Here’s another journalist reacting to Brian Lowry’s Variety column criticizing Sarah.
by Merrill Barr
“By [Hollywood] standards, [Sarah Silverman] is massively successful,” says Los Angeles comedian Brendan Smith. “I can’t tell you the number of LA comics who’ve failed during her run.” Despite the fact some may choose to argue otherwise, Sarah Silverman is massively successful and very “mainstream.” The famed comic had her own show on one of the biggest networks in the 18-49 demo, is currently featured on a hit FOX animated series and still maintains a huge stage presence in her stand-up career. She’s a name headline that everyone knows, and if that’s not “mainstream,” what is? But regardless of whether or not any of those facts qualifies Sarah Silverman as a “mainstream” success, she is successful, just like Breaking Bad, Louis C.K. and Bill Cosby.
There was absolutely a time when judging “mainstream” success was as easy as looking at the numbers. M*A*S*H, Cheers and Seinfeld all featured ratings in the high double (and triple) digits. There’s no argument that these were not “mainstream” successes. But how about Breaking Bad? Is there anyone who would argue the now concluded AMC series isn’t a “mainstream” success? It only scored a little over 10 million viewers in its finale, a number far lower than that of the previously listed series. Would anyone argue Breaking Bad didn’t crack the cultural consciousness on a mass scale by the end of its run? No, there isn’t. Why? Because Breaking Bad is a “mainstream” success, and if the Vince Gilligan series is “mainstream,” how can one say Sarah Silverman is not?
Louis C.K. is arguably the most popular comic working at the moment. The man writes, directs, stars and runs his own FX series and has reached such a high level of success that he’s able to sell his own tickets and comedy specials direct to his fans. But C.K. has never been safe or populist. His series has featured a scene of a sociopathic ten year old defecating in his bathtub; his stand-up has featured talk of dead infants and the man is always looking for ways to push the boundaries of edginess. All he’s ever done is play to his base and other comics, and that’s all any performer has ever done when they achieve success.
“Mainstream success is just success on a grand scale,” says comedian Greg Behrendt who had his own brush with “mainstream” a few years ago. “Lady Gaga, Nirvana, and Louis CK have all had mainstream success, yet they are hardly mainstream artists, that’s because the world is not made of mainstream people. It’s made of people.” Of Silverman herself, Behrendt adds “Sarah has pretty much carved her own unique space in the world. She has an impressive career and is unlike anyone else.”
Mainstream in 2013 is not mainstream in 1970. There’s no longer a clear-cut definition of the term. This Saturday will see the premiere of the first Bill Cosby stand-up special in 30 years, and it’d be surprising if the special cracks five million viewers in the Nielsen ratings. Allow that idea to sink in for a moment. One of the biggest, most “mainstream” comics of all time will be lucky to crack a mere five million in the ratings. But would you argue that fact disqualifies Bill Cosby as a “mainstream” success? It’s doubtful.
The only way left to gauge mainstream in the present day is by cultural awareness. There aren’t many people you could approach today who aren’t aware of Breaking Bad, Louis C.K. or Sarah Silverman. These works of art and artists don’t judge success by a set of Nielsen numbers, the amount of tickets sold or yearly salary. They judge success based on how the culture as a whole has responded to the work they put out. People love Louis C.K.. They love Breaking Bad. And they love Sarah Silverman. The fact that people have found it necessary to take time out of their day to prove why she is a success makes that true.