The second coming of Lenny Bruce?

  • by David Lamble
  • Monday November 14, 2005
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Comedian Sarah Silverman.
Comedian Sarah Silverman.

"I was raped by my doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl." Why is Sarah Silverman telling me such things, and why am I scribbling them down in the dark? Am I not aware that virtually her entire movie-length comedy act (Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic opens Friday) is quoted in the pages of The New Yorker and Rolling Stone magazine? And why is that?

Silverman is at this very moment riding a tsunami of hype, practically all of it generated in a few blocks of Manhattan — the East Coast headquarters of the media octopus that presents her boyfriend, Jimmy Kimmel, nightly on Disney TV. One of the lines that sticks out like the jelly she claims to be licking off her boyfriend's penis is that Sarah Silverman is the female Lenny Bruce. Bruce touched a nerve that was like the third rail of the West Side IRT. Bruce said "cocksucker" when that wasn't considered a compliment. Furthermore, he said "cocksucker" in San Francisco before the city fathers had determined that this was a cottage industry they were proud of. Lenny Bruce attacked the high and mighty of his day like Cardinal Spellman and Ms. J. Edgar Hoover. He said the things that couldn't be said, and for his trouble he was tried and sentenced to die on a toilet, a kind of cultural assassination. Nobody in their right mind would want to be the next Lenny, the female Lenny. Sarah Silverman isn't the female Lenny, but then who is she?

Right now, American standup comedy is a game that is controlled by some very smart and funny black men. Everybody waits for Chris Rock on HBO. David Chappelle was cleaning up on the Comedy Channel until he suddenly up and quit, purportedly because he thought his white audiences were enjoying the jokes in the wrong way. Which gets down to the real issue. Lenny Bruce didn't ask anybody's permission to talk dirty. He took comedy very seriously, and gave those who followed him permission to speak.

Silverman is, in effect, using the hype to get permission to sit with the boys and talk dirty like the boys will do. A few of her routines have raised hackles. Her "open letter to Martin Luther King" attacks black sacred cows, turf carved out by Cedric the Entertainer in the movie Barbershop. Her use of the word "Chink" on Conan O'Brien's late-night TV show got her on the shit-list of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans. "What kind of world are we living in when a cute white chick can't say 'Chink' on TV? We're losing control of the media."

Silverman tells a patently tasteless post-9/11 joke at the expense of one of our major bankrupted airlines, then makes an unpleasant accusation against one of New York's longest-running yet most obscure talk show hosts. If you knew who Joe Franklin was, Silverman's joke would be tasteless, cruel and funny, all essential elements in the Darwinian standup world. Silverman is going where female comics have heretofore feared to tread. In a world populated by lonely herd animals, Silverman is one of the guys. Her humor is decidedly post-feminist, and she's pretty, too, which loses her the Phyllis Diller exemption.

I was silly to scribble her best one-liners down, because in the cold light of the printed page, Silverman doesn't necessarily read funny. The laughs are in the delivery, the pregnant pauses where she lets you wonder whether she means it or not. Could this vixen who's always dated male comics be a real threat?

Silverman does poke some fun at the expense of her own people. "Jewish people who drive German cars. Just think, [those German car companies] facilitated a genocide of a people who would be their best customers. Oh, it's so gay." Now, what does that mean? Queers are the new sacred cows, although ironically there hasn't yet been a national breakthrough by a queer comic of the Silverman stripe, a queer comic who doesn't need permission, who would set the bar for others.

In the first act of Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman is feeding a cocktail-party crowd a one-sided putdown of black novelist James Baldwin. As brilliantly channeled by Hoffman, it's a story about a talented black writer in effect asking permission of an impishly funny Southern writer to write a pioneering gay novel about a black character fucking a Jew. Many first-time Capote viewers may miss the barbed comments, the claws bared by a guy who could be a really vicious queen. But the smoke-filled room and the drunken crowd egging Capote on become a kind of symbolic execution chamber — for the death of a reputation in this case, a precursor to the actual executions that will climax the film. Much of the dilemma of standup comedy like Silverman's is in its pristine, concert-hall-like setting. The comics of Lenny's era, along with the writers of Capote's, used their one-liners like swords in darkly lit rooms where there was already blood on the floor.

In the end, Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic (I won't give away what the title means; Silverman's film has been predigested enough already) is a good date-night movie. Ignore the hype, and see for yourself whether she should have permission to flush Lenny's toilet.