Decoding a Joke: Sarah Silverman Cracks the Taboo of Rape Commentary by Sophia Hill

Understanding the fluency of a joke is a language all unto itself, and can be defined as an exchange of emotional and physical cues felt on a visceral level. I have chosen this Sarah Silverman clip because it exquisitely breakdowns a joke within a joke, all while being part of a pre-planned and pre-performed set of jokes to a willing audience.

As Mary Douglas explains, there are many different elements that go into the acceptance and approval of allowing something to be considered funny. Silverman’s explanation of “rape jokes” in this clip would traditionally be considered taboo, as Douglas would put it; but her breakdown of why she is allowed to make said joke invites the audience to laugh. She sets up an environment in which the listener can feel comfortable accepting the tragedy within the humor, by explaining why she thinks it’s funny and overall socially acceptable.

Silverman’s body language comes across as confident, yet also slightly awkward. Her presentation of this information emotionally guides the audience into the rhythm in which they should laugh, with her and at her. After she goes into detail about why rape jokes are a “hidden gem” of the comedy world, she backs herself up by saying “rape victims aren’t known as complainers.” In almost any other setting, this would be an inexcusably hideous thing to say. But because the audience has been given the platform to which the following topic of conversation can be perceived as funny, they in turn laugh when she presents that set of information.

There is also the added element of understand who Sarah Silverman herself is as a comedian. She’s established a following that expects a certain level of uneasy when watching her perform, and you can’t deny that her “brand” of comedy is incorporated within her reputation. She delivers what you would expect to see her say onstage, and in that sense, the audience participates in understanding the trade of information with grace.


Douglas, Mary. “Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology.” Rain, no. 29, 1978, pp. 90–114.


  1. I find your example very interesting and I think Sarah Silverman is very daring. You described her audience as “a willing audience”. I think this remark is worth analysing more in terms of the nature of contemporary comedy and what is “traditionally considered taboo” (as you put forward).

  2. To what extent do you think that Silverman has blurred the lines between her onstage presence and her off-stage presence in order to create the ‘uneasy’ expectation from her audience? How does she achieve the intricate balance between trust from the audience and pushing the boundaries of their expectations?

  3. I find the idea of the audience accepting the subject matter and these jokes as a result of their interpretation and anticipation of the persona of Sarah Silverman the comic rather than her as a everyday citizen very interesting. That somehow her reputation gives her access and the audience by extension access to a topic which would otherwise be left well alone. Are we to give every comedian this level of leeway to maneuvers into uncomfortable topics? Secondly, you put forward that we are to be comforted by the invitation to laugh at these jokes but could we say that at least part of the comedy here is in purposefully making us feel uncomfortable and this uncomfortability then adding to the disruption aspect of comedy?

  4. Does Sarah alleviate the moral dilemma of laughing at a rape joke because she acknowledges that it is in “bad taste?” Why are her jokes both “perceived and permitted?”(Douglas, 98) Is it the social context as Sophie stated above or the form of deliver and subsequent explanation that Sophie identifies as adhering to joke form? Mary Douglas should have explored in conjunction with her hypothesis, jokes that “cut to close to the bone” of hierarchy or precious societal values are allowed when the joke “offers a symbolic pattern of a social pattern occurring at the same time,” the effect of joke structure and delivery. (Douglas, 98)
    – Amanda

  5. I think what you said about Silverman guiding her audience to laugh with and at her through the terrain of a taboo subject is a very interesting point. Although I believe that the setting of a comedy show, and being part of a large audience entices you to laugh more freely, the comedian definitely has a crucial role in gaining the audience’s allegiance and therefore guiding them to find something funny.

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