If she had more straight-laced surroundings – those of a Catholic schoolgirl, for example – Sarah Silverman might not put so many explicit sexual references and racist jokes into her comedy. But Silverman is no Catholic schoolgirl; rather, she grew up “a Jew in a very LL Bean town,” as she puts it in an e-mail exchange. Moreover, she is a comedian by nature, who has been doing stand-up in big-city clubs from the age of 17 – “since before I had my period,” she adds. And being that sort of comedian means that tame material isn’t going to cut it.
“If you’re a nice Catholic girl, you’re titillated so easily by a dirty word. Someone says, ‘cock,’ and that’s all you need,” said the 34-year-old Silverman in the lobby of the St. Regis Aspen. “But I’m a comic, and when you’re a comic, you need two midgets and a jump-rope to even raise an eyebrow.”Silverman is bound to raise many eyebrows, and get an abundance of laughs, during the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. Silverman will appear in several forms at the festival. With her band, the Silver Men, she’ll perform a new routine of musical comedy (tonight at 9 p.m. at Belly Up). And “Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic,” a performance film that includes sidelights of musical comedy video, will have its world premiere in the Film Discovery Showcase (today at 3 p.m. and Saturday at 2:45 p.m. at the Isis Theater). Silverman will also appear, along with Tom Green, in a live taping of the TV show “Sunday Morning Shootout” (Saturday at 1 p.m. at the St. Regis Ballroom).Audiences come away from a Silverman performance, no doubt, with a strong impression of her edginess. But Silverman doesn’t come out to shock or offend; her presence onstage actually swings between hyper-confidence and a wide-eyed innocence that comes off as almost genuine. (She admits to a severe dread of getting onstage.) Moreover, the language and cultural incorrectness are invariably buoyed by strong, clever and largely unexpected punch lines. The material works not because the words or topics shock, but because the humor startles. In “Jesus Is Magic,” when Silverman jokes about licking jelly off her boyfriend’s johnson, the joke doesn’t end there, but with the unanticipated observation: “And I think – ‘I’ve become my mother.'”
The comedians Silverman grew up with – Steve Martin, Woody Allen, Garry Shandling, Albert Brooks – were all notably clean. But in her New Hampshire upbringing, where she was one of four daughters of a father who owned Crazy Sophies discount clothing store and a mother who directed local theater, there were no limits to what she could watch or hear.”My boyfriend has kids – and he raises them right. They don’t see sexual content, inappropriate things,” said Silverman. “I saw ‘Kentucky Fried Movie’ when I was 9. There wasn’t anything I couldn’t see. My parents were either very liberal or they weren’t watching me.”Whether it was the loose environment, or more genetic factors – Silverman suspects she has a high level of testosterone, which explains everything from her unwanted hair to her “monkeylike sexuality” to her proficiency at sports – she has been left with a lack of self-consciousness that is a distinct asset.
“I think I’m just fairly oblivious,” she said. “People say, ‘I can’t believe you opened with that joke.’ And it doesn’t even occur to me. If I was more aware of myself, I might be frightened.”One suspects that Silverman could strip the sex and racism from her act and still get laughs. She is versatile enough: She sings well and uses her face and body effectively, which can be traced to her early ambitions to do musical theater. Her comedy ranges from the stridently offensive to George Carlin-type linguistic observations. (A favorite from “Jesus Is Magic”: “Midgets like to be called ‘little people.’ Which is the only politically correct words that’s actually more insulting that the original.”) She has been in television, appearing in “Seinfeld” as Kramer’s girlfriend, and in films; she co-stars in the upcoming “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With,” written and directed by Jeff Garlin of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”Silverman is not completely unselfconscious. The morning after the first performance of her musical act – which features a number speculating about how Mother Teresa must have smelled – she is dissatisfied with the structure of the show, which she promises will undergo changes in time for tonight. At the same time, she comes off as terribly knowledgeable and thoughtful about the workings of comedy.
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“The order of the set is so important,” she said. “I do so much racial stuff, it’s such a delicate balance. And it wasn’t very balanced. The racial stuff was too loaded on top of itself. It felt gratuitous.”So, yes, there is such a thing as containment in Silverman’s act. In fact, after Sept. 11, Silverman found herself giving the subject a healthy grace period before tackling the subject – only to watch in admiration as others dove right in.”It took me four months before I could talk about Sept. 11,” she said. “And I saw Chris Rock five days after, and he did the most brilliant, poignant material.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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