In the pecking order of comedic taboos, race is the new sex. In the wake of Howard Stern, Monica Lewinsky and Carrie Bradshaw, so-called dirty jokes can stoop to anatomically explicit details without raising an eyebrow -- or anything else.
But if a comedian notices that different ethnic groups have actual differences, they venture into a minefield of potential outrage and the kind of laughter that lets the tension out of the atmosphere. The likes of "South Park" and "Chappelle's Show" excel in a kind of humor that exaggerates stereotypes to take the wind out of bigotry. Perhaps "post-racist" would be a good label for that kind of willfully confrontational shtick.
The recent film The Aristocrats reveals the changing nature of "forbidden" subjects in stand-up comedy. The documentary retells an old saw about a vaudeville routine built around icky perversions, but comedian Lisa Lampanelli suggests that we're so desensitized to body-function comedy that The Aristocrats joke lacks the power to shock. She peppers her rendition with racial caricatures, including the mention of an Indian ("not a casino Indian, a Slurpee Indian") that feels both outrageously transgressive and generates a bigger charge than most versions of the gag.
Sarah Silverman provided one of The Aristocrats' highlights by coquettishly improvising a childhood memory that turns into a funny-creepy spoof of showbiz exploitation. A pretty, slender, nasal-voiced gamine, the comedian and character actress takes center stage in Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic. Fearlessly voicing things that our culture tries to ignore, Silverman's film provides a hilarious follow-up and rejoinder to The Aristocrats, even though it's an imperfect showcase for a valuable talent.
In a prologue, Silverman chats with two friends (her sister, Laura Silverman, and comedian Brian Posehn) about their flourishing showbiz careers. Sarah, glowering with jealousy, unconvincingly claims to be working on a big project that tackles the Holocaust and AIDS -- "and it's funny!" Alone, she breaks into a you-can-do-it musical number, akin to one of Tenacious D's deliberately overwrought rock songs, that leads into her stand-up concert.
Before an audience, Silverman comes on like a kind of daredevil high-wire act. When she takes on a subject like children coming out as gay or African poverty, you cringe in advance. She's capable of mentioning that her grandmother was a Holocaust survivor but was in one of the "really good" concentration camps and had a "vanity number" tattooed on her arm. She worries about having children over the age of 30 and muses, "The best time to have a child is when you're a black teenager." And those are some of her tame bits.
Sometimes Silverman expresses an insight that's clearly sincere -- for instance, that people freely make fun of midgets because they're not afraid of "little people." Most often, her own obliviousness is her real target. Talking about how people with low self-esteem can't take a compliment, she gripes about when a "half-black" boyfriend was insulted by her remark, "I'll bet you would've been a really expensive slave."
The way Silverman speaks crucially offsets what she says. Her remarks would have a vastly different impact coming from the mouths of proud Neanderthals like Andrew Dice Clay or Larry the Cable Guy. Silverman instead has the persona of a ditsy narcissist who embodies the worst qualities of a generation of privileged Americans. In what could be one of her signature remarks, she says that the tragedy of 9/11 was particularly hard on her because on the same day, she discovered that soy chai lattes have 900 calories.
Hearing one of Silverman's lines, you initially feel shock at something ignorant or hateful, then a kind of relief at the awareness that the ignorance is meant to be absurd. Her brand of humor assumes considerable risk: What if the audience doesn't follow where she goes and only takes her at face value? For Silverman, offense can be an occupational hazard. "What kind of world do we live in if a totally cute white girl can't say chink‚ on TV?" she asks, referring to protests over one of her jokes on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien." Comics who play it safe can fall into another kind of trap: Assuming that members of any group will respond with lockstep uniformity succumbs to just another kind of bigotry, only in the name of sensitivity.
Silverman emerges as a provocative, important, funny thinker, but Jesus Is Magic falls short of being a classic concert film. Someone like Richard Pryor could make extended stories out of his routines, but Silverman relies on quick hits of setup and punch line. You suspect that she's got about 40 minutes of A-list stand-up, and Jesus Is Magic feels padded with songs and sketches, including a tantrum at her "manager" (played by Bob Oedenkirk) over the bottled water in her dressing room. Her musical numbers, however provocative, add another layer of protective irony for insulation. She doesn't really mean it.
Still, Silverman emerges as a member of our cultural bomb squad. She eagerly sets out to defuse social tensions, even at the risk of having them blow up in her face.
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