Television: So This Woman Walks Into A Sitcom…

8 minute read
James Poniewozik

Women aren’t funny. This is the premise of a long essay in January’s Vanity Fair by Christopher Hitchens, best known for his broadsides against Mother Teresa and defenses of the Iraq war. His first theory as to why–in a nutshell–is that women don’t need to make men laugh to impress them. (Either that, Chris, or they just don’t try that hard in front of you.) His second–in a smaller nutshell–is that they make babies. “Those who risk agony and death to bring children into this fiasco simply can’t afford to be too frivolous,” he wrote. “They are innately aware of a higher calling that is no laughing matter.”

You might expect Sarah Silverman, comedian, to be innately aware of a different higher calling, namely, to give Hitchens a rhetorical beatdown. But you would be wrong. “I got all these e-mails from magazines saying, ‘Hey, would you write a rebuttal to this?'” she says. “I read it, and I thought, I’m just not offended by this at all. It is absolutely true–if you’re going to generalize–that culturally, women don’t have to be funny to attract the opposite sex. None of it made me mad, but none of that stuff ever does. It just doesn’t affect me.”

There are a few ways of reading that response. You could call it apathy, although Silverman cares about being funny. You could call it a kind of blasé postfeminism–What is this, like, 1973?–although Silverman’s stand-up has always had a strong woman’s consciousness. Or you could just call it confidence, which Silverman, 36, has every reason to feel. For more than a decade, she has been known as a comic’s comic for her demurely provocative stage act–captured in the 2005 movie Jesus Is Magic–in which she delivers jokes about AIDS, race, the Holocaust, 9/11 and ethnic stereotypes with disconcerting intimacy. (One of her most famous jokes: “I was raped by a doctor–which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.”)

On Feb. 1, she adapts her Jesus persona into sitcom form with The Sarah Silverman Program, a surreal mix of comedy, singing (she has a lovely, musical-theater voice) and animation that pushes more buttons than an Empire State Building elevator operator. In one episode, her character (“Sarah Silverman”) sleeps with God, who is black, then blows him off, but not without guilt. “I’m not one of those people,” she protests, “who’s like, ‘Oh, God is black–is he going to steal the moon or something?'” In another, she takes in a homeless man to upstage her sister’s humanitarian boyfriend: “I’m going to change him from a homeless person to a real person!”

The Sarah Silverman Program (Thursdays, 10:30 p.m. E.T.) airs on–Hitchens, take note–guy-friendly Comedy Central, the network that gave us The Man Show (which her boyfriend, Jimmy Kimmel, co-hosted). How did Silverman get invited into this male cable tree house? Executive vice president of original programming and development Lauren Corrao says Silverman’s a rare woman comic whom guys like: “She’s a beautiful woman, but her sensibility is very male.” (Silverman has female fans too, although anecdotally, women seem more likely to find her grating or offensive than men do.) The most common explanation for her appeal to young guys is her smokily pretty looks, but you can only take that so far. Men don’t need comedy to look at babes–they have an entire porn-filled Internet for that–and you can ask Jenny McCarthy how long hotness can sustain a comic career.

The bigger reason has more to do with what men like to laugh at than with what they like to look at. Silverman learned at a young age to work blue from a male mentor–her dad, who taught her to swear for laughs–and as a grownup, she dishes out potty jokes in man-sized portions. In her sitcom’s pilot, her character tries to pass gas to impress her friends and does, er, something else; a spotlight hits her pained face as the set goes into a theatrical blackout. (“It’s like Our Town,” Silverman says, “if Our Town were about s____ing your pants.”)

Another influence was growing up Jewish in New Hampshire, “a blond, L.L. Bean environment,” says Silverman, where she recalls being called “ape arms” for her hirsuteness. Like a lot of comedians, she considers her humor a “survival skill,” and if the epitome of male humor is bonding-by-insult, she can snap a towel as well as any dude. She won Kimmel over with a put-down at a Friars Club roast for Hugh Hefner. “We just came across the index card she wrote the joke on,” he says. “I introduced her, and she said, ‘Jimmy Kimmel: he’s fat and has no charisma. Watch your back, Danny Aiello.'” She’s like the smart pretty girl who makes fun of the football players. Young men find her if not attainable–although there is the whole Kimmel thing–at least accessible. “You want to make out with her,” says her sitcom’s co-creator, Rob Schrab, “but she’s also the kind of girl you can hang out with and say anything.”

But it’s the larger themes of her work that have most in common with male comics. Like Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat), she combines filthy humor with social commentary, playing a naïf who sweetly embodies ugly prejudices. Like Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm), she plays a self-centered alter ego who stomps on p.c. taboos. There’s a Fear Factor aggressiveness to this brand of humor–daring people to swallow something unpleasant–which may be why fewer women have done it, or at least have been accepted for it.

One of those few is Roseanne Barr, who feels a kinship with Silverman. “The best comics are mirrors, and she is full-length,” Barr e-mailed TIME. “She is early Lenny Bruce if he was a girl who grew up reading Hannah Arendt.” Says comedian Bob Odenkirk, who worked with Silverman in the ’90s on HBO’s Mr. Show with Bob and David: “Guys have a certain assaultive brashness, and she has that strength in her voice. There’s a kind of plainspoken harshness to her that’s disarming and surprising. And a big part of making people laugh is to surprise them.”

Her breakout surprise came in the 2005 documentary The Aristocrats, which tells the history of a famously dirty joke about a vaudeville family with an unspeakable act. Whereas most of the male comedians try to top one another with gross embellishments, Silverman delivers it as a quiet monologue about being raped as a girl–fictionally, and ludicrously–by elderly talk-show host Joe Franklin. It was not the dirtiest but the most disturbing–and therefore funniest–take on the joke in the movie.

The Sarah Silverman Program plays off that tension–darkness and childlike naiveté–hilariously, although in a lighter-spirited way. The show has a loose, familiar, indie feel, in part because Silverman’s real sister Laura plays her TV sister, the rest of the cast are longtime friends (along with her dog), and the pilot was shot in her apartment, which was re-created on a set for the series after, Silverman says, her landlord kicked the production out.

But filming without permission was a mild liberty to take by the standards of fictional Sarah. “I’m just like you,” she chirps over the opening credits. “I don’t have a job, and my sister pays my rent.” In a typical episode, she has brunch with her friends, sticks them with the bill and gets into bizarre scrapes because of her constant need for attention (especially her sister’s); her clueless insensitivity to minorities, the disabled and the elderly; and her penchant for drinking cough syrup while driving.

And yet for all Sarah’s narcissism, neediness and sociopathy, she’s also sympathetic and genuinely wants to be a good person. She’s really an overgrown child–another type that male comics usually favor. In one bouncy musical number, she sings, “I always never cry/ And I’ve always wondered why/ I always have to watch myself when I go pee.” The show lets the confession that she can’t cry hang there without elaboration, but it suggests a pathos to the character that goes beyond pee jokes. “In music or poetry or movies, I’m a fan of heartbreak,” Silverman says. “I think most of my stand-up is either silly, gratuitous bathroom humor or is heartbreaking, if you break it down by subject matter.”

The Sarah Silverman Program may just be the closest that boutique cable comedy comes to a date movie: a little heartbreak for her, a little peepee humor for him. Silverman doesn’t like to speculate on the show’s gender appeal: “I just like to think of myself as a comic.” But she may have ended up unwittingly rebutting Christopher Hitchens the best way possible: by having, and getting, the last laugh.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at