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No topic is taboo for comic Sarah Silverman

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LOS ANGELES - Did she just say what I thought she said?

No, she couldn't have said what I thought she said.

Apparently, she did say what I thought she said.

Sarah Silverman has a habit of saying things that leave people wondering if they heard her right. The 34-year-old comic, whose edgy comedy reminds some of the late Lenny Bruce, is getting noticed in the same way that Bruce got noticed, by stretching the boundaries of comedy.

As evidenced in her new concert film "Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic," she demonstrates in a sometimes hysterical and sometimes shocking way that what people have been saying about her - that no topic, whether it be AIDS, race, sex, religion, the Holocaust or even the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are off-limits - is true.

If you're looking for a sample of her work, see the movie. Her best punch lines aren't suitable for a family newspaper.

"I suppose nothing is taboo to me, as long as it's funny," she explained in the Los Angeles office of the Samuel Goldwyn film company. "My rule of thumb is that if it's funnier than it is sad or upsetting, it goes in the act."

So much for the post-9-11 theory that irony is dead.

In fact, the pendulum has swung back so far from the timid, gun-shy malaise that characterized the world of comedy immediately following the terrorist attacks that one might suggest that the subsequent political movement to return to a time of more traditional values (remember Janet Jackson and the FCC crackdown?) actually may have provided the spark to a new era of dark, edgy humor.

Consider that the two biggest movie comedies of the year - "Wedding Crashers" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" - were R-rated because of their raunchy nature.

Consider that the biggest concert draw in comedy today is Larry the Cable Guy, a performer drawing laughs with mostly "blue" material.

Consider the critical acclaim of Larry David's painfully funny "Curb Your Enthusiasm" on HBO and the biting political humor of Jon Stewart on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."

Consider the unlikely heroes of "My Name is Earl" (an unlikable, low-down petty criminal) and "House" (an unlikable, acid-tongued doctor), both network TV hits.

Consider the theater-level popularity of in-your-face stand-up comics Margaret Cho, Bobby Slayton, Robert Shimmel and Lewis Black.

"There never has been a more relevant time for this kind of humor," Silverman said. "Everything has gotten so extreme politically that there had to be a backlash. All comedy is a reaction to its time. You can learn history by listening to the comedy of a particular era. Comedy is just a reflection of what people are thinking."

Nowhere does this seem to be more true than in the comedy clubs, where longtime observers see a marked change in both the comedy material that is being delivered from the stage, and the kind of material responded to by the audience.

"In the clubs, particularly in the Orange County clubs, there seemed to be a numbness and hesitancy to address topical material after 9/11," said comedy promoter Bill Word. "Then, as the war in Iraq dragged on and on, and as the nonsense and scandals in Washington continued on and on, there seemed to be a cynicism that creeped into the comic's acts.

"And the more cynical and sarcastic the comics got, the more people laughed at the jokes. Even jokes aimed at President Bush, which would have been unheard of in Orange County a couple of years ago, are getting big laughs now."

Jeff Jena, a 27-year veteran of the comedy-club circuit, the former manager of the Irvine Improv and co-owner of a new comedy club in the Midwest, agreed that the times they are a-changing.

"None of us wanted to talk about the terrorist attacks after 9/11 because we knew that it was too sensitive a subject. But, as stage performers, it was difficult not to talk about it because it was like going to a funeral and ignoring the body. But that's how it works. And that hasn't really changed. No one's making jokes about Hurricane Katrina right now, and there is a wealth of material there, from the inaction of FEMA to the cops stealing the city blind. But it's too soon.

"As time goes by, people will be more prepared to talk about it."

Maybe in the comedy clubs, but not everywhere.

If there is one place that comedy hasn't moved to the dark, edgy side, it is on radio, where the Federal Communications Commission holds all the power.

Howard Stern has moved his act to satellite radio to get away from the FCC's control, and Jena said he has seen evidence of the FCC's impact on other radio performers.

"There is a syndicated show with two guys named Bob & Tom," Jena said. "They always had an `anything goes' attitude toward comedy. Comics would come on their show and say just about anything they wanted.

"Now, when you go on their show, you're told that you have to tone down the language and be careful about the topics you discuss."

Which may explain why Sarah Silverman doesn't do a lot of radio.

Raised in a New Hampshire home without boundaries ("My father used the f-word a lot"), Silverman attended New York University and began her stand-up career while still in school. She was a writer and cast member on "Saturday Night Live" for one year.

"In those days, I was only doing jokes on stage about my high school," she says apologetically. "I was still pretty young and hadn't seen much of the world. It wasn't until I lost my virginity at 19 that my act started to change. Then I got obsessed with sex jokes. All my jokes were about sex.

"The act started changing gradually after that as my interests changed. I always talk about what I'm interested in. The older I got, the more I got interested in what some people call the taboo topics. But I don't understand why other people wouldn't be interested in talking about those subjects. They're like elephants in the room. I don't see how you can ignore them."

Silverman has appeared in a number of small movie roles ("School of Rock," being the most notable), but her face is more familiar from her TV work, which has ranged from the occasional guest shot ("Seinfeld," "The Larry Sanders Show") to more substantive work on cult favorites "Greg The Bunny," "Mr. Show With Bob and David" and "Crank Yankers."

On "Crank Yankers," a show featuring strange puppets making strange phone calls, she was the voice of Hadassah Guberman, which gave her a chance to work with her boyfriend, talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel.

But it was in the recent documentary "The Aristocrats" that Silverman may have separated herself from the pack.

Veteran comics Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller fame) and Paul Provenza taped more than 100 fellow comics either telling or talking about the dirtiest joke in the world. The comics pretty much kept to the subject at hand, but Silverman went off on a wild tangent, talking straight-faced and in pain (she was only joking) about being molested by a well-known New York talk-show host.

It is the one segment that viewers talked about the most after they saw the documentary. But it wasn't the one segment Silverman wanted to talk about.

"I loved what George Carlin said in that film. He said that `to shock is to surprise.' That was the greatest thing I'd ever heard. It gave so much validity for me being a so-called shock comic. I'm not trying to shock people. I'm just trying to surprise them. What I do isn't a publicity stunt. This is what comedy is about. It's about surprising people."

Silverman's brand of shock comedy was just getting started when the terrorists slammed those planes into the World Trade Center towers. She wasn't sure she'd ever get back on a stage again.

"Nothing like that had ever happened in my lifetime. I was devastated, like everyone was devastated. As a comic, I couldn't imagine anything ever being funny again.

"Five days after the attacks, the Improv opened again and I went to see Chris Rock perform. I wondered what he was going to say. Well, he did talk about it. He was brilliant. He made me realize that you have to talk about these things. They need to be talked about.

"Do I sometimes get offensive? Do I sometimes go too far? I suppose, particularly when I'm trying out new material.

"But my act is intended to elicit only one reaction, and that is a laugh. I'd much rather get a laugh than be considered preachy or smart. I don't want to be one of those comics who doesn't get the laugh but gets people sitting there nodding their heads in agreement.

"I want the laugh. That's what feeds me."


(c) 2005, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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