I started out a big Sarah Silverman fan, but I don't know ... I think it's enough already. The obligatory New Yorker profile called her brilliantly-conceived comic persona "quiet depravity", but I think "naive depravity" describes it better. At her best, Silverman plays the nice Jewish girl from a nice bourgeois family who remains blissfully unaware that she's a terrible, terrible person. It's hard to describe why this persona works so well; better to just quote it in bulk, as the New Yorker's Dana Goodyear wisely did:
“I’m just sensitive,” she says onstage. “My skin is paper thin. People don’t realize it, because I’m sassy and I’m brassy, but I just— I see these care commercials with these little kids with the giant bellies and the flies, and these are one- and two-year-old babies, nine months pregnant, and it breaks my heart in two.”
As the audience reacts, she presses on. “It breaks my heart in half. And I don’t give money, because”—out of the side of her mouth—“I don’t want them to spend it on drugs, but I give. You know I give. I, this past summer, sent fifteen really fun cowl-neck sweaters to this village in Africa, in really fun colors—expecting nothing, by the way—and they culled their money together, whatever they call it, and bought a stamp and sent me a postcard thanking me, and it said thank you and that they had enough sweaters for every single member of the village to get one and that they were delicious.”
...In another of her bits, she invokes the events of September 11th: “They were devastating. They were beyond devastating. I don’t want to say especially for these people, or especially for these people, but especially for me, because it happened to be the same exact day that I found out that the soy chai latte was, like, nine hundred calories. I had been drinking them every day. You hear soy, you think healthy. And it’s a lie.”
Now obviously this sort of act doesn't translate all that well to the kind of things that really successful comics are asked to do - like, say, host award shows. But I still think it's instructive, and a little depressing, to contrast the Silverman routine quoted above with her now-famous takedowns of Paris Hilton (at the '06 VMAs) and Britney Spears (at this year's edition).
"In a couple of days, Paris Hilton is going to jail. The judge says that it's going to be a no-frills thing and that is ridiculous. She is totally going to get special treatment.
As a matter of fact, I heard that to make her feel more comfortable in prison, the guards are going to paint the bars to look like penises. I think it's wrong, too. I just worry that she's going to break her teeth on those things."
"This is so exciting. Was that incredible? Britney Spears, everyone. Wow, she is amazing. I mean, she is 25 years old, and she has already accomplished everything she’s going to accomplish in her life. It’s mind-blowing.
And she’s so grown up, she’s a mother. It’s crazy. It’s weird to think that just a few years ago on this very show, she was a sweet, innocent girl in slutty clothes writhing around with a python. No, that’s not nice calling Madonna a python.
But have you seen Britney’s kids? Oh, my God, they are the most adorable mistakes you will ever see. They are so cute. They are as cute as the hairless vagina they came out of."
In the routine quoted in the New Yorker, Silverman says horribly shocking and offensive things, but the jokes are designed to turn back on her: She's using starving children in Africa and the victims of 9/11 as the props in her act, but she isn't asking you to laugh at them; she's asking you to laugh at her. The same goes for her racist jokes: When she says, "Everybody blames the Jews for killing Christ ... and then the Jews try to pass it off on the Romans. I’m one of the few people that believe it was the blacks," the joke isn't on black people, it's on Sarah Silverman.
But there's nothing that's distinctively "Sarah Silverman" about her Britney and Paris-bashing jokes, save for the naive demeanor in which they're delivered. Indeed, you could imagine them being told by almost any comedian, and the only thing that gives the lines any real frisson is the fact that the targets of her ridicule are there to hear it. By laughing at them, all you're doing is laughing at a clever woman's takedown of a pair of dumb women - insult comedy practiced against a defenseless target. There are jokes to be found in this sort of thing, but at their best they're just a more savage version of a Leno monologue. Silverman is brilliant at playing a bitch; it's shame to see her fishing for laughs by being one.