The shock comedian Sarah Silverman has a lot to be thankful for this holiday season. Her appearance in the dirty joke documentary The Aristocrats was the film’s most memorable and unnerving scene. Amid the numbing variations on the same filthy and unfunny joke, she slyly spun out her version by embedding it into a casual, apparently sincere recollection. (The victim of her gag wasn’t amused, and threatened a lawsuit.)
Her joke worked because she stayed in character, as opposed to the film’s more celebrated participants who spoke on camera as normal people before launching into their routines. Following the film’s appearance, the New Yorker ran a generous and somewhat critical profile that was out of proportion to her actual accomplishments: a failed stint at Saturday Night Live, a series of minor roles on television and in the movies. Now, in a capper to a career-making year, Silverman hits area screens with her own concert film, Jesus is Magic.
The key to Silverman’s act is that she plays off her wholesome good looks to spew jokes that, for most of us, have been forbidden since high school. Cancer, AIDS, rape, the Holocaust, 9/11–they’re all fair game and her audience chuckles along at just about everything. Even her biggest bomb–a joke about the twin towers–seems in retrospect to have been an intentional plant that sets up a far better and more incisive 9/11 joke. Throughout, Silverman never drops her pose of a spoiled, narcissistic Jewish American Princess, which leaves open the possibility that the joke could be on the audience’s grateful acceptance of the opportunity to laugh at, say, starving Ethiopian babies.
Silverman is a genuine talent who is far better than the mediocrities who sling hoary dating jokes on Comedy Central. But before she can join the exalted company of such brilliant and unsettling forebears as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Andy Kaufman, she’ll need to figure out how to take on real targets.
Jesus is Magic opens Friday the Carolina Theatre in Durham