Comedy

Crass Action

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I ike many people, I fell in love with Sarah Silverman when she described her brutal rape at the hands of elderly Hollywood agent Joe Franklin in 2005's The Aristocrats (granted, she also charmed me like a snake in this interview). The next year, when she released her hour-long standup performance, Jesus is Magic, I felt that Sarah and I had developed a special relationship — a close-knit, intimate future together outside the mainstream.

But then something awful happened. Sarah whored herself out to the general public on the covers of every alt weekly in the country. She hosted award shows and posed for GQ; I felt betrayed. I thought I'd discovered this amazing unknown quantity, when in reality, everyone else was discovering her too. Yet now many of my friends — the same people who laughed their tits off at Jesus is Magic — suddenly claim to find her "annoying." Sarah Silverman blowback! And just in time for her awesome new TV series, The Sarah Silverman Program, to save her from it.

Granted, it's not the laugh-a-second orgy of jokes that Comedy Central's other twenty-two-minute ventures like South Park and the Daily Show franchise are. Silverman draws out simple gags to

excruciating effect, stuff that would be delivered with a clever, snappy whiz-bang! on those other shows. Prolonged weirdness usually trumps clever asides; she relishes fucking up the pacing. And though there are a few jokes that fall dead flat (e.g., the word "vagina" doesn't automatically make everything funny), a good eighty percent of them work hilariously, which isn't bad for a first outing.

The show is less a narrative than a series of vignettes that showcase humanity's most abhorrent qualities using Silverman as a vessel. She emotionally manipulates her sister, verbally abuses an old lady in a supermarket and derides participants in a wheelchair marathon because it "seems like cheating." She deserves credit for offering herself up as this sort of human sacrifice — truly loathsome protagonists are rare on TV. They're always ascribed a subplot that ultimately reveals some sort of concealed humanity. Larry David's rough edges on Curb Your Enthusiasm are smoothed by storylines that ultimately make him the sympathetic whipping boy. Even Tony Soprano attends therapy between contract murders.

Not so with Silverman. She doesn't have any sympathy, and she doesn't want yours. At times, she's borderline sociopathic, senselessly mocking a stranger who innocently remarks that they're driving the same car. But usually, she's not trying to be inconsiderate — she's just too self-interested to notice she's being a jerk. She's blind to the social conventions we're all expected to adhere to. She commiserates with a waiter whose father is dying by referencing her remote control's dying batteries. When she bumps into an old friend from high school who's begging for change on the street, she acts ecstatic to see him: "Oh my God! How are you?!" Isn't that what we're supposed to do?

Silverman is backed by a cast that includes her real-life sister and her real-life dog. She's unemployed, lives in an upscale Jewish neighborhood, watches too much TV and tools around town in her perky Ford Focus. Her two neighbors, described by Silverman as "giant, orange and gay," are a sexless bear couple who bump forearms and declare, "Dude, I am so gay for you." All of them endure her slights and slurs with infinite good humor, a fact Silverman reliably fails to notice.

Fans will be relieved to find that the show is chock full of her trademark racial insensitivities, too (though whether the n-word will make an appearance on Comedy Central is very much in doubt). After being chased by two cops for stealing double-A batteries from a Japanese Fantasti-Mart clerk, she calls on Black God, who she met earlier that day, to save her. Black God materializes and turns the cops into a delicious pile of Bugles ("I love Bugles!" she cries). Then she takes him home for sex and tries to politely kick him out afterward: "Your pants are over there. I mean not like I'm asking you to leave, I just mean like if you can't see them from this angle of still being in my bed."

This is what separates Silverman's character from one like Larry David's. David would lie there in bed next to his regrettable one-night stand and quietly stew, and we'd enjoy watching his miserable face contort with anguish. And while this genre of awkward-silence comedy has given us gems (Curb, The Office, The Comeback), Silverman does it a service by taking it the next step forward. With Silverman, awkward silences are squelched as she acts out her inappropriate impulses with brutal honesty. She reminds us that our polite self-muting essentially make us liars-by-omission.

TV needs more inappropriate women like this. Not more heartless sorority bitches or icily ambitious divas like Ugly Betty's Vanessa Williams. Just plain old selfish, inconsiderate women who can lay down a slapdash insult as nonchalantly as if they were commenting on the weather. The British excel at this, from Fawlty Towers' acerbic Prunella Scales to Absolutely Fabulous' shallow Jennifer Saunders. But American TV executives seem hesitant to showcase these types of female characters unless their self-absorption is cloaked in ruthless professional ambition, as if they could only have become that way by entering the world of "men's work."

This is a shame, because all Silverman and her British kin are doing is refusing to endure awkward and distasteful interactions with tortured good manners. When she loudly grumbles about having to watch a save-a-kid-with-cancer commercial, she's not the malicious one — the emotionally manipulative producers of the ad are: "These disturbing images don't have to be real. You can make them disappear for just a few dollars." Silverman calls their bluff on that horseshit.

