The day after Richard Pryor died, longing to be transported comedically, I went to see Sarah Silverman’s concert film "Jesus is Magic." I expected to be entertained, nothing more. Instead I was overwhelmed, not just by the sharpness of Silverman’s delivery but by the surprise of her material. And like Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" (who uses a Jewish sensibility to expose the emptiness of much of our social discourse) Silverman puts her Jewishness front and center as she analyzes American life today.
Only time will tell what Silverman’s lasting comedic influence will be. Her comedy and acting work until now has been only modestly interesting. But her red-hot show (following her star turn in the fall’s comedy omnibus "The Aristocrats" and a recent profile in The New Yorker) forces us to compare her provocations with the raw, socially conscious work of a Jewish comedian like Lenny Bruce.
"Jesus is Magic" is innovative on several fronts, offering something new about comedy’s role in today’s society, especially as practiced by a "minority" (a Jew) which as an ethnic group has become part of mainstream America.
Silverman’s first innovation is turning Jewish stereotypes about money and social striving on their heads. For instance: Germans are stupid for perpetrating the Holocaust, she tells us. Why? Because Jews buy a ton of Mercedes, and by killing off so many Jews, they hurt future sales. "Any Jew will tell you that’s bad business." Here, in one joke, is the uncomfortable truth that Jews, now economically successful, obsess about the Holocaust yet buy Hitler’s favorite cars. Who is the joke on? The Germans? American Jews who pick luxury over conscience? Is this overturning of the joke about Jewish money perhaps a deeper criticism about money and morality in Jewish life today? Silverman’s verbal turns are so unexpected and subtle that they parallel how we think before we express ourselves. And this element of her performance leads to her second innovation: her quick reversals force us to confront the ways in which our ideas about race, ethnicity and stereotypes are more entangled and deeply ingrained than we might think. And the crueler the stereotype, the stronger the joke.
For instance, when talking about a friend who is "half-black," she stops herself after a moment and says, "I’m such a pessimist … he’s half-white." And then, riffing on Lenny Bruce’s famous joke about Jews killing Christ ("Not only did we kill Christ, we’re going to kill him when he comes back."): "Everybody blames the Jews for killing Christ. And then the Jews try to pass it off on the Romans. I’m one of the few people that believe it was the blacks."
The centerpiece of her show is a longer meditation on this theme: "I got in trouble for saying the word ‘Chink’ on a talk show. … The president of an Asian-American watchdog group out here in Los Angeles … was up in arms about it and he put my name in the papers calling me a racist, and it hurt. As a Jew (as a member of the Jewish community) I was really concerned that we were losing control of the media. Right? What kind of a world do we live in where a totally cute white girl can’t say ‘Chink’ on network television? It’s like the ’50s. It’s scary."
Silverman’s third innovation is in showing explicitly how pain and humiliation fuel comedy, something that usually remains implicit in the material itself. This is an old idea about Jews and humor: that their history of oppression, and perhaps their dyspeptic disposition, are the energy that drives humor. So Silverman begins her routine with a story of how her extreme childhood bed-wetting led her to being a comedian. And then she dedicates the show to her dead grandmother. She holds back a tear, telling herself disapprovingly that "my s—t belongs offstage": which is of course not where one’s "s—t" belongs if comedy is to be the least bit funny or relevant.
It’s interesting to compare Silverman, as well as Stewart, to Ben Stiller and Jerry Seinfeld, the standard-bearers of Jewish comedy over the past 10 years. Stiller and Seinfeld, although quite funny, seem in comparison to be the comedic equivalent of empty calories: you’re full for a few minutes, then hungry again. One leaves Silverman’s funky, confident, sometimes juvenile Jewish act feeling nourished, if appropriately dyspeptic.
Daniel Schifrin is director of literary programs at the National Foundation for Jewish Culture and editor of "Across the Great Divide: The Selected Essays of Abraham Coralnik."