A Jewish comedian delivers bigotry with a smile.
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The Sarah Silverman Program succeeds where Jesus is Magic fails because of its grounding in character. Here, Silverman plays an unemployed slob, entirely dependent on her sister Laura, and constantly threatened by the presence of Laura's new boyfriend, whom she fears will steal her place in her sister's affections. Sarah and Laura are joined by their friends Brian and Steve, a constantly bickering gay couple who nearly match Sarah in their quest for eternal slackerdom.
Silverman plays a role not entirely dissimilar from her stand-up's narcissistic, clueless Jewish princess who carelessly offends, but surrounded as she is by a recognizable milieu (upper-middle-class L.A.) and a cast of other characters competing for our attention, she feels less of a need to shock. The comedy emerges from the show's personalities, not from Silverman's desire to push buttons.
Silverman's show files off some of her sharper edges, rendering her dopier, and sillier, than her stand-up persona allows her to be. The Sarah Silverman Program presents its protagonist as a slacker Everywoman: "I'm just like you: I live in Valley Village, I don't have a job, and my sister pays my rent." Silverman dials down the Jewish content a notch from Jesus is Magic, although she and her sister are still named Silverman, and a mock-serious announcement at the beginning of the first episode warns that "tonight's episode of The Sarah Silverman Program contains full-frontal Jew-dity."
Being Jewish means having other people say they're sorry: as Laura's newfound love interest Officer Jay flirtatiously tells her, "I believe the Holocaust was totally uncalled for." The Holocaust is still Silverman's ultimate punch-line (it comes up again in the second episode, when Sarah compares interrupting a Jewish person while she's urinating to saying the Holocaust never happened), but at least here it emerges from the socially awkward character of Officer Jay, perennially at a loss as to what to say.
The Sarah Silverman Program is the most effective presentation yet of the comic's work, in large part because of its kinder, gentler mood. Absent her claws-out, take-no-prisoners brand of comedy, Silverman is set free to be shallower and funnier. There are still a plethora of jokes about Jews, the wisdom of elderly African-American women, and homeless people, but the humor emerges from careful observation, and not a rejiggering of old ethnic jokes. Sarah Silverman gone polite? Not exactly. But the new Sarah is most distinctly an improved comic, and her promising new show offers an opportunity for reinvention, absent the full-frontal hatefulness.
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