Movie Review
Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic
Director: Liam Lynch
Cast: Sarah Silverman, Brian Posehn, Bob Odenkirk

imagine all of the absurd over-the-top filth of The Aristocrats, and combine it with the brash political incorrectness of South Park. This shouldn’t be too hard, since the characters from South Park make an appearance in The Aristocrats—if you’ll remember, Cartman does an impression of the victims of 9/11 dying. Now combine this with an attractive young comedienne, and what you more or less result in is Sarah Silverman, who, the plot thickens, is also in The Aristocrats—making a rape joke.

Silverman’s new movie, Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic, is a self-described “play-slash-movie—movie. About… um… the holocaust, and AIDS… But it’s funny!... And it’s a musical.” And how: not only does she hit on the holocaust and AIDS, but also on race, sexuality, religion, and she does so proudly—proudly enough that her politically incorrect treatment of these weighty issues is more or less at the core of all ad copy promoting the movie. All of this comes in the format of a taped live performance that is framed by and interspersed with mini-skits and musical numbers.

All things being equal, and setting aside the issue of content for a second, Silverman’s pacing and presentation are pretty much flawless. In this film, as in other performances, she has mastered the jump-right-in-with-something-short-and -absurdly-shocking-humor—a good example is when she begins a bit with: “I was licking jelly off of my boyfriend’s penis, and all of the sudden I’m thinking: Oh my god, I’m totally turning into my mother!” (Minus one point for this joke already being told in Comedy Central’s roast of Pamela Anderson, plus one point because we know her boyfriend is Jimmy Kimmel.) Also perfected is the long-theatrical-build-up-to-something -we-know-will-be-offensive-yet-tops-all-of-our-expectations-humor.

But the question continues to nag me: is this stuff actually funny? Am I a bad person for laughing at this? I mean, I’m in the know. I’m hip. I’m in with the in crowd. I’m down with the kids. I’m 22, and officially not old and stogy. I understand what this humor attempts to do—it attempts a combination of humor-through-societal-critique, and tension-relief-through-broaching-unthinkably -offensive-topics/I-can’t-believe-you-said-that humor. As Terry Gross of NPR says, “Comedian Sarah Silverman is known for delivering closely observed social commentary in a disarmingly politically incorrect style… And while some of her remarks have led to criticism, her fans embrace the wit and honesty of her commentary.”

And so when she says of the social reaction to The Passion of the Christ and its representation of Jews, “I hope they did kill Christ—I’d fucking do it again,” this is funny because it is both unexpected and it is an inversion of the typical defensive response to the film. When she says that, actually, “It was the blacks who killed Christ,” this is funny because it is both absurd and off the wall, and because it is a general critique of society’s stereotypes of race (i.e.: black people get blamed for things they didn’t do). And if a professional comedian/enne makes use of profoundly trite racial stereotypes, it reveals how trite and overused these stereotypes are in society.

It continues on: when she makes jokes that are profoundly insensitive, they are a roundabout way of critiquing society’s general [over-]sensitivity towards issues such as race, and people’s tendency to assume more malice in others than generally exists. And finally, that because she’s Jewish her jokes about the Holocaust are somehow allowed; because she’s a woman her jokes about rape come with a sly men-can’t-tell-these-jokes wink; because, however misguided it may be, though she is white, because she is thin and attractive her brashly racist jokes seem somehow more innocent; and underlying all of this, she is aware of all of these meta-humorous factors, evident when she says “I don’t want to be seen as straight or gay, I just want to be seen as white,” or “I don’t care if you think I’m racist, I just want you to think I’m thin.”

But, I still remain very ambivalent as to my feelings about the nature of Silverman’s humor. I still feel like a bad person when, due to the sheer shock-value of the humor, I laugh at the sort of things she jokes about, even if I know that this is the whole point of the joke. And it’s not just that I wasn’t drunk in a comedy club when I heard the jokes: my main ambivalence lies with this: even if these racist and offensive jokes are theoretically “societal critiques,” I question whether this form of satire actually does any good. Though it doesn’t directly harm the victims of AIDS, or genocide, or of 9/11, it doesn’t seem to help them either, nor does it seem to have a positive effect on the audience: while the shocking nature of the jokes may provide a bit of relief from the weighty societal pressures of Political Correctness and Serious Addressing of Issues, and may make life a little more tolerable and less tense for the audience, at what cost is this achieved? To what degree do these jokes actually make the audience more callous? Does the satire make things worse? Is it possible that some things aren’t worth the price that laughter demands? Do people tend to walk away from these jokes thinking, “That’s funny, but I sure should go join the Red Cross or Amnesty International,” or are they just more likely to disassociate the idea of atrocity with actual atrocity?

I don’t have the definitive answer to these questions, but I’m pretty skeptical. And I am furthermore bothered by the fact that I feel, in order for anyone to take my concerns about this humor seriously, that I need to go to such great lengths to defend myself from appearing that I am “unhip” or that I “don’t get the joke.”

Even after all of this, I must say that I do think Sarah Silverman is good at what she does, and that a lot of her material is quite funny: I unabashedly laughed at her impression of a mixed-religion couple explaining to their children, “Mommy is one of the chosen people, and Daddy believes Jesus is Magic;” I giggled seventh-grade-style at her off the wall bodily humor when she admitted: “I’m on the birth control pill, because I do a lot of fucking.” All of this was relatively-unimpeachably funny—in the long run, it’s not a question of talent, but one of how one chooses to use it.

And I hope I’m not saying this just because I felt dirty for laughing at the sweet, innocent looking Sarah Silverman praying to herself, “Oh god, please let them find semen in my dead grandmother’s vagina.” That one, I’ll leave for you.

By: Jim Fingal
Published on: 2005-12-05
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