Star cops heat for savage Britney joke
Comedian Sarah Silverman is the latest media figure to be called out for poor treatment of Britney Spears amid the star's past mental health struggles.
As fans rally for the troubled star off the back of this week's bombshell New York Times documentary, Framing Britney Spears, unearthed footage from the 2007 Video Music Awards where Silverman savagely roasted the star has been thrust into the spotlight.
In the monologue, Silverman joked that Spears' kids were "the most adorable little mistakes" and commented on the "sl*tty clothes" Spears had worn on stage at previous ceremonies.
Spears, now 39, had just taken the stage before Silverman's set, but had spectacularly bombed - forgetting to lip-synch in some songs - making the monologue all the more cutting.
It also happened to be her return to the stage after her infamous public meltdown in which she shaved her head.
"She's a mother. It's weird to think that just a few years ago on this very show, she was this sweet, innocent little girl in sl*tty clothes riding around with a python," Silverman said elsewhere in the bit.
As Silverman continued to mock Spears in the clip, some members of the crowd can be heard booing, while others including Adam Levine and Jamie Foxx laugh along enthusiastically.
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Silverman detailed the VMAs controversy in her 2010 memoir The Bedwetter, explaining that she was not able to watch Spears' performance from her position backstage and therefore had no idea the singer had bombed. She wrote that she would have reconsidered her material if she'd seen the performance, not wanting to kick Spears while she was down.
In an interview with The Talks, she said: "What happened was Britney Spears was going to have this big performance at the Video Music Awards and there was no doubt in my mind she was going to be amazing - she's always been great at this show. It was a whole spectacle: She had snakes, she made out with Madonna. Every year it's something great. And following Britney, you have to do a couple of jokes about Britney, so I had a couple of jokes. But what I didn't know, because I didn't watch her because I was pacing trying not to have diarrhoea, was that she was terrible. She wasn't even lip-synching."
She went on: "I didn't know the weight the jokes would take because I didn't know that she was ill. I didn't want to hurt her feelings and it's not my usual thing to talk about specific people, but I felt like it was more pop culture."
Responding to the clip again this week, Silverman reiterated her regret.
"While she was performing I was having diarrhoea and going over my jokes," she tweeted, explaining that MTV had asked her to "mini-roast" Spears after the performance. "Had no idea she didn't kill. Unfortunate. Art changes over years as we know more and the world changes."
Silverman added in a separate tweet, "I wish I could delete it," and questioned why the fan reposted it, adding, "So r u trying to be kind or right?"
Responding to her excuses, another follower said: "We are trying to raise awareness of how the public and media treated her and contributed to her public image. YOU were a part of that and we want you to apologise. Don't blame it on anyone else. You spoke the words, did you not?"
This week, Spears' loyal fans have been dredging up vintage clips of interviews and television segments after the documentary highlighted just how insensitive the media had been to Spears over the years.
Among them was an interview from A Current Affair in 2001, in which Aussie journalist Mike Munro asked the star about her "virginal" image.
"To many, you are a contradiction. On the one hand you're a sweet, innocent, virginal type. On the other hand you're a sexy vamp in underwear," he told her, a suggestion she baulked at.
"I wouldn't say 'in underwear'. On the cover of Rolling Stone, that was the only time. But not when I perform, no," she replied.
Sit-down interviews with reporters like Matt Lauer and Diane Sawyer in the early years of her career also saw Spears struggle, with Sawyer pressing the star to reveal "what she'd done" to cause her break-up from Justin Timberlake.
Lauer confronted new mum Spears with accusations she was a "bad mother". In both interviews, the fragile Spears seemed to surprise herself as she suddenly burst into tears.
Another alarming pre-fame clip included in the documentary shows a 10-year-old Spears being interviewed by Star Search host Ed McMahon after giving a gutsy vocal performance on the TV talent show.
"You have the most adorable pretty eyes - you have a boyfriend?" McMahon, then in his 60s, asked Spears. "No sir … they're mean," she joked.
"I'm not mean, how about me?" he countered.
There was seemingly only one television host who showed sympathy for Spears amid her darkest days, Scottish-American comedian Craig Ferguson.
Ferguson's The Late Late Show monologue, which originally aired on February 19, 2007, shows the host taking a stand that not many, if any, late night figures have been brave enough to take, by refusing to make jokes at the expense of Spears.
"Tonight, no Britney Spears jokes, and here's why … I'm not doing them," he began.
"The kind of weekend she had, she was checking in and out of rehab, she was shaving her head, getting tattoos, that's what she was doing this weekend. This Sunday, I was 15 years sober. So I looked at her weekend, and I looked at my own weekend, and I thought, 'You know, I'd rather have my weekend.' But what she's going through reminds me of what I was doing. It's an anniversary, you start to think about it, and it reminds me of where I was 15 years ago, when I was living like that."
While Ferguson admitted he didn't know if Spears was an alcoholic and he was no expert, he did say "she clearly needs help". Launching into his own struggles with alcoholism, the late night host shared that his addiction even led him to contemplate suicide, but that he eventually sought the help he needed to give up drinking.
"It looks to me a little bit that Britney Spears has a similar problem going on with alcohol," he said. "This woman has two kids. She's 25 years old. She's a baby herself. She's a baby, you know. And the thing is, you can embarrass somebody to death. It is embarrassing to admit you're an alcoholic."
Ferguson looked back on his famous monologue in a 2019 interview with the Los Angeles Times, telling the paper that he was inspired to take a different angle on Spears after seeing news reports about her public breakdown.
"I remember feeling kind of shocked at the kind of glee that seemed to accompany them," he said. "I don't know Ms Spears and I'm not a doctor, but to all outward appearances it was some kind of psychotic episode. It didn't look like she was having a good time at all."
Originally published as Star cops heat for savage Britney joke