Sarah Silverman’s always been a deeply confrontational talent, her comedic persona one of aggression and self-involvement underneath cheerful twinkling. She’s a pretty lady who affects an exaggerated demeanor of sweetness, only to let loose with a jaw-dropping line about sex or race or religion. Her approach could be looked at as the opposite of making oneself likable — on stage, she invites empathy, only to then turn it around to something hilariously awful. “I dated a guy who was half-black, but he dumped me because I’m such a loser,” she said in her 2005 film “Jesus Is Magic,” directed by Liam Lynch. “Wow, I shouldn’t say things like that, I’m such a pessimist… he’s actually half-white.”
Silverman is far from the only stand-up known for edgy material, and she’s certainly not the only female comedian to do so either, but she’s the master of combining it with a sugary edge that has everything to do with our perceptions of femininity and “niceness.” Her approach to jokes invites collusion, not outrage, which is why it’s so sharply funny — the narcissistic, oblivious act she puts on includes in it the fundamental assumption that everyone shares her stance and is on the same page. As she said in the intro to “The Sarah Silverman Show,” which she created with Dan Harmon and which has still been the best scripted vehicle for her talents, “I’m Sarah Silverman and I’m just like you — I live in Valley Village, I don’t have a job and my sister pays my rent!” Silverman makes the expectation of common ground into something dangerous.
Silverman has a razor-edged talent for boundary-pushing material, which is why it’s so frustrating to read Variety TV columnist Brian Lowry suggest she clean up under the guise of career advice timed to Silverman’s upcoming HBO special “We Are Miracles” on November 23rd. “Despite all manner of career-friendly gifts — from her looks to solid acting chops — she’s limited herself by appearing determined to prove she can be as dirty and distasteful as the boys.” Writing that she “frittered around the edges of breakout success beyond standup” without going further, Lowry suggests that “Silverman frequently seems to be playing more toward those peers and a loyal cadre of fans than a broader audience that’s apt to be turned off by the questionable stuff, which feels more about shock value than cleverness.” “This isn’t meant to suggest that female comics can’t work blue,” he assures. “The lament here is that in the wrong hands it can feel gratuitous or become a crutch, whereas unlike many of her contemporaries, Silverman has enough tools that she can and should do more.”
Lowry’s suggestion that Silverman’s just trying to be one of the boys is an incredibly condescending assumption in a piece filled with them — that edgy jokes are masculine and unappealing when heard from a woman, that Silverman’s comedy isn’t coming from herself but has been created to appeal only to her fellow comics, that as someone possessed of “looks” she should obviously capitalize on them in order to chase after an idea of greater fame that seems unclear.
But aside from his prudish, shockingly old fashioned take on what’s proper for females, Lowry’s also stumbled onto a major crux of comedy, which is that great standups aren’t always suited to be great comic actors, nor do they always want to be. Standup is in many ways the opposite of acting — it’s often about being yourself, however warped a take that may be, as much as possible, about having an unmistakable voice. Some comics have moved into major film and TV roles easily, and others haven’t. Louis C.K., the most influential comic of our era, had to craft himself an idiosyncratic show for himself at FX to really find the right platform for his work off the stage.
Silverman’s always been too spiky a personality to easily fit into the roles of the girlfriend or supportive bestie — she thrives on being a little unsettling, which is a difficult quality to accommodate in mainstream small or big screen studio fare. When she released her failed 2012 pilot “Susan 313” online, it proved an interesting study in how formulas, even minimal ones, tend to fail her — her character was much better at blowing an attempt to reconnect with the best friend she’d ignored for a decade than she was trying to sincerely chide the boyfriend who’d consumed those ten years.
Silverman wasn’t working blue, but it still didn’t fully work, because it felt like a muted version of the personality she’s honed on stage over the years — like at any minute she’d break and say something shocking and riotous, except of course she couldn’t. I hope that Silverman gets another prominent platform for her comedy soon, and I think she will. TV has been coming around to female characters who are amusingly insufferable, who challenge ideas about likability and propriety, from Mindy Lahiri to Piper Chapman to Hannah Horvath. Silverman is poised to join them, providing she can find the right role — and it won’t be one that requires her to blunt her edge.
In the meanwhile, there’s “We Are Miracles,” which airs on HBO this Saturday and finds a more mature Silverman letting glimpses of genuineness and frustration giimmer through between the jokes about vaginal odors and jerk-off techniques. Observing that people are more militant about adopting shelter dogs than adopting children, she muses “People don’t like people as much as they like dogs, because they don’t see what they hate in themselves looking back in a dog’s eyes, if Africa was just all labradoodles dying of AIDS, we would take care of it in one day.” She also tells a joke that fueled a bit in “Sarah 313,” about telling little girls she’s actually a princess secretly undercover as a regular person. In the pilot, it read as whimsical if self-serving, leading to someone scolding her for teaching a kid to keep secrets with strangers, but in the special, Silverman revels in letting herself be the punchline, as it should be. “The rest of the day, they’re spying me like I’m a celebrity — which I know I am, but a lot of toddlers don’t know that, and it levels the playing field.”