As we all know by now, comedy has entered The Era of the Uncomfortable. Most publicly, Seinfeld ushered in a period where it was fun to laugh at and with unpleasant people. Elaine, George, Kramer, and Jerry had more than foibles — they possessed a genuine lack of concern for others, which got worse even as the show got cleverer over the years. The wriggle-in-your-seat finale found them jailed for being, well, assholes.
Since then, it has been one painful cringe after another, many of them hilarious. Seinfeld‘s natural successor, of course, is Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which the main character is exposed every single time he even thinks something untoward. Steve Carrell’s character on The Office says something wildly inappropriate in every episode. The dance at the end of Little Miss Sunshine was feel-good discomfort, if such a thing is possible. And Will Ferrell’s entire career is a huge eye roll.
The female master of this form, perhaps, is the estimable Sarah Silverman. Silverman’s career has been remarkably varied — comic and serious roles, movies and TV, sketch comedy and stand-up. She’s got super-hip credentials (The Larry Sanders Show, fired from SNL, Mr. Show with Bob and David) and middle-of-the-road creds, too (a recurring role on Monk, School of Rock, even Rent as the tabloid producer Alexi Darling). But the heart of her work has been stand-up, where her basic bit is to mock prejudices by ironically embracing them. The natural ally of this strategy is a contempt for the “politically correct” taboos that suggest that she should not say certain words or discuss certain topics — mainly race, religion, and sex.
The Sarah Silverman Program, which has recently begun its second season on Comedy Central, boils down the Silverman shtick into a tidy half hour. Season One (six episodes) is now out on DVD.
Like her middle-aged male counterpart on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Silverman plays a fictionalized version of herself — she is a “stooped” and self-absorbed kid sister whose obliviousness leads to insult and injury at every turn. Naïve Sarah usually doesn’t even know she’s doing this, yet she remains less charming or innocent than dopey and self-centered. “Larry David” knows that he refuses to play well with others, but retains a certain charm or warmth, whereas “Sarah Silverman” oversteps society’s rules because, obliviously, she thinks that she’s the only person in the room. Always.
So, how you react to this meta-humor of naïve assholeishness will probably determine your love for The Sarah Silverman Program. The question ought not be whether you like “Sarah” (you shouldn’t), but whether you find her and her program funny. Silverman takes the risk, clearly, that you will be less repulsed by “Sarah” than you will cracked-up by the fact that she says “vagina” a whole lot.
Here is the set up for the show: Sarah has no job and lives with (and off of) her sister, a nurse (Laura Silverman). She bitterly resents her sister’s boyfriend, a cop (Jay Johnston), and they all hang out (typically over brunch) with their two gay neighbors (Brian Posehn, Steve Agee). The action is typically driven by Sarah’s unquenchable need to be the center of attention, particularly relative to Jay, whom she loathes. Most episodes start with Sarah waking up with her dog, then end with her talking to the dog about what she’s learned. Of course, it’s a meta-joke about sit-coms rather than a sit-com itself, and that may be where most of the fun is.
But let’s get back to vaginas, poop, and queefing. Sarah always does. In one episode, Sarah decides to get an AIDS test so she can cheer up with some good news. We learn that she loves anal sex and once got a transfusion in Haiti — and decides that she probably does have AIDS. She then forms an AIDS awareness group that actually only glorifies Sarah in a parody of Evita. Invited into an elementary school classroom to discuss the disease, Sarah uses the word “vagina” a lot.
In what was effectively the Halloween episode, Sarah competes with Jay to become the Humanitarian of the Year by taking in a homeless man. She meets the ghost of his mother and learns that his life had been ruined by her excessive queefing problem. In another episode, Sarah wakes up to compete in the Little Miss Rainbow pageant, only to be reminded that she’s too old. She then adopts an orphan contestant who goes on to win with Sarah’s coaching. While she helps the girl take a bath, they sing “The Poop Song”.
Oh, yeah — The Sarah Silverman Program is also a musical pseudo-sit-com! Every episode features a song or two. Silverman has a keen voice that you could almost take seriously and writes catchy ditties that help to underline that this whole enterprise is a super-self-conscious gag about form — a show that makes poop jokes both because they’re funny and because the show is so much smarter than most shows that rely on potty humor. Or something like that.
The problem with The Sarah Silverman Program perhaps, is that its collection of little in-gags and jokes-within-jokes are at the center of the humor. When Sarah wakes up in one episode, we learn that she set her alarm to go off at 9:11. Is that a joke? In the episode where Sarah believes she is a lesbian, there is a flashback where we see that she’s had sex with a black guy but she doesn’t want to see him any more. Is that racist or non-racist or a parody of racism or nothing at all? Almost all the gags are designed to make you uncomfortable because you can’t answer these questions or because you feel odd having even thought of them.
And the joke is made more pointed by the fact Sarah Silverman herself — who is charming and cute and possessed of an undeniable comic charisma — doesn’t much let down her guard to help you understand that it’s all a joke. In the DVD commentary she says “vagina” a whole lot, too. (Hey, man, there’s nothing wrong with the word “vagina”! I know, but it’s the way she says it. See — it’s all getting to me.) So, “Sarah Silverman” is not Sarah Silverman, but maybe a little bit she is.
Silverman’s show is smart and self-conscious, but I wonder if maybe — when all the tics and clever bits are pushed away — it’s also without a humorous center. As a send-up of both TV and the culture, it exists only in the context of those things it mocks. But as you watch the episodes, I don’t think you relish the show for its characters and how funny they are.
On Seinfeld, you couldn’t wait for the next Kramer entrance. On Curb, any scene involving Suzy and Jeff is inherently funny. On Silverman, you laugh/gasp at the outrageousness but you’re not feeling any sympathy or investment in the characters. Even the gay neighbors, whose interaction comes closest to being un-meta, seem like gimmicks. Though I do love the episode where one of them pretends to fall in love with drinking Tab.
The DVD contains a healthy batch of the usual commentaries (Oooooh, this scene was really fun to film!) as well as snippets from a Comedy Central concert where Silverman sang many of her songs. Plus, it includes karaoke versions of the songs for those of you who want to get a piece of that poop song.