Eight years ago, the comic Jerry Lewis told a comedy festival audience that he couldn't think of a single decent female comedian. Asked to clarify his position, he later remarked that "a man comedian can do anything he wants and I'm not offended by it. But we're talking about a God-given miracle who produces a child. I have a difficult time seeing her [being funny] on stage."
A year ago, the writer Christopher Hitchens reignited the debate, penning an article in Vanity Fair with the unequivocal title "Why Women Aren't Funny". After observing that most women comedians are "hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three", he went on to say that "reproduction is, if not the only thing, certainly the main thing. Apart from giving [women] a very different attitude to filth and embarrassment, it also imbues them with the kind of seriousness and solemnity at which men can only goggle."
It's safe to say neither Lewis nor Hitchens had come across the American comic Sarah Silverman, who tonight performs her first full-length show in the UK. Over here, her name is probably familiar to those who caught her live show/documentary Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic at cinemas this summer. But in America it's a different story. There, after 15 years rattling around LA as a writer, stand-up and actor, Silverman – now 37 – is a bona fide star, the standard to which other comics, male or female, must now aspire.
Silverman is Jewish, though contrary to Hitchens' archetypal comedienne, she is also slim and beautiful. What's more, she has no problem with filth and embarrassment. On her Paramount television series The Sarah Silverman Program, she is as cruel and crude as any of her male counterparts. Aids, religion, race and the Holocaust are among her favourite subjects, and she approaches them with eye-popping directness. There's plenty on Jewish girls and sex as well, with the most outrageous lines delivered with a bemused frown or a kooky smile.
Watching a performer as serenely composed and gleefully fearless as Silverman, it seems odd that the question of whether women are suited to comedy is still being posed. Edgy is an over-used term when it comes to discussing comics, but in Silverman's case it rings true. Just look at a clip of her on YouTube doing a spot on a late-night US talk show and making the middle-aged male presenters squirm in their seats.
Much of Silverman's success lies in how she uses her femininity to wrong-foot people, a smart move in a profession defined and dominated by men. Such is her aura of wide-eyed innocence that audiences struggle to make the connection between the cutie standing in front of them and the filth cascading from her mouth. In a scene in The Sarah Silverman Program, she calls her sister "gay" and then apologises to her two gay neighbours. "I don't mean gay like homosexual," she says in her sweet, girl-next-door way. "I mean gay like retarded."
But there's more to Silverman than the provocation of a pretty girl with a potty mouth. In her act, she is at pains to point out her sensitivity and moral rectitude. She worries about the poor African babies and her seven-year-old lesbian niece, and wonders why Jews and Palestinians hate each other ("Honestly, what's the difference? They're brown, they have an odour. It's like sweet potatoes hating yams"). Her delivery is perky and Pollyanna-ish; the more heinous the pay-off, the bigger the smile. And she plays it very real indeed. There's never a point that Silverman lets the mask slip. The final scene of Jesus is Magic finds her sitting in her dressing-room after the show and gazing at herself in the mirror. "You're a star – and I'm a star-fucker!" she whispers and gives herself a passionate kiss. Then the credits roll.
At its best, Silverman's act uses taboo humour to expose the cracks on our supposedly liberal politics. Race is her pet topic and, not surprisingly, is the one that gets her into the deepest water. A joke about an ex-lover goes thus: "I used to go out with a guy who was half black who totally broke up with me because I'm a fucking loser." A pause. "I just heard myself say that. I'm such a pessimist. He's half-white."
Silverman has been booed off stage for ridiculing Martin Luther King. She has also been condemned by Guy Aoki, the head of an Asian watchdog group, for telling a gag that culminated in the word "chink" on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Silverman's response was to incorporate the episode into her stand-up. "[Aoki] put my name in all the papers calling me a racist and it hurt," she confessed. "As a member of the Jewish community, I was really concerned we were losing control of the media. What kind of a world do we live in where a totally cute white girl can't say 'chink' on network television?"
Irony is used by many comics, of course, and it can hide a multitude of sins. In these post-modern times, mocking political correctness has become a form of political correctness in itself. The thinking goes that only someone who is comfortable with their views on race can easily make fun of racism and racial sensitivity. But if there's something Silverman does well, it's take a joke too far. In a bid to have the last word in the Aoki debate, she states: "I don't care if you think I'm racist. I just want you to think I'm thin."
