Girl Against Boys

Seven comedians are playing poker. Lizz, who’s from the Midwest and who calls everyone “Marge” -- even the dog -- has a pair of sevens on the table. Louie‘s got squat and a grimace to show for it. Maggie polishes off a Diet Coke and starts in on the M&Ms. Marc’s got -- well, who the hell knows what Marc‘s got, because his poker strategy seems to involve some kind of Tourette’s-driven sing-along. Bob Dylan is on the hi-fi, cranky as usual. Another joint goes whipping ‘round the table. Marc tosses a couple of chips into the pot and croons “fuck blue balls flapping cunt lips” to Dylan’s “Things Have Changed.” No one pays any attention.

Sarah Silverman folds and gets up to grab a piece of licorice. When she sits back down, it‘s on an apple that someone’s slipped onto her chair. She yelps, “Fuck, that went up my pussy,” and Marc says, “Pass it over, I‘ll eat it.”

This is comedian Sarah Silverman’s regular Saturday-night poker game, where all the players tell jokes for a living and most of them do it on television. There may be longer-running games in the annals of poker and comedy, but this one‘s been around for a while. It started in the early ’90s in the Big Apple and was transplanted here when Silverman changed coasts. And no, it‘s not surprising to find Silverman dealing cards to the boys (or to the women who like to hang with the boys when the boys are being boys) because this is where she lives now, having spent the last 10 years sprinting past the touchy-feely terra firma of female comedy and land-grabbing territory usually occupied by the world’s funny men.

In making her way, Silverman had the advantage of being a tomboy (poker player, softball player, basketball player) and the disadvantage of being beautiful (in comedy circles people think if you‘re attractive, then you have nothing to talk about). But part of her genius has been finding a way to blend the two together so that each ups the ante on the other. When she drops a comedic bomb, it’s all the more explosive for the incongruity of this comely woman out-salting the salty men in this salty men‘s game. Simply put, she’s disarming.

This was never more apparent than when she took the dais at the New York Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner, held just two and a half weeks after September 11. The atmosphere was tense, the laughter mandated. Silverman was the only woman in the lineup.

After being introduced by host Jimmy Kimmel, she said, “Jimmy Kimmel everyone, he‘s fat and has no charisma. Watch your back, Danny Aiello!”

She told Alan King that a nursing home in Florida called and “the last person who thinks you’re funny just died.”

She didn‘t just roast the men, she torched ’em. The guys ate it up, as they are wont to do, even though Silverman typically mines a more feminine milieu (albeit an often dark one). Ask her what she does in her free time, and she‘ll say, “I go to strip clubs, I like strip clubs . . . I really want to be a stripper, I’m doing comedy to get into stripping. I mean, I‘ve wanted to be a stripper ever since I was molested.”

She likes them ribald and she likes them taboo. She’s written articles about why she loves Penthouse Pets. She told Playboy that her pet name for her vagina is “faggot.” Esquire once asked her to write up 10 things men don‘t know about women. Number one on her list: “When we go to the bathroom together it’s because we‘re doing coke.”

Silverman grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire, doing school theater, and thought she was heading for a Cats career until she discovered comedy while attending NYU. Pretty soon she was skipping class to write jokes. From the start she liked edgy material, and from the start her edgy material got her in trouble. Back in 1993, Saturday Night Live hired her as a writer, but she wrote a joke about the law that requires a woman to wait 24 hours before getting an abortion. This waiting period is supposed to enable the woman to think it over.

“Frankly, I think it’s a good law,” said Silverman. “The other day I wanted to go get an abortion. I really wanted an abortion, but then I thought about it and it turned out I was just thirsty.” This joke (one of many) ran afoul of the censors, and her contract wasn‘t picked up for a second season.

During the past 10 years, the 31-year-old dove into the world of standup. She played comedy clubs everywhere she could, developing a brand of impolite big-topic comedy that cuts through the politically correct crap and says what our cheekier selves ache to say. Her devotion to the cause got her guesting in high places. She did Seinfeld and Larry Sanders, Letterman, Leno and Conan O’Brien, and managed to work up Jesus Is Magic, her one-woman-plus-a-band show. Jesus Is Magic spent two sold-out summer weeks off-Broadway and is here for a limited run at the Canon Theater in Beverly Hills.

The show deals with ideas Silverman‘s been probing her entire career. “You could say it took a month to write or you could say it took 13 years,” she says. In Jesus, Silverman hits on 911, the Holocaust, sex, ethnic jokes . . . She loves a good ethnic joke, loves to futz around with blue buzzwords. Never one to shy away from a hot topic, even if the topic is herself, Jesus includes pointed commentary on the troubles Silverman got into while guesting on Conan O’Brien last year.

“I was on Conan and was talking to the censor before the show. He asked me what I was going to say, and I told him a joke that used the word ‘chinks.’ He said I couldn‘t say ’chinks‘ on the air. I asked what I could say, and he said ’dirty Jew or spic.‘ So, of course, I said ’chinks.‘”

She took it on the chin for that one. The Media Action Network for Asian Americans made a big fuss. NBC made public apologies. And her friends won’t let it go. Back at the poker table someone says, “I thought this was an equal-opportunity game -- so how come there are no chinks playing tonight?”

Silverman smiles and shrugs off her friends‘ gibes. She claims she’s guided by a simple rule: “I really think everything is fair game. That‘s not to say that I don’t find anything offensive. But I think you can make fun of anything as long as it‘s funny enough. But it has to be funny enough.”

The game progresses into some version of Anaconda, which involves passing cards and heavy betting. Louie’s looking to take everybody‘s cash. Marc sings “titty-fucker-wannabe.” Lizz says, “Come on, Marge, it’s your turn to bet.” Some guy who plays some guy on Dawson‘s Creek doesn’t need to be told twice. Chips fall thick into the pot. Most of the comics at the table use the evening to sift through new material, tossing off quick zingers and testing reactions, as when Louie turns to Marc and asks, “Are you Jewish?”

“Yea . . . ,” Marc starts.

But before Marc can get the answer out, Louie slaps him across the face.

The animated protocol of the poker game is interesting because Silverman is the least animated, the least “on.” In fact, she was more “on” earlier in the day while having tea at Mani‘s (where else would you have tea with a Jewish comic?). There, she was asked about the history of one of her jokes, and while thinking about things for a moment her face did contortions that went yards beyond the normal tics of expression. Her right eyebrow whirled upward and her left eyebrow whipped downward and her nose compressed into a wave of wry wrinkles and her mouth sucked inward and spun slightly so her lips were offset and the whole effect was like watching a goldfish trying to mow the lawn.

Part of the thing that made this elastic facial circus so unusual is that Silverman thinking in private was more animated than Silverman in public. Onstage you would expect these kinds of robust antics from any of the other poker-game players, but Silverman’s comedy is not about slapstick, it‘s about maintaining the exact level of playful understatement necessary to pull off her jokes.

So Silverman’s kinesthetic comedic facial reaction -- like everything she‘s learned and left out of her act -- resurfaces as part of her life. Which is what it means to have comedy in your blood. And if you ask Sarah Silverman why she chose comedy, she’ll say it‘s because, for her, doing standup “is like being gay -- I was just born that way.”

But it’s more than that. While everyone else at the card table is blabbing and testing and trying, Silverman keeps studiously quiet. She listens and watches, a serious scholar of the game. She is deciding what to discard and what to hold. In comedy, as in poker, that‘s how you trump the big boys.

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