If anyone here in the audience has been offended by anything I might have said or done during the course of my trying to entertain you, I want you to know sincerely from the bottom of my heart that I don’t give a shit.
—Redd Foxx, “Closing,” The Very Best of Redd Foxx
Political correctness has turned academic, professional, and even social interactions into minefields. (This is the premise from which Philip Roth began The Human Stain.) It’s an odd moment for taboos governing what we say about race, ethnicity, nationality, sex, sexuality, religion, age, etc.—there’s rigid propriety about what is socially acceptable to say in public at a time when censorship is more lax than ever. (Sometimes it seems as if anything may be said, so long as you don’t think it.)
For the stand-up comedian Sarah Silverman, however, politically correct minefields grow amber waves of grain just begging to be harvested. Silverman, a flirty, dark-haired, gleam-eyed young Jewish woman stands at the mike and pretends to tell brief stories about herself, her family, her relationships, her friends, but everything she says is a feint leading to punch lines containing crazily objectionable utterances, and the assumptions underlying them, about the “diverse” population of the world. Silverman, the truffle pig of “offensive” humor, exploits the audience’s sense of public decorum with something pretty close to genius in this range.
Silverman’s material isn’t a satire of Jews, blacks, gays, et al. She doesn’t pretend to be saying what nobody will say but what is true. (As you might say of Bill Cosby’s 17 May 2004 remarks about the state of African-American culture.) Silverman isn’t heroic, not in that respect. That is, she’s out to shock us but not seriously to challenge us. Nor is her material a satire of anti-Semites, racists, homophobes, not even when the jokes boomerang because what she’s said is so patently idiotic. Rather, Silverman makes these sick jokes with the opportunism of the pure comedian. The simplest definition of comedy (in its non-narrative sense) is that it’s whatever makes people laugh; Silverman makes you laugh by saying the socially unacceptable solely because it’s socially unacceptable. It isn’t that she really thinks what she says, but merely that she says it, and though she’s clearly being prankish she’s relentlessly unapologetic.
The breaking of taboos in works of entertainment catalyzes an explosive reaction that a lot of us experience as laughter. People who are pious about speech codes at universities may well have a different reaction, unless they can peg Silverman as “ironic” and maybe purgative. But she’s more purely after the laugh than that. When Silverman seems to be teaching us about prejudice, it’s always a set-up for another outrage. (She even makes a joke about this, claiming that her style of comedy is meant to instruct to such an extent she calls it “learn-medy.”) The same is true whenever she seems to be embarrassed about what has just popped out of her mouth. When you sense maidenly shame, hit the deck! because the next missile has already been launched.
The other thing that makes Silverman so funny is the evident craft that goes into her monologues. The trick is not just to say naughty things but to land the joke from an unexpected direction, even moreso than is usual with stand-up routines—Silverman’s writing is highly elliptical. After a while you grasp the technique and then the pleasure is increased by anticipation. Silverman and her writers are absolutely tireless at this game; I was able to figure out the joke before she said it only once (and I still laughed). Predictability doesn’t by itself kill comedy; in fact, it’s part of what makes comedians iconic. Silverman’s distinctive craftsmanship gives her comedy an extra dimension of semi-participatory aesthetic enjoyment.
Jesus Is Magic calls up a whole tradition of blue comedy that has long provided a polluted oasis for refugees from “positive,” heartwarming, family-friendly entertainment. Like raunchy old Redd Foxx, with his “If you can’t Fugg it, Sugg it”-type numbers, Silverman stirs the earth up to give the audience a whiff of what “wholesome” entertainment excludes. And like Lenny Bruce she makes lightning out of the tensions within the audience. If you laugh, the content of any individual joke can suddenly make you conscious of the race, sex, whatever, of the people sitting near you. Silverman is probably more impudent than scandalous—her mincing girlishness may be counterfeit but it keeps her from being out-and-out raw—but her show is liberating in a way that creates tension as much as it relaxes it.
In addition, she’s more of an artisan of audience expectations than her forebears. (In his aggressive mode Bruce, by contrast, worked more on their sensitivities.) The action isn’t only in what Silverman says—which may involve common stereotypes, crude fantasy, hypocrisy, ridiculous preconceptions, cretinous misunderstanding, tactlessness, or just nonsensical obscenity—but in the way her deceptively winsome demeanor, the sneak-attack structure of the jokes, and her expertly varied timing give added spin to the insanity. This is why, although she’s breathtakingly base, she has what Howard Stern lacks—wit.
Altogether Jesus Is Magic is the best live-performance movie since Richard Pryor‘s Live in Concert (1979) and Bette Midler‘s Divine Madness (1980). Pryor’s routines certainly have more dimension than Silverman’s. Listening to his stories is like listening to Bessie Smith’s Columbia catalogue, both works of entertainment that offer a panorama of African-American life never so frankly or briskly represented in our culture. And Midler is more of an all-round entertainer than Silverman. (Pryor is, too, for that matter—Silverman doesn’t do mimicry and her pantomime is more caricatural than precise.) Jesus Is Magic cuts away from Silverman’s stage act for some funny, acted-out vignettes and some musical numbers that are mildly diverting but not special. In Divine Madness Midler is a bawdy dervish determined to send you home entertained to within an inch of your life. Silverman doesn’t have Midler’s almost homey generosity any more than she has Pryor’s scope and reach. But then neither would you expect her to be as ingratiating as Pryor is in his pairings with Gene Wilder and his subsequent concert movies or to be downright schmaltzy as Midler has gotten with her music and such vehicles as Beaches (1988) and For the Boys (1991). (Even the bag-lady routine in Divine Madness itself is bathroom-break time.)
One-man concert movies segregate performance from narrative and distil the essence of what stars can bring to theatrical works. Unlike actors playing famous writers or politicians in one-man shows, solo entertainers like Pryor, Midler, and Silverman don’t even have a familiar public figure to guide or steady them. They have to bring everything out of themselves, to create, in fact, the character who is up there talking, joking, and singing, the character who “is” the famous performer who has packed the house and yet who still must be recreated consistently from night to night. In Jesus Is Magic, the stage is the forge in which the character “Sarah Silverman” is fashioned with the low-down inspiration of a woman who knows how to work dirt as if it were a precious metal. Silverman is at a peak right now and success hasn’t seduced her into moderating her act much at all. In Jesus Is Magic that act comes across as a limited but decided form of perfection.
You can find this review and a lot besides at The Kitchen Cabinet.
Alan Dale is the author of What We Do Best: American Movie Comedies of the 1990s and Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.