Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic

*** (A must see)

Directed by Liam Lynch

Written by Sarah Silverman

With Sarah Silverman, Laura Silverman, Brian Posehn, and Bob Odenkirk

“You can’t laugh at anybody to be hip,” Lenny Bruce told a concert audience in 1961, at the height of his powers. “All laughter is involuntary.” He was right, and because laughter is uncontrollable it can tell you things about yourself you’d rather not know. For years I admired the backhanded compliment dispensed by Dave Kehr in his Reader capsule for Animal House: “I probably laughed harder at this 1978 collection of college slapstick sketches than I ever have at a film I didn’t really like.” But now that I’ve reviewed many comedies myself, that stance seems to take the critical faculty to an absurd extreme. If you’re laughing, there’s something going on between the movie and your body, and maybe you just don’t want to understand it. Imagine reviewing a porn movie and writing, “I probably came harder at this than I ever have at a film I didn’t really like.”

I have the opposite problem with Jesus Is Magic, the big coming-out party for radically witty comedian Sarah Silverman: it’s the most exciting stand-up performance I’ve seen in years, yet in all honesty I can’t say it made me laugh that much. I probably laughed more at an insipid Ellen DeGeneres monologue I stumbled across on TV the previous night. But I’d be hard-pressed to recall anything DeGeneres said; Silverman’s booby-trapped gags are still with me. The Los Angeles Times has compared Silverman to Bruce, a critical cliche but in this case highly appropriate: much like the patron saint of dangerous comedy, Silverman lures liberal audiences into a kind of moral jujitsu. In one bit she describes a gemstone that grows from the spines of Ethiopian babies, who must be killed to harvest it. She’s coveted one for years, she admits, but she’s ethically opposed because the baby-rendering factories “treat the unions really bad.”

I missed Jesus Is Magic when it had its Chicago premiere at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and wasn’t looking forward to seeing it for the first time in a roomful of mostly male journalists. It’s probably the hardest possible way to enjoy a comedy, jammed in among a bunch of competitors who are all hypersensitive to the others’ reaction. (The Chicago Film Critics Association recently asked members to stop snorting and laughing dismissively during press screenings.) That sort of environment is murder on a comedian like Silverman, who works so hard to make every laugh inappropriate. Her topics are uniformly uncomfortable–rape, racism, AIDS, 9/11, the Holocaust–and her jokes are designed to make you wonder what’s so funny.

Apparently this is the sort of stuff Silverman tried to sneak past the boys’ club at Saturday Night Live during her single season (1993-’94) as a writer and “featured player.” Since then she’s appeared as a second banana on the HBO sketch series Mr. Show, costarred in the short-lived series Greg the Bunny, had numerous small TV and film roles (School of Rock, Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show), and logged hours of couch time on late-night talk shows. My clearest impression of her has come from magazine profiles (most recently in the New Yorker) that have played up her combination of smarts and exceptional good looks. But none of these communicated her perversity like Jesus Is Magic, shot during a week of performances at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. In one bit Silverman says that she’s had her grandmother’s body exhumed to prove she was raped, praying solemnly, “Oh please let them find semen in my dead grandmother’s vagina.”

Jokes like these are even more shocking coming from the mouth of a pretty, petite young woman, and Silverman clearly relishes the incongruity. In print she comes off like any aspiring young actress, guarded and narcissistic, but in Jesus Is Magic she ruthlessly parodies her own vanity: “I don’t care if you think I’m racist,” she says. “I just want you to think I’m thin.” On the subject of personal grooming, she insists she’s never had her anus hair waxed but admits that she has had it styled. Her willingness to come across as mean, greedy, and self-absorbed is the biggest difference between her and social satirists like Bruce, George Carlin, and Bill Hicks, who justified their treatment of taboo subjects with homilies to free speech. Her copious self-regard would be repulsive if she weren’t seriously repulsed by it herself.

Silverman’s eerily calm persona may be the real reason I didn’t laugh more at Jesus Is Magic. Others have written about her sweetness–the New Yorker piece calls her a “twisted Gracie Allen”–but more often she seems cool and evasive. Most comedians are like dogs, working hard to ingratiate themselves with the audience; Silverman is more feline, content with herself whether you laugh or not. “When God gives you AIDS, make lemonAIDS,” she urges the audience at one point. It’s a clever, writerly line, not to mention a neat summation of her comic technique. But she can’t resist turning the knife a little, adding, “And God does give you AIDS, by the way.” I guess I wish there were a little more sugar in her lemonade, but as we all know, it’s the lemons that are good for you.

When: Through 11/17: Fri-Thu 1:30, 4:35, 7:40, 9:45 PM; Fri-Sun also 11:20 AM

Where: Landmark’s Century Centre, 2828 N. Clark

Price: $7-$9.50

Info: 773-444-3456