I used to think Sarah Silverman could get away with saying everything she says because she’s attractive. Stand-up comedy isn’t an industry rife with good-looking people – there are about as many sexy ones as there are genuinely funny ones. But Silverman is both, and for a long time I thought her magic was partly due to her physique. Few people could blast America’s most Googled stars right to their faces and still be endearing, as she did during two MTV awards shows this year (even if those celebutantes are walking punch lines Paris Hilton and Britney Spears), delivering her insults with that adorable girl-next-door innocence. It’s how Silverman was able to get away with using the word “Chink” on national television (on Late Night With Conan O’Brien) and performing the hilariously offensive songs she created for her Jesus Is Magic movie. Sure, she’s singing to old people about their impending deaths, but awww, she’s wearing pigtails while she does it.
But this theory can be debunked quicker than you can say “Lisa Lampanelli.” Silverman is more famous than ever, playing to packed concert halls and launching the second season of The Sarah Silverman Program on Comedy Central, and while the looks don’t hurt, they’re not to thank for her continued notoriety. It’s the material. It’s all the material.
Case in point: Check out the new release of The Sarah Silverman Program Season One (you can watch the whole DVD, extras and all, in the amount of time it takes to get through the average overstuffed Oscar-season theatrical release). It’s a terrific series, with inspired lunatic moments: In one episode, a fart is mistaken for a terrorist attack; in another, a glass of Tab soda causes an absurd lover’s quarrel.
In nearly every episode Silverman says or does something to make herself less physically attractive. Whether she’s cutting her hair like a stereotypical lesbian songstress (in “Muffin’ Man”) or describing her most shameful sexual experiences to a shocked AIDS tester (in “Positively Negative”), the show goes to great lengths to make her sexually untenable to the typical straight male, demolishing the idea that Silverman is just a pretty face with a dirty mind. She’s no less hilarious when discussing her bowel movements, a topic of almost obsessive recurrence in the series. There’s enough scatological humor here to out-shit South Park; the mere act of defecation is enough to warrant a musical number.
Most of the show’s controversy comes not from its fecal fascination, but from Silverman’s political incorrectness, turning her witty stand-up barbs into 20-minute narratives. Gays, blacks, the homeless, the mentally and physically disabled and Vietnam veterans all find themselves the butt of Silverman’s cutely malicious put-downs. And it’s not just her. Though she’s a key writer and the star, she’s buttressed with memorable secondary characters: her talented sister Laura (who, in the series, works full time to support jobless Sarah) and Steve Agee and Brian Posehn, the latter a veteran of Mr. Show With Bob and David. They play Silverman’s gay neighbors and are usually involved in a hysterical imbroglio and have to deadpan their way out of it.
Important issues are discussed in each episode, serving only to launch Silverman’s self-centered character higher into the narcissistic stratosphere. She sees starving children on her TV, but their struggles are nothing compared to her desperate quest to find batteries to insert into the remote control that will make those disappear. She takes in a homeless man off the street to make herself a better person than Laura’s threatening new beau (Jay Johnston, another Mr. Show alum), who’s about to win a Humanitarian of the Year award. This act is almost straight out of the Larry David playbook – particularly in the current season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, where Larry is sinking to new depths of uncouth solipsism. Except, in Curb, David’s constant foot-in-mouth disease has spawned an eye-for-an-eye fatefulness that always leaves him in an inescapable rut, whereas Silverman does just fine. She can steal $17,000 from her sister’s bank account to become the new public face of AIDS awareness – even though she hasn’t gotten her tests back and probably doesn’t have the virus – and be absolved of all wrongdoing by episode’s end.
Oh, well – maybe those looks have something to do with it after all. She’s still irresistible, no matter how much time she spends on her poop.
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