The show's humor is so absurdist and bizarre, it faces the very real danger of getting too cryptic. Should it eventually be cancelled, it would be a waste, but at least it would turn Silverman back into the indie heroine with the cult following we all want her to be. Then I could forgive her temporary transgression, huddle in my darkened apartment and rerun the old episodes while the rest of the world moves on, blithely unaware of what they're missing. — Will Doig


It's hard to review The Sarah Silverman Program without first tackling the Sarah Silverman thing — that thing being whatever her name kicks up in you. For some, especially those at the New Yorker and other prestige publications, that seems to be a fawning admiration for her brilliance. Brilliance is a word that gets tossed around a lot when praising Sarah Silverman, for her delicious meanness and her skewering of ethnic stereotypes — heady stuff for someone who makes so many fart jokes. What her status as cultural commentator and fantasy stoner girlfriend fails to acknowledge, however, is that Silverman's comedy — edgy though it may be — isn't really all that funny. Don't get me wrong: she has a few great one-liners. But surely I'm not the only one who saw Jesus Is Magic and wondered what the fuss was all about. Her much-discussed "Joe Franklin raped me" speech from The Aristocrats isn't humorous so much as ballsy. And whenever I see her on late-night talk shows, she reminds me of some kind of hyper lap dog, churning out schtick and desperate to please her new owners.

And so we come to The Sarah Silverman Program on Comedy Central, which has already been renewed for a second season based on the popularity of the first episode. Apparently, the Sarah Silverman backlash was much smaller than I thought. To be fair, Silverman may annoy me, but the show is still better than most sitcoms on the air not starring Tina Fey, and on a punchline-to-dialogue ratio it's snappier than Silverman's previous outings, which tended toward tangent. The show centers on a woman who is, in the words of one character (who happens to be God), "the most selfish, racist, manipulative, lazy, thoughtless human being alive today." This is Silverman's doofus-slacker alter ego, fleshed into narrative form — an unemployed, harmless lump prone to adorably offending everyone around her. When she calls something gay, she turns to her homosexual buddies and explains, "I'm sorry, you guys, I don't mean gay like homosexual. I mean gay like retarded." For the most part this is mildly amusing stuff, playful bits from clever people. Like the moment Silverman tries to drive across a handicap marathon only to be stopped by a macho cop, who tells her, "The only difference between this marathon and a river of molten lava is that everyone it touches gets inspired instead of burned to death." See? Mildly amusing, clever.

The cop is played by Paul F. Tompkins, an L.A. comedian best known for appearances on Best Week Ever, and he's one of several real-life Silverman pals making cameos. Most notable is Brian Posehn as one-half of a gay couple who live next door to Silverman — "they're giant, orange, and gay!" Silverman informs us in the introduction. The giant, orange, gay couple are problematic for the show, as they are neither terribly gay nor terribly funny. I'm sure the point was to show a different kind of gay couple — scruffy slobs who don't always follow politics and prefer Warcraft to Barbra Streisand — but they just seem like two Jimmy Kimmels dating each other. Even thinner is Silverman's cipher of a sister, a nurse with the personality of a sponge bath. It's a shame Silverman can only write for herself. She loves self-parody, but what she needs is a proper foil — someone to put her in her place. Instead, too often the minor characters serve only to confirm her coolness or to act as the butt of a joke. The biggest annoyance, however, is Silverman's insistence on those horrible musical interludes she used in Jesus Is Magic. Not only unfunny but downright cringeworthy at times. Take this song, which opens the second episode: "I really love my life and I'll also tell you what / If I find a stick I'll put it in your mama's butt / And pull it out and stick the doody in her eye." That last line is repeated, head down and wind blowing through hair, for full comic effect. Yeah, I get it. Now would someone take away this woman's guitar already?

I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I laughed out loud during the Sarah Silverman Program. More than once! A sight gag involving cough syrup still makes me giggle. So I shouldn't say that Silverman isn't funny at all — it's more that her schtick so often capsizes the humor for me. And it's not just me, either. I've found this is true for a lot of my friends, especially women, which is surprising since you'd think we'd be exactly the kind of audience to which Silverman would appeal: sarcastic, smut-mouthed, eager to laugh at the absurdities of womanhood. Honestly, I'm a little sad we're not all making tampon sculptures and sharing a bong hit at the Silverman afterparty. But I have the feeling Silverman is the kind of guy's gal who wouldn't want us there anyway, the kind always proclaiming the other girls to be sooo laaaame before ripping a good, smelly one. Besides, this is her show, and there's only room for one funny girl. That role has been filled, thank you very much. — Sarah Hepola  

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Will Doig writes for all sorts of fabulous and exciting magazines. He was raised in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Today he lives in Brooklyn.