Hands down the funniest bit from the summer's raunch smorgasbord The Aristocrats was hearing Sarah Silverman tell the infamously profane family-act joke at the center of Paul Provenza's documentary. Where Robin Williams, Drew Carey, George Carlin, and a hundred other funny folks were serving up naughty variations in various shades of blue, Silverman was bringing it all back home. No longer was it a third-person joke about a family auditioning for a talent agent by performing myriad acts of bestiality, incest, and violence the basis for most comedy, mind you; it became instead a first-person tale about Silverman's auditioning for infamous New York talk-show host Joe Franklin, who made her, ya know, do things. Sitting on an oversized chair, curled up like a fetus, Silverman suddenly comes to the realization that "Joe Franklin raped me." She delivers the punch line as though ashamed, even shocked, that she said it out loud, but nonetheless with a dry, deadpan delivery the oh, well shrug the flamethrower tosses the fireman. That's her whole act amusing and appalling all at once, getting you to laugh and then vomit in your mouth. And word is, Franklin wasn't amused: He threatened to sue.
But offending is part of Silverman's shtick; why else would she insist, as she does early in her concert film Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic, that "I'm one of the few people that believes it was the blacks" who killed Jesus Christ? (And if the Jews did in fact crucify Christ, she adds, "Good ... I'd fuckin' do it again in a second.") She wants you to ooh and aah and groan and twist in disbelief that someone so disarmingly pretty long neck ("six inches flaccid"), bright grin, model thin would dare say things so ribald and odious, even about September 11, when she discovered that soy chai latte had 900 calories. "It was also the day we were attacked," she adds, like it's a big duh.
Hers is the deep well of insults and taunts and jabs, reserved not only for ethnic groups (because babies love ethnic jokes, she claims) and retards ("and by retard, I mean they can do anything") but also for her nana (who Silverman believes died at 96 of rape and other foul play) and boyfriend Jimmy Kimmel (a Catholic who believes, yes, Jesus is magic). And she doesn't spare herself either: When Silverman, explaining from the stage the pattern of dysfunctions and humiliations that led to her becoming a comedian, says she wet her bed till well into her teens, she isn't lying.
But Jesus Is Magic is more than a standard comedy-concert doc, some late-night Comedy Central throwaway starring somebody you've seen in big roles in small-screen shows (Greg the Bunny and The Larry Sanders Show) or small roles in big movies (The School of Rock, say, in which she played a pain in the flaccid neck). It also serves as a demo reel: She sings! She dances! She acts in a scene with Bob Odenkirk!
It begins by mocking her status as a cult icon: Silverman is sitting around her apartment while two other comics, Brian Posehn (of Just Shoot Me and the brilliant doc The Comedians of Comedy, airing this month on Comedy Central) and sister Laura Silverman, tout their upcoming projects an album for Posehn, a Comedy Central pilot for Laura. They wonder what Sarah is up to, and she feigns an answer: a show about the Holocaust and AIDS, which, she promises, "will be funny." She splits, insisting she's doing the show that very night, and suddenly she's in a convertible, singing about her plight in a sequence that appears lifted from every 1950s musical. It's the most effective of the offstage sequences, which include a song Silverman sings to the residents of an old age home, who, she taunts, "are gonna die soon."
What makes Silverman a truly gifted comic is her timing and delivery: She spills her monologue like it's off the cuff, one tangent leading to the next till it builds into something profound or profane maybe a little of both. Her talk of raising kids Catholic or Jewish leads into her comment about who killed Christ, which stumbles into her revealing that a certain sexual practice reminds her of how much she's like her mother, which winds up with a bit about how she goads her favorite niece by insisting that when she fails at something, an angel gets "full-blown AIDS." It has the feel of the made-up not just because Silverman has such a careless, casual delivery but also because each sentence bears the sting of something uttered before it's given too much care and consideration. Sure, she seems to be implying with every crooked grin and phony apology that what she says might offend, but, golly, it's just what she's thinking and surely that's more important than how you're feeling about it, right? Right.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.