(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on April 22, 2010)
I suppose it was inevitable: Many comedians eventually gather enough of a following to create the impression that there’s demand to warrant an autobiography.
So, this Tuesday came the release of “Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee” by Sarah Silverman.
She devoted about 14 of its 237 pages to yours truly and our infamous confrontation on “Politically Incorrect.”
The chapter begins facetiously: “The second worst disaster in American history preceded the first by exactly two months to the day”—July 11, 2001. That was when she told her joke on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” about wanting to get out of jury duty. Her friend suggested she write something racist on the form like “I hate chinks.” But she didn’t want them to think she was racist, so she wrote “I love chinks.”
Unable to track down her manager for four days, MANAA issued a press release condemning the slur, and the story was picked up by the Associated Press. I complained to Paula Madison, then Senior VP of Diversity at NBC, who had it out with the people overseeing O’Brien’s show and decided the episode would never be rebroadcast. NBC issued an apology and O’Brien, facing reporters at the annual upfronts for NBC, said he took full responsibility for it and should’ve had the word censored.
In her book, Silverman says she’d bounced the joke off “Frank,” who was in charge of late-night for NBC. She originally wanted to say “nigger.” He said she couldn’t and suggested “dirty Jew.” Sarah felt it wouldn’t work and suggested “chink.” Frank said that was offensive but felt “Spic” would be OK. Still, Sarah went with “chink,” and the rest is history.
The comedian writes that shortly after the O’Brien joke, her manager told her he’d pitched her for “Fear Factor.” She complained she’d never go on a show which requires contestants to eat insects. But his point was, “They don’t want you.”
“On Fear Factor?”
“They don’t want you on NBC. At all.” She was allegedly banned from the network!
That’s when he told her about NBC’s apology.
In the meantime, the AP reporter informed me that Silverman’s manager was Geoff Cheddy, who’d recently sat at my table at MANAA’s annual awards dinner because we were honoring the casting of his client, Dustin Nguyen, on “VIP.” Cheddy told me on Wednesday, July 18, that Silverman had written me a long letter, and he wanted to send it to me. I waited and waited. When I asked him about it on Friday, he admitted after talking with me, he encouraged Silverman to modify it a bit. The letter, though dated the 18th, actually arrived the following Monday.
In her book, Silverman uses a full page to reprint her entire e-mail to me.
In part, she wrote: “You have garnered millions of dollars in free publicity with the exploitation of my joke. I would have preferred to talk seriously and honestly about how to address the real challenges to a good society. We obviously have different approaches to addressing racism. Certainly, that should not make us enemies.
“I apologize for the pain I’ve unintentionally caused you. Even if it was unintentional, even if it was the result of a misinterpretation. On an ongoing basis, I make it a practice to talk to people regarding the impact of my material and am grateful for your input.”
In her book, she says, “I really worked hard on it, too,” with help from her Rabbi sister Susan and her husband.
Conveniently, the author claims she didn’t save my response. Ahem. I did.
While she remembers getting “a very short, curt response from him,” that’s a lie.
Her letter ran 493 words. I did her better at 706. And I thought I was pretty fair and balanced.
I wrote back that same day (and without help from my rabbi or her husband!):
“Our concern is that racial slurs against Asian Americans are not respected as being just as hurtful as those other slurs are to African Americans, Latino Americans, or Jews or gays.
“The fact that neither you nor your manager chose to respond to our concerns when asked by the press until two or three days later, compounded that notion—it looked as if you felt it wasn’t worth responding to or that if you kept quiet, it would all go away. Our feeling is that if you had said ‘nigger’ or another ‘more accepted racial slur,’ you would’ve felt compelled to explain yourself a lot faster. The fact that I’m getting your response on Monday—when a statement of yours was issued to AP on Thursday—doesn’t exactly help matters. You might want to talk to Geoff about that.
(In other words, based on her conversation with NBC’s Frank, I was correct to point to the hierarchy of slurs. I just didn’t realize, at least with Frank, “chinks” was worse than “spic.”)
“Let me say that I do appreciate your understanding that racially-based humor plays one way in a crowd that includes minorities, and another way when it’s all-white, and that you’re aware of the need to be sensitive with your material…I also agree there’s no need for us to be enemies. After all, the reason I caught what you said on the program that Wednesday night is that I’ve always been interested in you as a performer (since seeing you on an episode of ‘Star Trek Voyager,’ if you can believe that!) and I was interested in what you had to say to Conan…
“I hope this incident allows greater understanding between us, and I welcome your feedback to this letter.”
I never got it. Two nights later, Silverman went on “Politically Incorrect,” lambasted me, and said I really wasn’t hurt by the joke: “He’s keeping his job!”
Right. MANAA’s always paid terrific wages.
In Bedwetter, Silverman shrinks the timeline down, making it appear as if her joke and getting the call from a “Politically Incorrect” producer to appear on the show with me happened within days. Conveniently, she neglects to inform her fans how she ambushed me on the July 25th episode (her manager produced the show. A coincidence? I think not) and that I wasn’t invited to defend myself.
