For quite some time I've wanted to do a dissertation on what I consider to be the genius of Sarah Silverman. Make that the funny, thin, pretty, edgy genius of Sarah Silverman, who incidentally has marvelous thighs. (If you're wondering why I phrased it that way, you wouldn't if you were familiar with Silverman's material: "I don't care if you think I'm racist. I just want you to think I'm thin.")
As I say, I've wanted to write about her for a long time, to really examine her comedy (or "learnmedy," if you will), but what she does is so full of subtle shades and brilliantly circuitous logic and (funny!) complexities that, I'm afraid it would turn into... well, a dissertation.
No matter what you may think of her new studio/concert film "Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic" (and Roger Ebert considers it a less-than-ideal vehicle for her talents), Silverman in action is a wonder (and a congenial terror) to behold.
Let me give you an example from a few years ago, when she appeared on the late, great HBO stream-of-comedy sketch show, "Mr. Show with Bob and David." In this bit, she was a member of the inspirational band of disabled adolescent musicians known as Indomitable Spirit -- a kind of four-piece "Up With Cripples" ensemble:
You can do anything
Just look at us
Playin' rock & roll
And ridin' the small bus!
The band members introduce themselves in the middle of the song: There's Terry (David Cross), a drummer with no forearms; Jimbo (John Ennis), an armless guitarist who plays with his feet; Mickey (Jay Johnstone), "the one with just a head," who plays flute... and Silverman's character, who proudly and gleefully announces: "I'm Fran, and I'm a woman!"
Fran has no missing limbs or physical disabilities. And she doesn't play an instrument.
I cannot adequately convey to you how funny this is. Some context: This episode ("Flat-Top Tony and the Purple Canoes," which was preceded by "Oh, You Men" -- two of the funniest half hours in TV history, if you ask me) begins with Bob (Oedenkirk) and David (Cross) hosting an insufferably cheery and condescending morning show "for the ladies" in which they announce such guests as "Dr. Goodsex... who will show you how to make your husband climax faster so he can get on with his busy day!"
It's uncomfortably close to the way women have been viewed for decades -- as if they were defective children to be patronized and kept in their place. And flaunting these attitudes so nakedly and unashamedly reveals how dumb they really are. The attitudes, not women. Or just some women, but not all of them. And men, too. Some.
In her stand-up, Sarah Silverman does something similar, openly embracing -- and thereby exposing -- stubborn myths, platitudes and stereotypes about race, rape, sex, religion, children, family, old people, AIDS, celebrities, politics -- and even untouchable subjects like 9/11 and the Holocaust.
She tells a story about her "favorite niece" (the one she loves more than "the other one"), who told her she learned in school that Hitler killed 60 million Jews. Sarah corrects her -- It was six million -- and her niece says dismissively, "Yeah, whatever. What's the difference?" Aunt Sarah delivers a stern rebuke: "I'll tell you the difference, young lady: 60 million would be unforgivable!" What does that mean? (If you think about it, it's basically the same joke as George C. Scott's estimates of "acceptable casualties" after a nuclear war in "Dr. Strangelove.")
Silverman talks about the way people talk about the things they know nothing about and don't know how to talk about. She takes the kinds of stupid, bigoted things people actually say (or think, even if they don't realize it) and takes them just one step further. One of her most famous lines begins as one of those self-dramatizing celebrity revelations you see famous people make on talk shows and famous-people-news shows: "I was raped by a doctor,” she confesses, pausing to give a heavy, uncomfortable silence its proper weight. “Which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl...” As she delivers the joke, you can feel her thinking it through to its illogically logical conclusion. Her jokes turn themselves around on the audience the way Hitchcock turns voyeurism around on Jimmy Stewart (and the audience) in "Rear Window." Suddenly you're looking at yourself through the other side of the lens.
When she treats abortion as if it were the most off-hand thing in the world, she makes you see the absurdity and superficiality of "pro-life" depictions of The Kinds Of Women Who Seek Abortions, as if an abortion itself was an enjoyable activity worth compulsively or spontaneously craving: "I was going to get an abortion the other day. I totally wanted an abortion — and it turns out I was just thirsty."
