Sarah Silverman’s A Speck of Dust, streaming now on Netflix.
Let’s cut the bullshit. Sarah Silverman’s A Speck of Dust is good. I can’t say it’s the hardest I’ve laughed at something she’s done, but it does seem like Sarah Silverman herself is less interested in getting those uproarious, nonstop laughs that she once got. This special is funny, but it’s different than her previous specials. And when considered alongside her last special “We Are Miracles”, it makes sense: Sarah Silverman has grown up, and so has her material.
Back when I was a wee 17-year-old, Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic hit me like a ton of bricks. I was into comedy before that, but no more so than I was into Brand New or any other shitty band that I liked at the time. But from the opening moments, it was a revelation. I connected. When discussing how her childhood humiliation led to her becoming a comedian, she confessed to bed-wetting well into her teens. I played with Barbies well into my teens (It’s fine, I’m fine with it). She lamented her continued struggle with “a bevy of unwanted hair,” and I was called “Mustache Girl” in 4th grade (I discovered waxing, so that too, is fine). And like Sarah Silverman, I was prone to going hard at shock value, trying to simultaneously disgust people while forcing them to acknowledge that they shared some of my unhinged sentiments. I tried and failed spectacularly, but that is exactly where Sarah Silverman excelled so brilliantly. She used taboo topics to expose the hypocrisy inherent in our sham morality, overeager political correctness, feigned religiosity, high-minded bullshit opinions. And it was amazing.
And at its core, A Speck of Dust is still, of course, very much in line with that whole game. A large part of Silverman’s earlier comedy has been based on the discrepancy between her cute, bubbly appearance and personality and the dark, falsely ignorant and sometimes even sociopathic content of her sets. And to some extent, it remains so. And she took it to its furthest degree, placing her sweet, innocent, Jewish girl persona squarely alongside some the filthiest, most appalling material out there. And it worked: it was so good. But all the while, she was and still is one of the most skilled comedians out there in a traditional sense. She has impeccable timing, elongating uncomfortable silences and expertly disguising planned hesitations and stutters as spontaneous and uncontrollable. Often she went first for shock, constantly trying to catch her audience off guard and making them squirm in discomfort as they wonder whether or not it is really okay to laugh at this stuff. But Silverman is so good and so sharp because she’s always been keenly aware of where that line is drawn, how far she could go beyond it, and just how arbitrary the line itself really is.
And while this special is different in many ways, she still relies on the same tried and true techniques at times. When discussing her reticence to complain at a hotel, she says she ultimately decides to call the front desk to report that “there’s semen on the duvet. Also some on the nightstand.” And she adds, though disguised as though it was just another location of semen in the room, “Also I noticed there’s cum all over my tits.” But more often than not, in this special, she forgoes these presumably easy laughs and favors the slow burn of a long bit, allowing herself longer set-ups and ideally, more rewarding results. Instead of the deadpanned “the best time to have a baby is when you’re a black teenager,” as she did in Jesus is Magic or even the rapid fired set-up of “Don’t forget, God can see you masturbating,” punchline “But don’t stop, he’s almost there!” followed by the darkly comedic ending with “Just kidding, there is no God” of We Are Miracles, she mines different areas, even her own comedic styling, for humor.
For example, when speaking about her new dog, Mary, Silverman says “she’s young, and she’s full of life, and she’s obsessed with squirrels, and she’s kind of gotten me into it too.” Then, she decides to inform the audience that “that squirrel line, I would call that in comedy, a throwaway joke. I knew it was going to get a laugh, but you just keep going to that main joke, and it makes it extra cool. Now I’ve ruined it, because I doubled back and I’m talking about it, now it’s ruined, it’s not a throwaway joke anymore. But it was.”
That deconstruction, in a sense, of her own material allows her to get a bit more mileage out of her set-up by staying on one topic for an extended time, whereas in the past, it’s easy to imagine her throwing that squirrel line in, and then moving quickly to another area for her next joke. But she takes the squirrel thing even further, saying, “That’s how trees are planted! God or the universe or nature or whatever the fuck, created this anxiety-ridden, paranoid, coke-head, that thinks that everybody wants their acorns. Nobody wants your acorns. No one else in the world eats acorns, only you. But they hide them everywhere, and then they’re so fucked up on coke, they can only find two out of every ten.” Also funny, but eventually, she returns to her original intended point: Mary the dog being young and full of energy. Then Silverman admits “that she’s dying,” but in an unexpected turn, explains that Mary is dying “in that it’s out there. It might be in two weeks, in might be in twelve years, but it’s out there and it’s looming over me and my heart can’t take it. I made a mistake, I shouldn’t have gotten another dog, it’s too much.” A long pause, a plea not to judge her, and then, “I’m going to put her to sleep now; I need it to be done.” Rather than quickly moving from topic to topic, throwing the joke out there and then moving on, she has the confidence and comfort to stay and extend it beyond just the punchlines. And that’s where her real growth becomes evident.
Her comedy has always been dark. And these morbid finales to her jokes are not new to her either. But her decision to stay with certain topics longer reveals her willingness to tackle more serious subjects that apply to her real life, like mortality. Of course, she always used serious subjects in her comedy: racism, the Holocaust, rape, 9/11, AIDS. But instead of a punchline built on an obliviousness to societal norms, she’s willing to truly contemplate serious subjects on stage, and perhaps even without the layers of irony that were so key to her earlier work.
Everyone knows now that Sarah Silverman is so much more than a comedian. Her acting skills are obvious onstage, but she’s taken them to starring roles in movies, too. And she’s also got a political comedy show coming out on Hulu called “I Love You, America,” which makes sense since she’s been pretty active politically for quite some time now. But, at least for me, her bread and butter will always be stand-up, and it’s really remarkable to witness her ability to grow as a comedian, to abandon what is sure to kill in favor of trying something that more truly reflects her growth as a human being. And I’ll always have my Jesus is Magic DVD.
Sarah Silverman, A Speck of Dust is available today, Tuesday May 30, 2017 streaming exclusively on Netflix.