mind, it’s peculiar that I could laugh so easily at Silverman’s routine. A student of the satire would probably suggest that this is the very function of such comedians, to help us survive in this world by finding a catharsis for our fear and disgust, the same way that those working in the emergency services must develop a certain demeanour to deal with the horrors that they face. But I’m not sure if that’s true. My guilty conscience won’t let me off quite that easily… I mean, the idea of repeating any of her jokes, out of context, is inconceivable. But do they really serve a function… a necessary function? All that fancy talk and theorising about the “carnivalesque” made sense to me as I was learning about it at university, but in practice it seems perverse. Does one have to become “desensitized”, to a lesser or greater degree, in order to remain functional? Where do you draw the line?