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Giving good offense
What type of girl is Sarah Silverman?
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Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic's official Web site

Sometimes Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic isnít as funny as it is fascinating ó and confusing. Who is that girl up there? You could say sheís a slut ingénue, but, "blue" as she is, Silverman doesnít really play slutty. As sheís the first to tell you. One of her older jokes in Jesus Is Magic goes: "I was licking jelly off of my boyfriendís penis, and all of a sudden Iím thinking, ĎOh my God! Iím turning into my mother!í "

Thereís an emblematic slice of the Silverman persona, the casual, in medias res set-up, the matter-of-fact revelation of sexual kinkiness, and then the reversal: the nice Jewish girl out shopping at Lohmannís with her mother meets Jenna Jameson. All delivered with sweet-faced bewilderment. The mother joke meets the blow-job joke. What could make kink more square, the liberation of naughty behavior more deflating? Youíre cutting loose with the jelly and Jimmyís boner and you realize youíre wearing a mom mask.

Silverman has been everywhere in the last month or so ó the New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone ("The Funniest Woman in America"), the Believer, and, of course, the cover of Heeb. Sheís gotten such a pre-release boomlet of hype for the film and her transgressive material that a mini-backlash has already begun. The Timesí A.O. Scott, after giving her credit for "one of the few genuinely unsettling and provocative moments" in the dirty-joke documentary The Aristocrats, concludes his review of Jesus Is Magic, "Donít be fooled; naughty as she may seem, sheís playing it safe."

But Scott is missing his own point. Silvermanís an original, and part of her originality comes from her quicksilver shifts of mood and types, of the funny and the unfunny. Sheís her own inimitable type.

Jesus Is Magic is essentially Silvermanís one-woman show, which played Off Broadway last year and was filmed at a Hollywood theater. There are cut-aways for hilariously rhymed musical numbers that have a Rocky Horror schlocky pizzazz. One of the best is the introductory segment, which begins in the apartment of a pair of friends. Silverman says sheís working on a one-woman show (about "the Holocaust and AIDS . . . and itís a musical"), then heads home kicking herself for bragging about the as-yet-unwritten show, then with true Andy Hardy pluck decides that, gosh darn it, she can write a show: "All I need is a theater space, a bag of weed, and . . . a star!"

She sings to her nana and her nursing-home pals, "No, itís not cold in here, youíre just dying!"; in a finale she sings three-part harmony from mouth, vagina, and butt to an upbeat "Amazing Grace." She uses the word "nigger," tells how she ran afoul of a Chinese advocacy group and network censors for saying "Chink" on Conan OíBrien, and demurely relates how she told her boyfriend she didnít want to have sex "the real way" because "doody comes out of there." She resents the lack of Jewish porn stars and then fantasizes about it in another cut-away where, lying face down, she grimaces at the camera, urging her partner on in Yiddish. At one point she says, "I always feel crappy when I tell that joke. But it gets such a good laugh."

Ethnic comedy, as New York Times critic Margot Jefferson wrote in a Pulitzer-winning essay some years ago, is always tied to social class ó "which means it is always tied to the question of who is laughing at whom and why." Silverman constantly throws us off balance by confusing the issue. And sometimes ó as in some of her riffs on African famine and AIDS ó it isnít so much that the joke is offensive as that it simply lands with a thud. But she scores enough points to keep Jesus Is Magic sailing. She says of the "Chink" incident that it hurt to be called a racist because, as a Jew, "I was really concerned that we were losing control of the media." The white-on-Asian and the Jew-on-Jew jokes criss-cross. Jewish Mother. Jewish Daughter. Virgin. Slut. White. Black. No one confuses them more sweetly than Silverman.

I sat down to talk with Silverman in the Seaport Hotel when she was in town to attend the Boston Jewish Film Festival screening of Jesus Is Magic. When I tell her that one the funniest and most disturbing segments of the movie is the musical number in the nursing home, she says, "Try singing it to a room of eightysomething-year-olds!" It was, she says, a supporting cast of actors, albeit elderly actors. "The worst part was having to close the coffin on an 89-year-old woman. I kept going ĎIím so sorry!í, and sheís like, ĎOh itís all right, donít worry about it!í "

So, is Silverman more after shocks or laughs?

"Iím going for laughs. But if I get them by way of shock, I have no problem with that. I donít know why I enjoy making people feel uncomfortable. Itís weird, because one-on-one, I feel like such a host, I want everyone to be comfortable. But on stage I really love the discomfort." In one notorious bit, Silverman painted the crotch of a pair of beige pants a daub of reddish brown before going on stage, seemingly unmindful of it while watching the audienceís reaction. "It was fun to see the audience and know what they were going through, and that the women were just dying for me. And then letting them off the hook at the end but really giving it a good 10 minutes." But, she says, "I always want to make them comfortable in the end. I donít think I wink at the audience at all, but I do feel as though Iím holding them gently and feeding it to them comfortably." And she gestures as if sheís cradling a baby in her arms. Her way of cooing, "There, there."

When I talk to her about limits and the thin line between funny and offensive, she agrees that itís always funny for members of an ethnic group to see themselves parodied by one of their own. Jackie Mason, I say, could make me laugh with the simplest observation about Jewish behavior. But, I point out, when he takes on Puerto Ricans, his act goes flat. Silverman interjects, "And yet Don Rickles gets away with that and itís hilarious."

"I think Andrew Dice Clay was just plain offensive and I didnít find him funny," I offer.

"Ah, but you just said, ĎI found Andrew Dice Clay offensive and I didnít find him funny.í But you found him offensive because you didnít find him funny. I think the thing is, if itís funny enough, if itís more funny than it is offensive or upsetting, thatís the gauge. But of course itís subjective. So thatís why when people donít like me or get offended by something, I never try to defend. I just say, ĎIím so sorry!í, because itís subjective ó everyoneís watching it from the context of their own life experience, thereís just no way to say who itís going to offend. If someone doesnít find something funny ó and comedy being subjective there always will be someone who doesnít find you funny ó then it is offensive. And thatís why if you donít find Andrew Dice Clay funny, itís offensive."

The infamous Conan Chink incident was originally from a bit about trying to get out of jury duty. "I wrote, ĎAs long as you write something racist, like "I hate Chinks." I donít want to be racist, I just want to get out of jury duty. So I filled out the form and wrote, "I love Chinks." í Well, before I went on, they were like, ĎDonít say "Chink." You can say "Spic" or "Jew." íAnd I thought, okay maybe I can say Ďdirty Jewí or something. But you know what? I canít say ĎJew,í because itís not offensive enough. Because Iím Jewish. So it has to be the most offensive thing I can say on television ó for the joke to work. And if youíre saying that I can say ĎSpic,í then Iím going to say ĎChink,í because how could you possibly say one is okay and one isnít? You canít possibly justify that. Iím going to say ĎChinkí because it has the funny Ďchí and the hard Ďkí and thatís why Iím going to say ĎChink.í But Iím not going to not say ĎChinkí and you tell me I can say ĎSpicí ó thatís absurd. And it comes down to who writes letters ó it has no moral basis."

Issue Date: November 25 - December 1, 2005
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