In a move borrowed from It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, comedienne Sarah Silverman plays a version of her brattish stand-up persona on The Sarah Silverman Program (Comedy Central, Thursdays at 10:30 p.m. ET). “She’s a white female, kinda Jew-y but totally hot, not out-of-your-league hot, just cute, long neck, really nice skin. She could easily pass for 20,” or so says a convenience-store shopkeeper (Masi Oka) in the episode “Batteries.” He’s giving this description to a cop because Sarah, who is 36, has just wrecked his store and stolen a four-pack of double-As. The cop gets on his radio: “Dispatch, we have a black male.” Force of habit.
That’s one of the better bits in a show that’s manic with cultivated bad taste. A majority of the jokes—about child abuse, gay bashing, wheelchair athletes, penises, vaginas, “doody,” and getting high on cough syrup—aren’t especially funny. They aren’t even especially jokes. They just decorate the space where Silverman, indulging in her brand of charged sexual and ethnic humor, turns her haughty Jewish-American Princess façade into a comedy character. As Sarah herself sneers at the beginning of a show, advising viewer discretion, the program “contains full-frontal Jew-dity.” The Sarah Silverman Program is a six-episode sitcom that’s plays like one shaggy sketch—a loose and tomboyish riff, Sarah Silverman as a JAP minstrel. She’s not making any kind of commentary on the stereotype, just doing a half act, trying to wander into funny business and, when in doubt, provoking offense.
But back to the batteries. You see, Sarah has been slacking on her couch in Valley Village, trying to find some awesome TV to pass the day with when she clicks onto a 36-hour leukemia telethon: Remember, these are children that are DYING. “Dying like a fox,” our Sarah scoffs, and then the batteries in her remote control give out. Because the alternate reality of The Sarah Silverman Program proceeds according to a druggy, magic-realist brand of illogic, Sarah does not simply unplug the TV, but instead uses desk tape to affix dollar bills all over the screen, which also muffles the sound.
So, now she needs to go buy batteries at the convenience store, which involves mooching cash off her sister—played by the real Laura Silverman—who’s out at brunch with friends, a schlubby gay couple. Soon, the four of them are sitting at the table, trading noisy farts. When it’s Sarah’s turn to deliver, she goes too far and accidentally poops her pants. After a musical interlude where the heroine rhymes “retarded” with “re-smarted,” she meets God, who answers her prayer that she might have that wind-passing moment back again, and then she’s back at the brunch table, squeezing out a wicked but clean one. That seems like an awfully long way to go for a fart joke that would not pass muster in Scary Movie 2, but you’ve got to credit the sound designers for the way they make Silverman’s juicy flatulence spurt out in stereo.
Sarah borrows three bucks and goes to the store. The batteries cost $3.50 or something, so Sarah steals them. She evades arrest when God turns the policemen chasing her into rustling bags of snack chips. (God, who is black, by the way, apparently has a product-placement deal with Bugles.) Then the two of them, God and Sarah, go back to her place and hook up, and she kicks him out in the morning.
Which is all to say that The Sarah Silverman Program isn’t about anything but its own supposed daring and the hyperbolic smugness of its star. When Larry David makes himself look like a non-PC jerk on Curb Your Enthusiasm, there’s a richness that springs from his sense of wonder at the subtle discomfort and anxieties surrounding social taboos. Silverman is so intent on delivering attitude that she doesn’t care whether the jokes have any weight. “I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be homeless,” the Sarah character says to a neighborhood bum at one point, her delivery whiny and slack. “High school is the closest thing I can imagine to that. Y’know, ‘cause it’s cliquey.” Read that again. What’s the target? It only hammers away at Sarah’s own famous self-absorption, which is more like self-immersion. You can’t accuse Sarah Silverman of being annoying: That’s her whole shtick.