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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Sugar, spice, everything not so nice

Sarah Silverman goes to bat on the boys' turf. In her manly way.

February 04, 2007|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

MOST everybody's show on Comedy Central starts out as an adolescent male lark and never grows beyond those first jokes. Taken together, recent series like "Mind of Mencia," "Crank Yankers," David Spade's "The Showbiz Show," Dave Attell's "Insomniac" are gooney versions of the more buttoned-down comedy of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Stewart and Colbert clean up nice, but they're still a part of that figurative grammar school quad where the boys are passing around a girl's pilfered tampon like it's some kind of torch. Suspect everybody, trust no one. Particularly Chappelle and the "South Park" twins.

Comedy Central began in 1990, the merger of fledgling cable networks -- one called the Comedy Channel, the other called Ha!. Today the network has become Heh -- that guttural noise 12-year-old boys make at one another, particularly when in groups.

Other than Amy Sedaris, whose high-school parody "Strangers With Candy" ran on Comedy Central in 1999 and 2000, no female has managed to break the code of the quad. True, men dominate network sitcoms, but should a cable network fast approaching its 20th year as a haven for all things comedic still be looking to break its first female star?

Sarah Silverman is not a man, although she often plays one in her comedy. Silverman's act, as seen in her over-considered 2005 film, "Jesus Is Magic," is cold, unfriendly and sometimes very well-written.

"I was raped by a doctor, which, for a Jewish girl, is so bittersweet," goes a joke about adolescence.

"I always think, like, I should get on it if I want to have kids," begins another thought. "You know, once you hit 30, you gotta decide fast because it can be difficult to conceive, it can be dangerous ... The best time to have a baby is when you're a black teenager."

"The Sarah Silverman Program," a single-camera sitcom that began Thursday, is a pretty fair example of the masculine properties required for entry on the network these days. Silverman, a thinking-person's insult comic, doles out an array of slights and put-downs and, as usual, she's a Trojan horse of shock humor: cute and coquettish on the outside, brainy raunch if you get close.

In the series, she's got a sweet sister (Silverman's actual sister, Laura) and a neighbor couple (Brian Posehn and Steve Agee) whom she describes as "gigantic, orange and gay." The most delightful part of the show is the opening credits -- acoustic guitar playing under a breezy slide show in which Silverman, in that little-girl's voice, narrates the idle, fun facts of her life, including that "I live in Valley Village, I don't have a job and my sister pays my rent

If a comic as pretty and bone-dry ironic as Silverman had come along when I was 13, I probably would have fallen in love like the legion of boys I imagine Silverman to have (as it happened, I had to settle for Carol Burnett, who was shockingly funny as opposed to shocking).

A Silverman joke sort of begins with the following difficult task: Use the words "rape" and "My Nana" in the same sentence. I saw "Jesus Is Magic" when Silverman was doing it onstage at the defunct Canon Theater in Beverly Hills and then again when the film version was at the end of its run at the Nuart Theatre. Mostly I remember sitting there in the dark, with what was probably a sickly, grim smile on my face and a refusal to melt. Because I've dated her comedy, by which I mean the person Silverman is in her comedy -- superior and always one step ahead of me, tasting what I just said and spitting it back at me with a clever note attached, or passive-aggressive put-down, or zinger.

Ah, the achy love particular to a slightly less clever white Jewish male for the Semitic goddess who is meaner and quicker, who can talk so dirty and yet be so pretty in cargo pants and a T-shirt. Silverman plays up this aura; it activates her comedy. In one of the hyper-aware moments in "The Sarah Silverman Program," a storeowner from whom she's just shoplifted batteries describes her to a cop as a "white female, kind of Jewy but totally hot. Not out-of-her-league hot, just cute...."

It is this that has helped Silverman gain admittance into the Comedy Central quad. "The Sarah Silverman Program" is situational, so she's less like Rickles and more like Seinfeld, only prettier and sloppier (and more aggressively antisocial).

Her jokes are willful, revelatory attempts to tramp all over racial and sexual politics. This is the received wisdom about her, anyway; I'm still waiting for my removed admiration to become empathic laughter.

On "The Sarah Silverman Program," the character she's playing is semi-defined as an arrested adolescent who lacks the social filtering instinct that plagues the rest of us.

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