For years, Silverman’s said she was dumb to go on the show, but she was actually forced to debate me the following month: Through Karen Narasaki, head of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, I demanded equal time. The President of ABC watched the tape, agreed it was one-sided, and told Bill Maher and the producers to finally let me have my say on August 22nd.
She writes of passing me in the green room: “He had black pin-straight hair, cut in the exact bowl shape I had when I was five, and the same mustache I had till I was 15.” Oh give me a break. I have naturally wavy hair. Bowl-shaped? Wow, I bet when she looks at older Asian men, she sees Fu Manchu too.
At this point, it’s hard to take anything Silverman says as being even half truthful. But during the pre-interview for the show, she says a producer “mentioned her annoyance over Guy Aoki’s request for extra seats in the audience.” She asked how many. “60.”
“16?? He has 16 people in the audience?? Are you f*ck*ng serious? I’m dead.” (Silverman had expected two “stoner type” friends in the audience to support her. I was told she had 10 from her fan club. Eight flaked on her?!)
“Um, SixTEE.” When she learned that was almost half of the 125 seats, she thought: “Kill me. Please. Take my life.”
Silverman wanted ABC to run the clip of the joke she told on O’Brien, but they couldn’t get the rights from NBC so she had to retell the joke, which she thought was a mistake (what’s the difference?). “The punch line was met with boos—60 of them, as promised—which sent me spiraling downward and into a skin hole of incoherence.”
Continuing to play the part of martyr, the comedienne remembers even that incorrectly: There was actual polite applause (go to the manaa.org website to see it for yourself). So what’s her excuse for her consequent incoherence?
As I wrote in my column (also found on manaa.org), there were 23 Asian Americans in the audience that I knew of, and some of them were press. So if it sounded like 60 people were booing her throughout, that means at least 37 other people were doing so because they just didn’t agree with her. Even more sobering to consider, huh, Sarah?
She actually quotes from my Wikipedia page, which has long featured misquotes (I tried to correct them, but apparently, the subjects of wiki pages aren’t allowed to). Worse, Silverman cuts together three different portions—only two of which are on the wiki page—and edits them together out of order. It makes no sense.
As Anne Marie Johnson was selected to support me, Silverman asked her friend David Spade to support her. But, she writes, “Spade was hilarious as my no-help-whatsoever friend on the panel.”
Silverman reproduced notes from her prep sheet which shows about 14 notes/quips on the front which were distilled to seven on the back, only three of which she actually got around to using. By contrast, I had about a dozen sound bites, and I got about eight of them on the air.
She claims I gave her e-mail address “to all the members of MANAA” and that she received “pages and pages of hate mail every day for months.” Again, an exaggeration: After the show aired, I gave it to Phil Shigekuni of the JACL (who was in the audience and wanted to challenge her views) and one other person. But you know, all of us Asians look alike and can easily become an amorphous blob.
In fact, when the late Sam Chu Lin tried to take a picture of us after the show, she tore off her mike, said, “Yeah, right!” and walked off stage to boos.
Glad the verbal beating I gave her didn’t turn her off to all Asian American men…
Silverman writes that I should’ve picked on a bigger target than “a not very-well-known comic” and that I only raised her visibility. I agree that was the effect. So she can thank me for saving her moribund career (though as I write, her series, “The Sarah Silverman Program,” is in danger of being cancelled).
As her star rose, we were forever joined at the hip (in a recent interview, Playboy asked Silverman about me and she gave her usual distortion of the facts; my response will run in the next issue), so I still got to talk about my side of the story. She obviously has a larger platform from which to do it as I’m not a performer. Though in addition to beating her to a pulp on “Politically Incorrect,” some would say I was even funnier than her.
Another section reads: “Guy Aoki: Heart In Right Place, Head Up Wrong Place.” The former bed wetter says I would’ve thrived in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s if I went over the “Amos and Andy” type black stereotypes. She asserts that racism has gotten subtler over the years, Fox News is a festering ground for racism, some of their anti-Obama rants are race-based, and they merely use the race-neutral term “illegal immigrants” vs. “filthy Mexicans.”
On this we agree.
Recounting the backlash she faced after putting down Paris Hilton and Britney Spears at two separate MTV Awards shows, she notes that more people were offended by those incidents than her “chink” joke.
“Maybe it’s that people view Asian Americans, a population known for high levels of college enrollment and enormous success in small business, as a people who can take care of themselves and don’t need defending, whereas thin, white, young blonde women are enjoyable to have sex with.”
She kinda lost the thought at the end of that sentence, but she’s partially right about why the media often ignores our complaints. That still doesn’t answer why Jews, who also do pretty well for themselves, do get covered when they’re offended: Because so many of them are in the media, they can create and shape the story around it.
On page 221, she reproduces the picture of Miley Cyrus and her friends pulling back their eyes to imitate Asians. Silverman passes it off: “Just young kids making levity of their differences. I’d go almost as far as to say that it was perfectly healthy.”
Right. Let’s see how healthy it feels to see them extend their noses to imitate Jews.
You’re probably assuming from my extensive quotes from the book that I actually bought it. Nope. Just took some pretty good notes from a copy at my local Borders and made sure I got back to my car before the free parking hour-and-a-half limit was up.
Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.