Asking for It
'Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic'
By Steve Birmingham, Fri., Dec. 9, 2005
Fresh from her scene-stealing turn in the 100-plus-comics doc The Aristocrats, gutter-mouth Breck girl Sarah Silverman has fashioned this year's funniest and most audacious comedy offering with her musical/sketch/stand-up concert film Jesus Is Magic. Razor-witted for sure, but Silverman's unblinking delivery also reveals a sublimely subtle physical performer who's wonderfully all doe eyes and scrunched noses, Valley girl gag-me-style tongue wagging, and Picasso-painting side-mouth asides. And did I mention the rape jokes? Per her request, the Chronicle recently e-mailed some questions to America's new sweetheart, same old "dirty Jew."
Austin Chronicle: Your jokes about the Holocaust, AIDS, race, and 9/11 have serious shock value, but don't come across as truly mean. Because, foremost, they're hilarious, and, also, you never break character (or are always you). Maybe midgets will beg to differ, but conceit and indifference take the real beating. Having typed that, are some things still off-limits for a laugh?
Sarah Silverman: Only if it's not funny enough. The joke's gotta be funnier than it is upsetting. Of course, comedy is subjective, so there will always be people who don't find it funny, or don't find it funnier than it is offensive. Can't control that. I can only go by my own fucked up gauge! To me, every time the laugh is about my ignorance and how obnoxious it is when mixed with arrogance. To me, it's silly and it makes me laugh. In short, I'm HI-LARIOUS.
AC: It seems the film's most controversial aspect might be that it's only 70 minutes long with credits; well, that, and I understand part of the proceeds are funding HAMAS. But why was some material from your stage show left out that would've made the picture a little more traditionally feature-length? We're not fighting by the way.
SS: Because this is the show I wanted. I just don't want to add time to add time. Also, I never have a problem with short movies. I never wish I could sit still for longer. It was exactly what Liam and I wanted. We cut almost nothing maybe actually NOTHING from what we shot of the stage show. All the cuts were made before we shot, and they were cut because, in my opinion, the bits were too long for a payoff that was not guaranteed. Sometimes it killed and sometimes it was just a bummer, and it wasn't fun to get through. (For instance, one of them was about how Bayer Aspirin allegedly did medical experiments on Jews during the holocaust, and it's a long, very sad bit with a funny ending, but not quite funny enough for me to want to do it.) That said, I liked the stand-up in the movie not being picture perfect. I wanted it to feel live and loosey goosey. There was a lot of off the cuff stuff in it, and comments just in the moment, and even some things that didn't work totally. I wanted that because it's what the live experience is. I'm not as amused by the totally polished act.
AC: I think you have rescued the prevailing notion of parody songs from the lazy and copycat formula of Weird Al and Jimmy Fallon's ilk. With something like the "Do You Ever Take Drugs So That You Can Have Sex Without Crying (Yeah Yeah)?" number is the bigger feat making it musical and catchy or funny and lyrical? And how would you describe the style of your music?
SS: I haven't ever described the style of my music. I figure that's for you to do. I never really thought about it. I wrote that song for a public access show out here called, "Colin's Sleazy Friends" that despite being on public access, was a GREAT show. Colin would have porn stars and comics on together and was a truly talented talk show host. I always had fun on his show.
AC: With director Liam Lynch's musical pedigree and him having worked with half the Beatles and Sir George Martin, could you describe your song collaboration process and how it evolved? Was there an element of "Yes, Mr. Lynch" at first?
SS: No, because the second you meet Liam, you are relaxed. He waves none of that around. But he's a genius, musically, and filmically and comedically and humanly. I am so lucky to have worked with him and continue to work with him on things. I had already written a bunch of the songs in the movie, but with him we wrote the opening, as well as a few other songs that will be on the soundtrack. He really can do anything. I am very lucky to have gotten in with him on the early tip of his gigantic career.
AC: How did your band, the Silver Men, come together? Lou Pearlman?
SS: You're funny! A friend of mine that I did an indie movie with, Sam Seder, suggested Dave Derby, who had done a super cool soundtrack to his movie (Who's the Caboose?). Dave got the band together (Michael Kotch, Rainy Orteca, and Phoebe Summersquash), all of them very seasoned and very cool musicians.
