Admittedly, I haven’t always been the biggest Sarah Silverman fan. But something I’ve noticed in her comedy that I have great respect for is her ability to sell a joke, even if the joke isn’t, you know, funny. Most of that is due to her confidence and stage presence. Even if you don’t care for Silverman’s brand of humor, there’s no denying she’s a professional when it comes to presenting herself to an audience. Netflix’s A Speck Of Dust is Silverman’s follow-up to her 2014 Emmy winning special, We Are Miracles, and while it might not live up to the quality of that special for some fans, it’s refreshing to see a slightly different side to her act. One where the main goal is to be real, and not so outrageous.
Her story involving an awkward handshake with a woman named Amber starts by realizing she actually had hooks for hands, and ends with her saying she lost the hand to landmines when she was seven. It’s delivered in a way that dark humor usually is, but then followed up with the comment “sometimes I like to end a joke with a sad truth.” Silverman says this so casually that it sparks the question “wait, is she serious?” This occurs in even absurd moments in bits where she’ll tells the audience that she loves her dog so much that she wants to have him put down (specifically crucified) just so she can get the pain over with. After a long explanation to justify killing her dog she clarifies it by throwing in “tomorrow when I put her to sleep, which I’m doing.” It’s another double-take moment where you’re almost certain that’s part of the joke, but a part of you thinks it could be true. She’s just that good at selling the moment.
Silverman’s stand-up is a lot like a roller coaster ride through the light and dark sides of comedy, especially in this special. Often times, she’ll make you explore both sides within the same joke, telling a seemingly fluffy story that takes an unexpected turn. A lighthearted story about her sister throwing up in the toilet and soiling her underwear ends in her explaining the joke as if the set up would lead it to rape. Her need to explain certain jokes as a part of the punchline might seem like a brilliantly meta way of selling a bit, but at a point, it feels overdone.
Not only are a large percentage of the punchlines riddled with dark material, the overarching point to the special is one of serious self-reflection. Even within the first couple minutes it’s clear Silverman is bitter about the current political climate (can you blame her?) throwing small political jabs in the air, but never fully going into that territory. Where she does spend a decent chunk of time is talking about her near death experience just this past summer as she was bed ridden, fighting for her life after a rare condition in her throat formed while on tour. The video footage she mentions earlier in the show taken by her friend Amy plays over the closing credits, wrapping everything up nicely.
In A Speck Of Dust, Silverman has found the sweet spot in crafting the ideal stand-up special. Give your fans exactly what they came for, while also throwing in a few new ingredients to come off looking just fresh enough. While her jokes don’t always stick the landing, and she ends the show on a bit of low note, there is plenty to take away from her performance style and from her self-aware humor, which is part sarcasm, part confidence, and all Silverman.
Christian Becker is a writer and improv comedy performer in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @TheAmazingBeck.