If anyone here in the audience has been offended by anything I might have said or done during the course of my trying to entertain you, I want you to know sincerely from the bottom of my heart that I don't give a shit.
—Redd Foxx, "Closing," The Very Best of Redd Foxx
Political correctness has turned academic, professional, and even social interactions into minefields. (This is the premise from which Philip Roth began The Human Stain.) It's an odd moment for taboos governing what we say about race, ethnicity, nationality, sex, sexuality, religion, age, etc.—there's rigid propriety about what is socially acceptable to say in public at a time when censorship is more lax than ever. (Sometimes it seems as if anything may be said, so long as you don't think it.)
For the stand-up comedian Sarah Silverman, however, politically correct minefields grow amber waves of grain just begging to be harvested. Silverman, a flirty, dark-haired, gleam-eyed young Jewish woman stands at the mike and pretends to tell brief stories about herself, her family, her relationships, her friends, but everything she says is a feint leading to punch lines containing crazily objectionable utterances, and the assumptions underlying them, about the "diverse" population of the world. Silverman, the truffle pig of "offensive" humor, exploits the audience's sense of public decorum with something pretty close to genius in this range.
Silverman's material isn't a satire of Jews, blacks, gays, et al. She doesn't pretend to be saying what nobody will say but what is true. (As you might say of Bill Cosby's 17 May 2004 remarks about the state of African-American culture.) Silverman isn't heroic, not in that respect. That is, she's out to shock us but not seriously to challenge us. Nor is her material a satire of anti-Semites, racists, homophobes, not even when the jokes boomerang because what she's said is so patently idiotic. Rather, Silverman makes these sick jokes with the opportunism of the pure comedian. The simplest definition of comedy (in its non-narrative sense) is that it's whatever makes people laugh; Silverman makes you laugh by saying the socially unacceptable solely because it's socially unacceptable. It isn't that she really thinks what she says, but merely that she says it, and though she's clearly being prankish she's relentlessly unapologetic.
The breaking of taboos in works of entertainment catalyzes an explosive reaction that a lot of us experience as laughter. People who are pious about speech codes at universities may well have a different reaction, unless they can peg Silverman as "ironic" and maybe purgative. But she's more purely after the laugh than that. When Silverman seems to be teaching us about prejudice, it's always a set-up for another outrage. (She even makes a joke about this, claiming that her style of comedy is meant to instruct to such an extent she calls it "learn-medy.") The same is true whenever she seems to be embarrassed about what has just popped out of her mouth. When you sense maidenly shame, hit the deck! because the next missile has already been launched.