That line is quoted in a perceptive article called "Irony Maiden: How Sarah Silverman is raping American comedy" by Sam Anderson at Slate.com. Anderson writes:
Nobody else could do Sarah Silverman's stuff, just as nobody else could do, say, Bob Newhart's or Richard Pryor's or Steve Martin's. What makes it work -- as with all performance, but especially comedy -- is her needle-sharp timing and faux-naive delivery, and our understanding of her (spoiled, oblivious, parochial, solipsistic -- but well-intentioned) persona. Onstage she is the ultimate unreliable narrator, cheerfully and conversationally confiding the most horrific, offensive ruminations in ways that twist the material inside out, revealing that what's most horrible and offensive about it are the unacknowledged attitudes governing the way we normally couch any discussion of these things. Like when she says: "The best time to have a baby is when you're a black teenager." It sounds like a Freudian slip some politician might really make, and later get in trouble for saying once the actual meaning of the words has been scrutinized and allowed to register. Old-school conservative Republican Barbara Bush could have been channelling Silverman's act with her shockingly revealing use of the word "underprivileged" recently, implying that the suffering caused by poverty was simply due to a privilege deficiency and therefore being bussed to the Houston Astrodome was working out very nicely for the refugees left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. Now that, as Silverman facetiously says, isn't just comedy -- it's "learnmedy."
Silverman's work is a natural byproduct of the high-stakes game of contemporary American identity politics—the emotionally volatile generalizing about our moral right to generalize. But she's not just a critic of PC culture: She's a connoisseur. She handles the complex algorithms of taboo—who's allowed to joke about what, to whom, using what terminology—with instant precision: "Everybody blames the Jews for killing Christ, and then the Jews try to pass it off on the Romans. I'm one of the few people that believe it was the blacks." (The joke exposes not the ancient perfidy of any particular race but the absurdity of blaming entire races for anything.) Her best jokes are thought experiments in the internal logic of political correctness: "I want to get an abortion, but my boyfriend and I are having trouble conceiving."
Anderson is correct that she's not simply a critic of PC culture -- that's so pre-9/11. The new PC restrictions are coming from the right rather than the left, as in the 1970s and 1980s. And the new rules aren't about finding less overtly demeaning -- but possibly more banal and euphemistic -- ways to label groups of people. (It's "disabled" not "crippled.") Today they are designed by political operatives to frame issues in the most polarizing and propagandistically effective ways: Terry Schaivo's "right to life" instead of "right to die," "faith-based" instead of "religious," "regime change" instead of "war," "weapons of mass destruction program-related activities" instead of, well, actual WMD. Silverman grasps the legitimate, humane intentions behind the original PC -- but she also knows that lines are made to be crossed, restrictions need to be transgressed -- especially when you've incorporated and adapted to them so completely that you've stopped thinking or feeling beyond the proscribed boundaries. Once you stop questioning why we draw the line here instead of there, it's time to step over the line and smudge it to see where it really belongs.
What Silverman does (and this is what makes her "edgy," as she jokes) is not to simply turn "PC" on its head, but to take your head and twist it 360 degrees (rather than the comedy-standard 180), so that you're back where you started but can see how you got there -- as in the bit cited above in which she corrects her niece on the number of Hitler's Jewish victims. I suppose this sort of unblinking satire of over-privileged ersatz morality and cluelessness can be called "irony," but if so it's double-reverse backflip super-stealth irony.
Other times the approach is a little more straightforward, as in her song that mixes simplistic romantic and racist clichés with an irresistibly bubble-gummy pop tune:
I love you more than bees love honey
I love you more than Jews love money
I love you more than Asians are good at math
I love you even if it's not hip,
I love you more than black people don't tip...
After the world premiere screening of "Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic" at the Toronto Film Festival in September, a fan in the audience hailed her as "the true heir to Lenny Bruce."
"Wow, thank you, that is the ultimate compliment," she said. "I'm actually not that familiar with Lenny Bruce's work, but from what I understand, he was a really great singer."