In Praise of Sarah Silverman

Sarah Silverman Dares to be funnyHer new movie, “Jesus is Magic,” proves (to us anyway) that Sarah Silverman is one of the funniest people in America.

Essentially a video record of her stand-up comedy act — with some superfluous musical numbers and off-stage vignettes thrown in to make the project a “film” — J.i.M. features most of Silverman’s best stuff, her well-known (by cognoscenti) routines eviscerating our comfortable notions of race, class, sex, and all the other stuff we liberated and modern adults prefer not to discuss in polite company. Her comedy illustrates two hard-to-explain but undeniably true concepts: that smart really is sexy, and that it’s all in the timing.

Silverman is a pretty Jew-girl — a fact she exploits for its humorous potential — and the rhythms of her delivery are distinctly Jewish. There’s something musical in her pauses, her crescendos, and her stumbles. Like most great comedy, much of what Silverman says feels improvised, as though it’s coming to her in the heat of the moment. (It’s not. When we saw her do J.i.M. at a theater in Los Angeles, the material was almost word-for -word.) The unexpected avenues she explores in her comic ramblings often come as complete surprises, because she’s unafraid of exploring forbidden precincts other comics avoid. This is not to say she plays for shocks, or premeditated vulgarity. That’s the opposite of funny. What Silverman does is construct jokes that work on three or four levels, including the most basic. Just when you think she’s skewering the language of self-help literature you discover she’s set you up for an observation on skin color. It’s a tribute to her genius that repeat viewers can know what she’s going to say in advance and still be amused.

The art of observational narrative humor at times — like when Comedy Central is on the TV — seems utterly moribund. When Sarah Silverman is reporting on Ron Jeremy’s pinkie, her deceased grandmother, and an international conspiracy to control the media, we all have hope.

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