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.
But what other thing? The problem with this kind of irony is that the butt of the joke doesn’t always exist. It’s like scare quotes: There’s no one being quoted, it’s just a way of saying that the statement doesn’t belong to the speaker. In the end it’s not irony at all, because the person wearing the hat or making the racist jokes is exactly the kind of person who would be doing that sort of thing.
But with Silverman there’s something deeper going on, as well. I realized this when I watched “The Sarah Silverman Program,” the sitcom that ran between 2007 and 2010 on Comedy Central. The show benefited from a talented group of writers and actors, including Brian Posehn and Steve Agee, who play an endlessly entertaining passive-aggressive gay couple living across the hall. But it also showed Silverman playing a character that was even more explicitly a character, even if her name was Sarah Silverman.
Sarah, in this instance, is conceited, self-centered, oblivious and entitled. She is unemployed and is supported by her sister (played by Silverman’s sister, Laura Silverman), who is a nurse. But she is ungrateful and even abusive, especially toward Laura’s police officer boyfriend, Jay (Jay Johnston). Most of all, Sarah has a pathological need to occupy the spotlight, and is always attempting to outdo or outshine anyone who has a legitimate occasion to celebrate.
Silverman’s standup character is less infantile than the one in the sitcom, but she is just as oblivious. Not only does she not seem unaware that she’s being offensive, but she assumes that she’s actually well intentioned, and that all normal, right-thinking people would see things from her point of view. And whereas Silverman’s sitcom character belongs to a generic middle class, jokes like deboning African babies for the diamonds in their spines, or throwing a fit because the bottled water she was given tastes “thick,” place her stand-up persona in a higher socioeconomic bracket. If Silverman’s comedy is satire, it’s of the class- and race-based privilege that would give rise to a character as horrible as her own. As she puts it in “Jesus Is Magic,” “What kind of world do we live in where a totally cute white girl can’t say ‘Chink’ on network television?”
Of course, attributing offensive views to an unsavory character is an old trick, though Silverman, by putting the material in the mouth of a pretty, sweet-seeming Jewish girl, does give it her own spin. Indeed, she may be one of the first comedians to present Jewishness as its own form of privilege. But the act as a whole quickly wears thin. Even if it’s better than aimless irony, at most it’s an irrelevant moralism whose point is to make the moralists (in this case the audience) feel good about themselves. So long as she’s playing a horrible person she can say whatever she wants, and we can laugh at her for it. Everybody wins, right?
Now, though, it looks as if she’s doing something more interesting. In “We Are Miracles,” the character she’s playing is the self-aware Sarah Silverman, a comedian with a reputation for getting away with offensive material. Because of that history, she can still get away with it, to a certain degree. But now her attacks against the idiots of the world are direct, rather than reflected on a wrong-headed character. She does semiserious political humor about the made-up need for vaginal deodorant, and makes fun of gross guys who like using the word “pussy.” At the end of the set, she sings a song about women who think they’re divas but are really just c- -ts.
Mostly, she wants to convince us that it’s okay to laugh at this stuff — that it is funny, without any frames or characters to use as an excuse. The idea that 9/11 widows are, for some anomalous reason, exceptionally good at giving hand jobs is funny. The idea that “if you’re drunk and throw up on a man’s penis midblowjob, you can save the moment if you can muster a ‘Ta-da!’” — is funny. The idea that the team mascot of Brandeis University is a nose — that’s funny.
You may or may not think so. But just as Silverman is eschewing the easy way out, there’s no shortcut for the audience, either. There’s no more laughing at a caricature of privilege and blaming everything on her. There’s no more comfort in the knowledge that you would never, ever be so insensitive, of course. There’s no more sense that Silverman is getting away with something and therefore so are you. Either you choose to laugh or you don’t. Personally, I don’t mind admitting it: I think it’s funny.
Ezra Glinter is the deputy arts editor of the Forward. Follow him on Twitter, @EzraG