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January 30, 2007

Saving Silverman's Joke

With Sarah Silverman's Comedy Central show debuting Thursday, the PC-puncturing comic is getting shout-outs all over, including in a Slate article refuting Christopher Hitchens by asserting that women can, indeed, be funny. Slate author Laura Kipnis also demonstrated that women can bungle punchlines as well as men.

Kipnis initially wrote, "When Silverman takes on female abjection—most famously, 'I was raped by a doctor. Which is such a poignant experience for a Jewish girl'—the clichés are demolished, not upheld; the world as it was is turned on its ear." But Slate later ran a correction saying the article had quoted the joke "imprecisely," and changed it to "I was raped by a doctor. Which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl."

That makes a lot more sense. Silverman's point—while perhaps not world-ear-turning—is to deflate the stereotype that Jewish women love male doctors by reducing it to absurdity. "Bittersweet" expresses the absurd ambiguity much better than "poignant" does. But even the corrected joke isn't yet in ideal form. "Bittersweet" is the surprise, and so it should be the last word, making the line end with its punch. A better version runs like this: "I was raped by my doctor, which for a Jewish girl is so bittersweet."

There are several different versions of the joke online, perhaps because Silverman doesn't always deliver it precisely the same way. (Her most-quoted delivery came in the film, Jesus Is Magic.) Each variation brings subtle differences, though none Gelf could find uses the word "poignant." A version of the joke on Gay.com —"I was raped by my doctor. Which is bittersweet for a Jewish girl"—lacks "so," which lessens the punch. The version in The Stranger—"I was raped by a doctor. Which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl"—fails to specify that the doc was hers, which makes the act less shocking, and the denouement less funny.

The lesson here is that no single joke has just one version, and it often mutates in the act of repetition. And a further lesson of this exercise is that the surest way to ruin a joke is to explain it. (Naturally, there are many different versions of that old chestnut, too.)

Related in Gelf

•David Goldenberg on the resilience of jokes.

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