Last time Sarah Silverman played in London, in 2008, it was a disaster.
The foremost female American comedian of her generation kept fans at the Hammersmith Apollo waiting for two hours, delivered barely 40 minutes of material, was heckled back on stage for a cringing encore and then booed back off.
On Saturday there were no boos, no heckling. The crowd left happy, having enjoyed just under 70 minutes of Silverman doing what she does best - tackling taboos like a shock jock on a demented mission to boost ratings. She said hello with a casual gag about rape, delivered with a little dance, and booted us out of the door with a folksy song whose chorus consists solely of an unprintable four-letter word. In between, there were flashes of fearless brilliance.
It was particularly fearless, perhaps, given the 2008 debacle, to come out, notes in hand, and deliver several of the same jokes as she had last time round. Her gag about meeting Barack Obama - “He said something really interesting. He said, ‘I’m Kanye West’” - is a cracker, but it dates from when he was a senator, for goodness’ sake. Of the two songs, she sang one last time; the other has been on YouTube for at least two years.
Perhaps the old material was a security blanket. She certainly appeared on the back foot, telling the 500-strong capacity crowd (a tenth of the size of the Apollo gig) to keep expectations low. “I hope you’re not offended because you’ve paid for a ticket and I’m trying stuff out”, she said. “But I’m always trying stuff out. The show is an hour, 70 minutes. I hope that’s ok. That’s how I do it.”
Ground rules set out, she openly referred to notes and questioned her new “work-in-progress” material which made up around 20 minutes of the set. “This is good, right? I’m so paranoid...”
Of course, when it comes to Silverman, one should take nothing at face value. Mixed messages are her stock in trade. Pairing hotpants and suspender tights with a hoodie and bunches, she looks cute, sounds cuter but she has the foulest mouth in the business. For all the little-comic-lost shtick, trialling new jokes in front of a sell-out, international crowd is an act of supreme confidence.
This was no apologetic attempt to win London over - local humour was confined to two deliberately desultory references to Dalston and cricket.
In the UK to promote her new Disney film, Wreck-It Ralph, Silverman's stand-up hasn’t mellowed with fame. Sacred cows were lined up and shot down with the steely efficiency of an abattoir - rape victims, 9/11 widows, sick children, vaginal deodorants, Brazilian waxes for babies.
Occasionally shocking for shocking’s sake, when she nails it, as with the healthcare bill or Americans’ conflicting attitudes to stray dogs and orphans - “If Africa was all labradoodles dying of starvation, we would take care of it in one day” - it’s still with a wallop.
This was far from a slick hour - there was no attempt to link sections and the last 20 minutes sucked the energy out of the room - but even Silverman’s half-formed thoughts glitter more brilliantly than most. Next time she visits, though, it would be good to see her risk her talent on something completely new.
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