Around the middle of Sarah Silverman’s new HBO comedy special, “We Are Miracles,” the famously long-necked comedian tells a 39-member audience at Los Angeles’s Largo nightclub about a recent study done by the University of North Carolina, in which it was discovered that “9/11 widows give great hand jobs.” The audience laughs, and laughs again, and then lapses into an uneasy silence as Silverman stands at the microphone, not saying anything. A moment later, Silverman confesses — to no one’s surprise — that she made the whole thing up.
“I thought of it, and it made me giggle,” she says. “I don’t know what part of me needs to say to you that 9/11 widows give great hand jobs…. But I wanted to say it, I needed to say it to you, and so I built a frame around it that forced you to not be able to blame me for saying it.”
That’s a pretty good description of Silverman’s comedy right there. Silverman is a smart writer and a funny performer, but I’m not doing her a disservice to say that she aspires to do more than tell jokes. Throughout her career she’s specialized in saying shocking things and channeling them through a character that excuses her for saying them. In a way, her entire body of work has been the unfolding of a single conceptual gag based on a persona that switches register depending on the context, but is always more or less the same. In other words, it’s been an elaborate process of frame construction that allows her to make risky jokes.
Now, at age 42, Silverman is trying something new. She still has plenty of borderline material — in the special, she talks about how great rape jokes are, babies’ vaginas, and the usual standbys, like the Holocaust and AIDS — but she’s doing it out of character. Whereas she always excelled at playing it straight (in the 2005 film “The Aristocrats,” she tells the camera unblinkingly that Joe Franklin raped her), here she backs up and explains herself to the audience. For the first time, Silverman is dismantling the frame.
When I first saw Silverman’s 2005 standup film, “Jesus Is Magic,” it seemed like a quintessential example of hipster irony. (To be more precise, the kind of irony attributed to hipsters, whoever they are.) She tells jokes about how the best time to get pregnant is when you’re a black teenager, or how getting raped by a doctor is a bittersweet experience for a Jewish girl. Like someone wearing a trucker hat ironically or enjoying a bad movie ironically or drinking malt liquor ironically — the irony being that this would be the last person to wear such a hat, enjoy such a movie or drink such a drink — those jokes are obviously not said in earnest; they’re a mockery of some other thing.