AC: You seem to have cornered the market on rape jokes. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, one out of three women will be raped, sexually assaulted, or sexually abused at least once in their lifetime. You once told a story about having a boss calling you into his office where he then proceeded to masturbate at his desk. It wasn't funny, so I believed you. I include myself when I say I don't think men comprehend just how ... you know, I don't really have a question here. I'm used to getting interrupted in conversation and not having to make fully cognizant points. Can you cover me on this one?
SS: You are hilarious (I'm trying to not write LOL, though it's my instinct). Yes, rape, in all its various degrees is horrifying. And I can only imagine. That story about my boss when I was a young waitress is true. But it's not rape. I have some jokes involving rape, though I don't make fun OF rape, obviously. I'm using its absolute extremeness, and that may be offensive to people. I think to myself, "Jesus, if I was a rape victim, I do not think I would laugh at this joke." And that can be a dilemma, but not every joke is for everyone. There are jokes people tell that I don't think are funny or bum me out because of where I'm at in the context of my personal experience. I would never want to keep them from telling those jokes, though. Life can be fucking painful.
AC: Roger Ebert's review essentially said that you're funny but that the film doesn't work and he totally dismissed Liam's direction. Comedy is so subjective and when he doesn't recognize the "You're Gonna Die Soon" sketch as a classic comedic chestnut, it's probably not worth noting. But as an artist, do you even bother to process the potential validity of a negative review?
SS: Sadly, it's all I focus on. I think he totally missed the point of Liam's direction. We didn't want any flashy bullshit during the stand-up part, because the comedy should stand on its own. It's super cheesy when stand up has wacky camera angles and shit. But I can't help it, I like that Roger Ebert.
AC: During his obscenity trial for Pink Flamingos, John Waters said that in the context of a jury seeing that film in a courthouse in the morning versus a midnight screening with a freewill audience that of course the picture was obscene. Although it's not logistically realistic, Ebert's review made me wonder whether or not it's almost incumbent upon the critic to see a concert film with an audience to have the full experience of collective flinching, gasps, and laughs?
SS: I agree. You have to watch it with a crowd. Otherwise it's like doing stand-up for one guy with his arms folded. It's like watching Schindler's List at a bachelor party. Context is everything.
AC: How do you look back on your sexually promiscuous past? I mean, is it fair to say that we're not talking about a double standard of female sexuality and that you truly fucked your way right through the grunge years?
SS: I did what everyone else did. I was just a comic before I lost my virginity, so I don't have a bunch of faceless Joes in my past. They're my peers still today; but no one that helped my career or anything. Just peers. I don't regret any of it. (All right, maybe a couple here and there.) I just sowed my oats within a community I'm still in, instead of in high school or college. I was a comic in high school and college age! Give me a fucking break!
AC: I respect that depression is Brynn Hartman-serious and think it helps lift the veil of ignorance when people in the public eye like you come forward and talk about it. As someone taking Zoloft and as a comedian, what do you think about Tom Cruise's Today Show comments? I mean, he's a special case, but I think there is still somewhat of a public "Well, then just snap out of it, pussy" attitude.
SS: I loved that interview with Tom Cruise and Matt Lauer. It was the best TV all year. Nothing better than being criticized by the officially craziest man of the year. It's awesome. That said, I bet if I wasn't taking Zoloft, I would definitely be against anti-depressants, not in a Scientology-y way, but because it is a wobbly road. There is a fucked-up-ness about how easily it's prescribed.
AC: How often do you do stand-up in the flyover nether? It seems like it's been a while since you've performed in Austin. With your early television success did you even have/want to work the road much?
SS: I haven't been on the road much. I did in the beginning, but even for my show I prepared in NY and L.A. Only because I get homesick when I go on the road, and NY and L.A. are where I feel at home. (I'm a huge pussy.)
AC: So you left Bob Odenkirk's character in the film (and the audience) hanging; what is the Sarah Silverman dream?
SS: To just continue doing shit I think is cool and have fun and always still have time for hanging out. And to be a leader in the black community.
Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic opens in Austin on Friday, Dec. 9. For a review and show times, see Film Listings.