There’s something simultaneously fascinating and maddening about Sarah Silverman – graced with genuine talent and a well-defined comedic persona on one hand, and a commitment to pushing past the edge in a way that blunts her appeal on the other. Despite all manner of career-friendly gifts – from her looks to solid acting chops – she’s limited herself by appearing determined to prove she can be as dirty and distasteful as the boys, an attribute very much on display in her HBO special “We Are Miracles,” which premieres on Nov. 23.
Silverman has frittered around the edges of breakout success beyond standup, from her Comedy Central series to her recent NBC pilot, “Susan 313,” which she posted on YouTube after the network opted not to order it.
Like most Silverman-related exercises, the prototype had its quirky, offbeat moments of cheerful, self-absorbed cluelessness, but also exhibited a certain preciousness that explains why the network might have balked at it. Specifically, Silverman’s idea to incorporate focus-group-type comments about how narrow the pilot is into the show was kind of funny, but also felt so inside baseball as to be better suited to an audience even more niche-oriented than NBC’s existing comedies, which is saying something.
In similar fashion, “We Are Miracles” captures what’s best and most frustrating about Silverman’s act, which can be disarmingly funny right before veering into bad-taste territory. Granted, such judgments are highly subjective, but it’s easier to be on board with her material about the Make-a-Wish Foundation – that since the first wish would be to cure the fatal illness, maybe it should be called Make Another Wish – or self-gratification (“Don’t forget: God can see you masturbating”) than joking about rape, or a song in which she simply repeats the “C” word over and over.
Comics often impress each other with that kind of bawdy fare (see “The Aristocrats”), but Silverman frequently seems to be playing more toward those peers and a loyal cadre of fans than a broader audience that’s apt to be turned off by the questionable stuff, which feels more about shock value than cleverness. And if she really think saying “c—t” repeatedly is a form of artistic expression, more power to her, but in commercial terms, indulging those impulses comes at a price.
This isn’t meant to suggest that female comics can’t work blue. The lament here is that in the wrong hands it can feel gratuitous or become a crutch, whereas unlike many of her contemporaries, Silverman has enough tools that she can and should do more.
As it stands, Silverman still has admirers like New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who recently wrote a column in which she essentially just palled around with the comic – even soliciting advice for Hillary Clinton – for reasons that, like a lot of Dowd’s random pop-culture-related musings, must have made sense to her.
Nevertheless, the HBO special – in which Silverman plays to a 39-seat room, the most intimate of standup settings – offers a pretty good metaphor for her career, opting for the intimacy of a side room instead of the main stage.
Frankly, it would be a shame if Sarah Silverman wound up confined to Comedy Central roasts and the occasional special, but that’s about as much mileage as can be expected from her act as presently constituted.
As for going much further with those self-inflicted restrictions, that would be the real miracle.