Sarah Silverman

A Jewish comedian delivers bigotry with a smile.

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Holocaust Humor

As if to emphasize how transgressive a Jew she can be, Silverman makes repeated use of the Holocaust as a punch line, referring to Jesus is Magic as "about the Holocaust, and AIDS, but it's funny, and it's a musical" (actually a fairly accurate description of the film). She mentions her recently deceased grandmother having been a Holocaust survivor, but helpfully points out that she had been in a better type of concentration camp, receiving a vanity tattoo that read "BEDAZZLED." 

Silverman is going for the sharp intake of breath followed by shocked laughter, her act seeking to extract chuckles from the unlikeliest of places. But coming some forty years after the heyday of Lenny Bruce, shock is not quite as shocking as it once was, and what Silverman sees as transgressive sometimes comes off as secondhand.

In fact, the only thing that truly seems to incense Silverman is that Jews are willing to buy German luxury cars, even after knowing of those companies' involvement in the Holocaust. The subject comes up in her standup routine during Jesus is Magic and in one of the film's left-field musical numbers. She lectures Mercedes for their bad business practices, helping kill off the people who would one day serve as their best customers. The specificity of this joke--which requires more than a copy of "101 Ethnic Jokes" to pull off--is what makes it successful, and the absence of such careful observation makes couplets like "I love you more than bears love honey/I love you more than Jews love money" fall flat.

The Self-Aware Bigot

Silverman's stand-up act plays on the hall-of-mirrors effect she creates. She plays a bigot, but a self-aware one, conscious of the effect each of her jokes will have on her presumably liberal, tolerant, mostly white audience. 

By casting herself as simultaneously trotting out hoary ethnic jokes and assailing that same humor's viciousness via the vacuity of her persona, Silverman seeks to render herself immune from prosecution. Her edge is in her racist veneer, and by parading the same tired array of stereotypes, she is reveling in having moved beyond prejudice, congratulating her audiences on being tolerant enough to laugh freely at jokes about unwashed Mexicans. While not to everyone's taste, Silverman has attracted a dedicated following through her unorthodox material and zest for confrontation--attributes that brought Comedy Central calling.

For Silverman, it is all in the delivery--a point she makes with a single throwaway joke tucked into the credits of Jesus is Magic, where her nerdy, socially maladjusted understudy comes out onstage, tells the same jokes in a monotone, and is met with nothing but strained silence. The crudeness of Silverman's approach is benefited by her clean-cut good looks. "Can you believe someone who looks like this just said that?," the twinkle in her eye reads. Silverman is like the  21st century feminine version of that old chestnut of Hollywood comedies--the raunchy child whose job it is to shock the audience with his familiarity with all the gory details of sex.

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.