There are just as many stunned laughs as there are laugh laughs on Sarah Silverman’s new album, We Are Miracles. Listen to her bit about rape jokes—which she describes, both ironically and unironically, as “a hidden gem in comedy”—and most of the guffaws from the small audience are of the tentative, uncomfortable, self-conscious variety. It’s the sound of people asking themselves if it’s okay to actually laugh at what Silverman describes as “the most heinous crime imaginable.” There’s confusion in the laughter, which is useful. It provokes a quick, intense reflex of self-examination and ultimately reinforces the wrongness of rape.
The crowd is crucial to We Are Miracles, in particular, as well as in Silverman’s comedy in general. They allow her to make incredibly callous statements but not come across as incredibly callous. “You don’t understand, I’m at a show, too,” she tells her audience after a joke about blow jobs. “You’re my show.” Silverman trusts her audience to retain their humanity even as she transitions from gang bang porn to her mother’s illness. Her mischievous giggle seems to say, “I can’t believe you’re letting me get away with this!”
The audience for We Are Miracles was small; Silverman repeatedly comments that there are 40 people in the room, counting her. Her performance was recorded at Largo in Los Angeles—not exactly unfriendly territory—and she won an Emmy when it aired on HBO. Of course she works blue, as they used to say. Outrageously blue, in fact, but also pointedly blue. There are bits of serious truth in even the most exaggerated punchlines, as though she is using jokes to smuggle uncomfortable topics into the mainstream: racism and white guilt, Jewish stereotypes that still persist, rape survivors in a blame-the-victim society. This is comedy as the gentlest, funniest dissent imaginable.
And We Are Miracles is funny. Silverman thrives not only on the reassuring discomfort of her audience, but on the old modes of comedy. She excels at the set up (“Don’t forget, God can see you masturbating”). She nails the out-of-nowhere punchline (“But don’t stop! He’s almost there”). And she seems to punctuate each joke with some dark aside (“I’m just kidding. There’s no God”). Her timing is impeccable as well—almost musical in fact, as though she were a jazz soloist. Even when a bit flops (confusing Kanye for Obama), she projects such a warm, mischievous magnetism as she makes her audience squirm.