To her, even AIDS has a ‘silver’ lining

Sarah Silverman makes a film out of her offensive comedy

by Erin Adler

A 2004 Canadian study confirmed what most observe firsthand: Women and men have distinctly different ideas of humor.

Men, the study concluded, love physical humor and off-color topics. Women, on the other hand, tend to find comedy in longer stories, memories and personal details.

In comedian Sarah Silverman’s documentary “Jesus is Magic,” as in her stand-up routines, she’s irreverent and scatological, with an emphasis on personal experience.

Which means men and woman can each find something to love – and laugh at.

Well, except for the people who want to sue her and the people who don’t like jokes about race and rape and AIDS and the Holocaust, and the executives who fired her from Saturday Night Live when she was 24.

But more about that later.

Around the block

Silverman’s been around the block in the entertainment industry. Early stand-up gigs in Manhattan while she was a student at New York University led to writing and a single performance on Saturday Night Live.

At the end of the season she was fired, but her stand-up gigs continued.

As she became more known, “Big S,” as she’s nicknamed, appeared in films like “There’s Something about Mary” and “School of Rock.”

Along the way, Silverman developed a fan base. She perfected her earnest, conspiratorial delivery, which digresses surely but sneakily into the perverse. She endured countless comparisons to Lenny Bruce.

Silverman also proved that women could be funny – even if they are beautiful and think rape makes a perfectly suitable joke topic.

Stage to (Silver) screen

Throughout 2004, Silverman performed her popular off-Broadway show “Jesus is Magic,” combining stand-up comedy and cheesy show tunes.

The movie by the same name, also written by and starring Silverman, is based on that show. It begins with a sketch in which Silverman, desperate for entertainment success, pretends she has a show opening that night. Then she breaks into song, musical-style.

This song, and those that follow, are the only less-than-sidesplitting part of “Jesus is Magic.” Though their lyrics are as uncomfortably funny as Silverman’s jokes (one song features the troubling chorus “Do you ever take drugs so that you can have sex without crying?” over and over) it’s hard not to wish for her sketch comedy instead.

Minus the musical numbers, the film – and especially the sketch comedy – is trademark Sarah Silverman. And it’s hilarious, which is no small feat considering that watching anyone tell jokes for the better part of an hour can be tedious. Despite introducing each joke or anecdote in a similar fashion, Silverman wows her audience, both onscreen and in the theater, broaching risqué comedic territory typically reserved for men. She then takes it one step further than anyone else would attempt – or get away with.

But Silverman’s demeanor is personal and her persona unapologetically female. She distorts that femininity and makes it serve a purpose.

In one joke, she laments the fact that people don’t think she’s sensitive.

“My skin is paper-thin. People don’t realize it, because I’m sassy and I’m brassy, but I just Ö I just see these CARE commercials with those little kids with the giant bellies and the flies – these are 1- and 2-year-old babies, nine months pregnant, and it breaks my heart in two,” she says, all in sincerity.

Many situational anecdotes expand to include a string of jokes, and by the end of each, it’s hard to imagine she’s not simply the Jewish girl next door, sharing the details of her life.

Controversial comedy

Along with her subject matter (ethnic jokes and anal sex are mainstays) it’s this aspect of her routine, the personal part, that has gotten Silverman in trouble.

In this year’s “The Aristocrats,” a documentary in which various entertainers tell the “world’s dirtiest joke,” Silverman used her own few minutes to make it personal, retelling an anecdote that (jokingly) turns into a realization of her own rape.

Her story was so disturbing and solemn that the man she “accused” of rape considered suing her.

But Silverman is unsinkable, both in her stand-up persona and, seemingly, in reality.

In “Jesus is Magic,” a previous controversy involving her ironic use of a racial slur resurfaces as a joke – about Jews losing control of the media. She’s said publicly that, should a lawsuit come from the Aristocrats incident, “everybody wins!”

Given her recent success with her show, film and a recent New Yorker profile, everybody laughs, too, albeit uncomfortably. As Silverman says, “When God gives you AIDS – and God does give people AIDS – make lemonAIDS!”