Film: Does Your Mother Know?

Sarah Silverman combines an angelic face and foul mouth with success

Dec 28, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Steve Ramos

Fresh face, foul mouth: Sarah Silverman makes Steve (and others) sweat.

Meeting comic Sarah Silverman makes one an immediate target of her outrageous humor. Add an unseasonably warm September afternoon in Toronto and a rushed reporter with a habit of profuse sweating when overheated, and the opportunities for laughter are obvious.

For Silverman — a 34-year-old fast-rising stand-up comedienne and boisterous character actress best known for The School of Rock, the TV series The Larry Sanders Show and Greg the Bunny and a one-year stint on Saturday Night Live (1993-'94) — I'm too good a target to ignore.

"Are you alright, Steve?" Silverman asks after a quick introduction and a sweaty handshake. "Do you need a fan?"

In a clownish gesture that attracts the attention of everyone else gathered on the hotel patio, Silverman puckers her lips, leans close and starts blowing onto my dripping face. Then, true to her persona of the pretty and girlish Jewish comic who's also surprisingly foul-mouthed, she lets out a shrieking laugh and jokes about her boyfriend's reaction to her just completed blow job.

Some jokes go over perfectly with audiences, Silverman explains while sweaty cheeks dry out. Her gags about relationships generate the largest laughs in her current concert film, Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic.

(The film, based on an off-Broadway performance, is currently playing art house cinemas across the U.S. and is scheduled to open in Cincinnati later this month.)

"A couple of nights ago, I was licking jelly off my boyfriend's penis," Silverman says early in the movie as she faces a packed audience. "And I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm turning into my mother!' "

The laughter from the crowd is loud and immediate.

Other jokes, especially her jabs at the 9/11 terrorist attacks, fall flat: "American Airlines should promote itself as Number One Into the World Trade Towers. That's something to be proud of. We're number one."

The comic's hard-knock life is never knowing for sure how a joke will strike until publicly tossing it at the crowd. Silverman's rule of thumb is to give everything a try. If the audience repeatedly gives a routine a thumbs-down but she still likes the joke, she might keep it in her routine. Sometimes you have to stand behind your humor even if you're the lone supporter.

"You just never know," Silverman says. "Some jokes I think are fantastic and make me laugh, and then nothing. So I give it a try another night and still no response. But I guess you do write for yourself. You have to, you know, follow your instincts."

Details Silverman speaks about openly include growing up in Manchester, N.H., with parents she describes as "New England Liberals." Her mother was the college theater director, and her father owned a chain of small clothing shops. Time with her older sisters became more important after her parents divorced.

She took to the stage as a teenager and continued to work stand-up while a student at New York University. She's a natural performer, a real cut up — what every successful comic needs to be.

SNL didn't work out. In hindsight, her persona was too powerful to play characters other than Sarah Silverman.

A move to Los Angeles some 10 years ago gave her the opportunity to work on her stand-up act. Her relationship with late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel provides the core joke to her film, her Catholic boyfriend who believes that "Jesus is magic."

A Comedy Central TV pilot involves a Seinfeld-like plot surrounding Silverman and her family, friends and daily routines. It would be a story about nothing but what's going through her brain.

Some of her outrageous thoughts get her into trouble. A joke about "Chinks" she delivered on Late Night with Conan O'Brien earned protests from Asian-American groups, but she stays true to her vision.

Silverman is the queen of the popular dirty joke documentary The Aristocrats, the funniest woman in a male-dominated ensemble, and the added attention is boosting her career. It's also earned her a lawsuit from longtime TV talk show host Joe Franklin, who did not laugh at Silverman's joke about him raping her.

"Oh, that lawsuit," Silverman replies with an ear-to-ear smirk. One more example of how some jokes will always divide audiences.

The sidewalks were still wet from a daytime rainstorm when the lines started forming for the midnight premiere of Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic the previous night at Ryerson College's main auditorium in Toronto. It's a rowdy crowd of mostly college students, and Silverman is in sync with their partying spirit.

She takes to the stage to introduce her film and asks forgiveness for being tired. She's just arrived at the festival and her publicity responsibilities are thick, but she understands that her film is just that, a one-woman show reliant on her willingness to make people like it and like her even more.

Her 2 a.m. post-screening banter is topped off with a loopy performance of what she calls her goofy "Jewish Dance." The crowd, many of whom have stayed, roars.

At the end of our afternoon interview, I tease Silverman about her "Jewish Dance" routine and ask if this is her new trademark, something akin to Johnny Carson faking a golf swing or Gallagher smashing a watermelon with a sledgehammer. She stays seated in the afternoon sun and laughs loud and clear, adding her own goodwill chaos to the crowded Hotel InterContinental patio and the rest of the filmmakers and actors present.

For the time being, she smiles with the knowledge that Jesus Is Magic works well with its premiere audiences. As far as what jokes won't, that's for another day. ©

Mini Review
Jesus is Magic — Sarah Silverman is queen of the popular dirty joke documentary The Aristocrats, a young woman who's every bit as foul mouthed and raunchy as the film's many male comics. Director Liam Lynch gives the pretty, girlish comedienne a well-deserved spotlight with the clever concert film Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic, and Silverman exceeds all expectations. Much of Jesus Is Magic is a straightforward document of Silverman's off-Broadway show and many stage performances. Her saucy material and sassy personality warrants the big-time treatment. The added bonus is its sense of discovery. Silverman's best known as a character actress in the films School of Rock and Rent but Lynch proves that she's at her funniest when playing herself. True to all stand-up routines, some of the jokes, especially her jabs at the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, fail. But the majority of Silverman's gags, especially those about her boyfriend and family, generate huge laughs. Lynch breaks up concert footage with clever musical performances. Silverman plays '60s Pop star and Jazz chanteuse with equal skill. But the surprise laughs come from the film's background narrative with Silverman playing herself as a struggling comic jealous over her friends' successes. Jesus is Magic unveils two possible paths for Silverman: stand-up stardom or comic actress. Either choice promises plenty of fun for the audiences who pay attention. (Steve Ramos) Grade: B