Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
As a comedian, Sarah Silverman favors outrageousness. Part of the joke has always come from the disconnect between her dark, obliviously sociopathic words and her cute, cheerful appearance. That’s never been the whole joke, though. Silverman’s material may be provocative, but it’s rarely pointless.
The points have only grown sharper over the years, and on her first special since her 2005 concert film, Jesus Is Magic, she frequently inverts the order: point, then joke. About a third of the way into the special, she notes how people confuse self-deprecation with modesty, but it’s really self-obsession—which leads to a bit about how Mother Teresa didn’t worry about how her thighs looked. (“She was stick-thin, fucking bitch,” she says.) Earlier in the special, she says, “Stop telling girls they can be anything they want when they grow up,” and the crowd laughs, because it sounds like a typical Sarah Silverman setup to an ostensibly sexist punchline to comment on sexism, but they’re laughing prematurely. “I think it’s a mistake,” she continues, “not because they can’t, but because it would’ve never occurred to them they couldn’t.” She compares it to telling someone you won’t read their diary in the shower, which works its way toward a more expected Silverman joke about how the sexualization of young girls has affected her friend’s 6-month-old daughter.
That’s how We Are Miracles progresses: a mixture of signature Sarah Silverman bits (like one that starts with how she has orgasms while giving blowjobs, but ends somewhere else) and pointed social and political commentary. In one part, she brings up how rape jokes are a safe, easy way for comics to seem “edgy,” then strikes quickly with a punchline about how rape victims aren’t likely to complain (earning the first and only uncomfortable groan from the small audience).
It’s not all biting commentary: Silverman has a bit about showering with her mother as a child; another about her beloved 19-year-old dog, Duck, who was alive at the time, but has since died (she dedicates the special to him); and she opens the special with a bit about her surprising porn preferences.
That’s comfortable, familiar material for fans of Silverman (ditto the set-closing song), who know all about Duck and who probably remember the shower bit if they’ve seen her perform over the past few years. But she takes those expectations into unfamiliar places, too. One joke, for instance, about a study on 9/11 widows sounds like signature Silverman button-pushing, but it proceeds unpredictably, with Silverman staring out into the audience silently for several seconds, before confessing she made the whole story up. What does it say about her, she wonders, that she feels compelled to say such things? That segues into telling the audience they’re at least partly responsible, thus getting far more mileage out of the premise than she would have otherwise, and smartly deconstructing the joke and her own style in the process. It’s easy to imagine the Sarah Silverman of Jesus Is Magic bringing up 9/11 widows, making a joke or two, then moving on to something else.
It’s an exciting sequence, because it shows how Silverman has grown as a comic and a performer—few things are riskier during a stand-up set than dead silence, even in front of a small, friendly audience like the one assembled for her taping. That speaks to another surprising aspect of We Are Miracles: Silverman and director and editor Liam Lynch (who also directed Jesus Is Magic) shot in a 39-capacity room at the legendary Largo in Los Angeles. In the opening sketch, some thuggish types give Silverman a hard time outside the club for shooting in a room that only holds like 300 people, before she sheepishly confesses she’s doing it in the club’s smaller room. It’s a funny idea—and another sign of Silverman’s maturity as a performer—but it also allows her to see everyone in the audience and easily interact with the crowd.
As bold as many of Silverman’s choices are in We Are Miracles, it’s surprisingly light on the big laughs she tends to elicit. The small crowd is in her pocket, of course, but viewers at home may have a more restrained reaction. Silverman has never been sharper or seemingly more confident as a comedian and performer, and the laughs are there—just not quite as many as might be expected.
Debuts: November 23, 10 p.m. Eastern on HBO
Format: Stand-up special