Despite my early (considerable) fondness for Sarah Silverman, the potty-mouth comedian and now star of "The Sarah Silverman Show," something has always irked me about her "meta-humor." Silverman specializes in what might be temed the mocking of the mocking of minorities. You laugh at her crazy character's bigotry, much as you laugh (or laughed) at Archie Bunker's. But there was something bothering me about her schtick that I couldn't quite identify until I read Jake Martin's new piece, now in our online Culture section, about snark.
"The Sarah Silverman Program” just began its third season on Comedy Central and no one seemed to notice. Two years ago Silverman was lower-case comedy’s “It” girl, with her unblinking assault on societal taboos and subversion of the sitcom genre, all delivered in a kewpie-doll voice. She was the pinup girl for metahumor.
But those halcyon days seem far away, and Sarah and crew are now just another set of journeymen comics punching the clock in the relative obscurity of basic cable programming. While Silverman attempts to squeeze the last vestiges of humor from her anemic shtick, a seemingly endless parade of writers dedicated to savagely decimating all things film and television spills forth from that veritable cornucopia of pedestrian fare: the Internet. All these bloggers aspire toward the same end, that is, to attain a semblance of the notoriety and influence held by the mother of all sarcastic blogs: “Television Without Pity.”
“Silverman” and “TWOP” are two of the more prominent examples of snark, which originally began as a comedic sub-genre whose roots can be primarily traced to new media and the resultant mass accessibility of public forums. It has quickly gestated into a cultural epidemic.
While not everyone is familiar with the term snark, anyone who has been conscious in the last few years has felt its effects. Snark is the final frontier for the age of irony, the last word for a generation that prides itself on having the last word. Snark manifests itself in myriad ways, but at its core, is fundamentally a savage critique of dubious merit on everything and anything, put forth for the sole purpose of garnering laughs, or at least a mild guffaw or two.
Snark appeals because it can be done by almost anyone, because what little intellectual aptitude it requires is of the broadest sort and lacks any depth. Proponents of snark such as the folks at “Television Without Pity” fancy themselves to be the cultural descendants of Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott and the other denizens of Algonquin Round Table, whose scathing cultural observations became the stuff of legend. But can one really compare a smart critique of the writing of Fitzgerald with a venomous critique of the writing of an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy?”
Therein lies the problem: Snark is the glorification of the mediocre. Unlike the traditional comedic paradigm wherein a low status character topples the high status “sacred cow” (think Chaplin’s Little Tramp and his wealthy antagonists), in snark the mid-level attacks the lower status; essentially the comedic equivalent of kicking a three-legged puppy.
Silverman is perhaps the most notable perpetrator of such mean-spirited commentary. Her continual abuse of minorities, the homeless and other marginalized peoples, while originally perhaps an inevitable backlash in an era awash in political correctness, now seems only funny in that uncomfortable way that a drunken uncle is on Christmas Eve.