For all her skewering of self-righteousness and hypocrisy, Silverman isn't above going for the celebrity jugular, despite being increasingly regarded as an A-lister herself. Her appearances at awards ceremonies are invariably followed by scandalised headlines. At the 2007 MTV Movie Awards, she remarked on Paris Hilton's forthcoming jail term and expressed concern that the heiress might break her teeth while trying to fellate the prison bars. Hilton was in the audience. The camera hovered on her astonished face before moving on to Jack Nicholson, who sat a few rows away laughing his head off. Britney Spears also found herself at the sharp end of Silverman's tongue last year at the MTV Video Music Awards. Moments after Spears had finished lip-synching her way through a catastrophic "comeback" performance, Silverman, who was a guest host, said: "Have you seen Britney's kids? Oh my God, they are the most adorable little mistakes you'll ever see. They are as cute as the hairless vagina they came out of." Sure, you might argue that Hilton and Spears are easy targets, but Silverman at least has the distinction of insulting them to their faces.
Like Britney, Paris et al, Silverman's private life hasn't been without drama. The difference is that the lurid headlines have been of her own making. In July, she split from her boyfriend of five years, Jimmy Kimmel, the host of ABC's late-night rival to Letterman. Six months earlier, the pair had made global news as a result of a video called I'm Fucking Matt Damon. It opens with Silverman sitting in a hotel room picking out a tune on a guitar and confessing to having an affair with the Hollywood actor. The camera then swings on to Damon himself, who agrees, "She's fucking Matt Damon" and reveals the details of their sexual encounters – "on the bed, on the floor, on a towel by the door, in the tub, in the car, up against the mini-bar" and so on. The film was first aired on Kimmel's show and went on to become a huge viral hit, racking up 17 million hits on YouTube. Kimmel filmed his own star-studded spoof a month later with I'm Fucking Ben Affleck, but it was Silverman's film that was nominated for an Emmy.
Sarah Silverman is the third of four sisters in a middle-class New Hampshire family. Her mother was a drama-school teacher and her father owned a clothes store. Dad introduced her to swear words early, teaching her to say "bitchbasstarddamnshit" when she was three. At 13, she was diagnosed with depression. She took three months off school and saw a psychiatrist, who prescribed Xanax and told her to come back the following week. When she did, she found he had hanged himself and had to sit in the waiting-room for an hour before her mother picked her up.
As a teenager, her comic heroes were Woody Allen, Joan Rivers and Steve Martin, whose name she painted on her ceiling. She started doing stand-up at 15 with a song called "Mammaries", sung to the tune of "Memories". At 19 she dropped out of New York University and over the next decade worked as a writer for Saturday Night Live (she was fired by fax), appeared on Seinfeld and The Larry Sanders Show, played bit-parts in movies such as There's Something about Mary and School of Rock, and developed a formidable reputation on the live circuit.
It was, inevitably, scandal that propelled Silverman to stardom. The "chink" row was an object lesson in the advancement to be had from offending Middle America. Following the release of Jesus is Magic in the US in 2005, she was compared to Lenny Bruce by critics and declared "the funniest woman alive" by Rolling Stone.
"The person I am on stage is me," she once noted. "But there's an ignorance coupled with arrogance, and I see that reflected in our country." And with an election looming, the state of her country has become a concern for Silverman, who, in her latest film skit, has joined the campaign for The Great Schlep, which aims to persuade Jewish people to go to Florida to tell their grandparents that Obama is neither anti-Israel nor a Muslim, and thus swing the crucial Florida vote.
This being Silverman, she pushes the joke over the edge and into the abyss as she remarks on the similarities between Jewish grandmothers and black men. "Both love tracksuits, their car of choice is a Cadillac, they like bling and money and jewellery... and all their friends are dying."
The music stops, there's a silence and the black actor brought in to illustrate the point walks off in disgust. Then Silverman whispers in her butter-wouldn't-melt voice, "That is true in general," and it's on with the show. n
Sarah Silverman performs at the London Hammersmith Apollo tonight. For tickets go to www.livenation.co.uk. 'Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic' is out now on DVD on Warner Music Entertainment
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