In the first chapter of her 2010 memoir, The Bedwetter—a book as unrelentingly winsome as its author—comedian Sarah Silverman recalls how as a 4-year-old she broke up a room by telling her grandmother, who had offered her some brownies, to “Shove ’em up your ass.” Remembering this incident, Silverman writes, makes her “nostalgic for the days when naked obscenity was enough for a laugh, and didn’t need any kind of crafted punch line to accompany it.”
Obscenity can still crack people up today, but, as Silverman says, it requires more artistry than in the good old days when Lenny Bruce riled up the cops by saying “schmuk” and “cocksucker” in a nightclub, or when the FCC censored George Carlin for reminding everybody that you’re not allowed to say “motherfucker” on broadcast TV. More recently, Larry David climaxed a season of Curb Your Enthusiasm with what some have called a “profanities opera,” and David Simon transformed the word “fuck” and its close variants, repeated in sequence exactly 33 times, into the most iconic modern representation of detective work on The Wire. Just speakinga dirty word doesn’t do much for anybody anymore, but Silverman, like these gentlemen, hopes to recapture the delightful punch that four-letter words once possessed.
That’s why she concludes her intimate new HBO special, We Are Miracles, which premieres at 10 p.m. on Nov. 23, with a single word repeated 31 times, sung as if it were the entire lyrics of an old-fashioned pop tune. I’m not going to tell you which four-letter word it is, but I bet you can guess.
This new special has been eagerly anticipated, giving it the air of a major comedy event—less because it is her first HBO special, and more because despite being one of America’s most beloved stand-ups, Silverman has released only a single hourlong comedy special to date, 2005’s Jesus Is Magic.
In fact, it’s a paradoxical quality of Silverman’s career that she has played a role in many of the most influential comedy institutions of recent decades without quite establishing herself as a breakout star within any of them. Her single year on Saturday Night Live ended after she failed to write a sketch that could get on the air (and then for no reason jabbed future Sen. Al Franken in the head with a pencil). She slept with Kramer on Seinfeld, had a multi-episode arc on The Larry Sanders Show, and performed regularly on the greatest American sketch show of all time, Mr. Show with Bob and David. Her two minutes on screen in The Aristrocrats (2005) were, by many accounts, the highlight of that film, and her efforts in the humble field of short-form Internet video—both personal (“I’m Fucking Matt Damon”) and political (“The Great Schlep”)—have emerged as pioneering, genre-defining contributions.
Silverman’s full list of credits runs much longer (let us not neglect Hadassah Guberman, the disarming lunatic of a puppet she voiced on Crank Yankers), and since Jesus Is Magic, she has been busy as ever, voicing a Pixar movie, appearing in a couple of well-regarded independent films, and building up a Twitter following nearly 5 million strong. (Stay tuned for the jokes she’ll undoubtedly give us when that number reaches 6 million.) She also created and starred in her own half-hour sit-commy-thing on Comedy Central than ran from 2007 to 2010, but for all of its strengths, that show never captured the zeitgeist in the way that her old friend Louis CK’s Louiehas managed to do. Silverman’s latest pilot, Susan 313, didn’t get picked up, and when she posted it online, she admitted that the network “probably did the right thing.” Which makes it seem that stand-up might be her real legacy.
Silverman’s greatest comic gift may be the intense intimacy she can establish in the artificial confines of a comedy club, making all her vulgar, offensive, and dumb pronouncements seem like they’re being spoken by someone we trust. Realizing this—that her energy as a stand-up runs in a different direction than the kind of loud, emphatic delivery practiced by greats from Chris Rock and Aziz Ansari, which sounds its best in front of thousands—Silverman cannily chose to film her HBO special in a tiny space, seating 39, a fact she emphasizes repeatedly throughout the broadcast. This choice contributes to a trend—Marc Maron’s new special was filmed in a small club in New York, while last year the brilliant Maria Bamford achieved the reductio ad absurdum of taping a special before an audience of exactly two, her parents. The delicious illusion that We Are Miracles presents is that you’re on the couch in a friend’s living room while your friend Sarah tells you stories.
Silverman talks about being Jewish that way, too. In her previous material she had approached Jewishness abstractly; her signature joke has always been the absurdist, “I was raped by a doctor, which is a bittersweet experience for a Jewish girl.” In We Are Miracles, by contrast,she conveys the warmth and comfort she feels among Jews, especially those in her family. Though sheopens with a chunk about another of her perennial topics, pornography, the material that follows is a kind of Jew-comedy trifecta: her mom’s “1970s Jew bush,” then Jesus-murder, and then Hitler. But the funniest and most affecting of these bits is her happy memory of showering with her mom when she was a child.
Silverman deploys plenty of hoary stereotypes, Jews as pushy and hairy. She’s pretty sure, she remarks apropos of her niece’s choice of college, that the team mascot for Brandeis is a nose. But she makes such statements with love and no trace of self-abnegation. “We weren’t really raised with any religion,” she remarks of her New Hampshire childhood. “We were just Jewish in that it oozed out of our pores.”
If Silverman’s material is more heymish than ever, it reflects her ongoing support by a family full of very lovable, very Jewish people, including her sister Susan (“this liberal hippie feminist rabbi that lives in Israel”) and her father, “Donny ‘Shleppy’ Silverman,” who famously defended his family’s honor last year against a moralizing rabbi. Having grown up ashamed of her habitual bedwetting, Silverman knows better than to be ashamed of who she is or where she comes from: The special’s title evokes, specifically, her wonder (not horror) that once upon a time she “lived in [her] dad’s balls.”
She covers plenty of less personal ground here, too, from the evils of vaginal deodorant to “the billions of teeny-tiny Republicans that die every single year in hookers’ assholes.” But what comes through most forcefully is the extraordinary sureness of her delivery. A Jew raised among Christians, she projects a sweet shamelessness that derives from always having been surrounded by a small group of people who most definitely love you, amidst a much larger population of people who probably don’t.
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Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.
Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.