It dawns on us, as standup queen Sarah Silverman debuts her new “I-play-me” Comedy Central series at this point in her taboo-thrashing career, that, bizarrely, she’s no longer the most transgressive, racism-spotlighting, shit-stirring Jewish comedian in the entertainment world. That would be Sacha Baron Cohen, whose performance-art trek through bigoted America — a Sherman’s march of real-life comedy destruction — has generated massive box office, op-ed pieces and litigation. Meanwhile, Silverman, a raven-haired beauty who enjoys treating stereotypes and personal sexuality as the joke equivalent of Tinkertoys, has remained mostly an indie comedy phenomenon. And where Silverman’s humorous obsession with human genitalia finds its outlet in one-liners, Cohen notoriously shows us in his nude mano-a-mano hotel-room melee from Borat how physically close he’s willing to get to that topic.
Of course, when the air in the room becomes all about how far one is willing to go for a laugh, funny is often the first victim. Which is why The Sarah Silverman Program is a welcome outlet for Silverman’s brand of outlandishness, blessedly stingy with its desire to breach mores, and much more concerned with decorating its late-night comedy turf so that it can welcome any kind of unexpected laugh: shock, parody, irony, insult humor or absurdity. The setting may be rudimentary — San Fernando Valley apartment, straight-woman sister for a roommate (real-life sib Laura Silverman), bickering bear couple for neighbors (Brian Posehn and Steve Agee), coffeehouse meeting spot — but the show delights in Silverman’s penchant for unforced, funny left turns, including musical interludes like the kind seen in her concert film Jesus Is Magic.
There’s genuine comic tension in wondering where each silly story will lead. The pilot episode, for example, starts when a couple of ugly sneezes send Silverman to a drugstore for cold medicine, where she has a sweet-then-rude encounter with an elderly black woman — Silverman compliments her by saying she doesn’t look 70, but then moves in for a hug and says, “Now that you’re closer I can tell you’re old.” She follows that with a cough-syrup-medicated drive into fantasy animation land while Silverman in the real world is crashing her car into a playground.
“Do you know why I’m standing here?” asks a cop at Silverman’s driver’s-side window.
Taking in his uniform, she answers, “You got all C’s in high school?”
It’s love at first sight, just not for our gonzo heroine. At the police station, when Laura comes to bail out Sarah, she and arresting officer Jay (Jay Johnston) make goo-goo eyes. (The Silverman worldview even extends to Jay’s nervous romantic patter to Laura: “You know I believe the Holocaust was completely uncalled for.” Laura responds with a hilariously sensitive, “Don’t worry about it!”)
Naturally, this relationship threatens the sisters’ bond, and eventually turns Silverman petulant and self-destructive. Like Curb Your Enthusiasm and its portrayal of creator Larry David as a feud-magnet, Silverman’s own series has a my-crazy-life playbook that feeds off putting the comic in conflict with others. The difference is that Silverman’s style of antagonistic humor — potty-mouth taunts, blithe cruelty and sometimes just plain weird behavior — comes from a place of childish irreverence rather than guilt-ridden arrogance. Every time she blurts out an off-color observation — episode two has a lot to do with vaginal air expulsion — she has a way of making it sound like the mutterings of a 10-year-old who doesn’t understand why her new words are horrifying the grown-ups.
In that respect, it’s not a far cry from the twisted-child’s-show charms of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and Wonder Showzen. There’s a ?do-what-I-feel nuttiness that’s infectious; I was reminded a few times of a recent family vacation where I was in the grin-inducing thrall of my 4-year-old niece’s adorably unhinged attempts to dominate a room with her me-me-me ramblings. And because Silverman has more performance chops than your average routine-rigid club comic — her act depends on a carefully cultivated mixture of naiveté and outrageousness — she throws herself into her universe in a way that keeps things lively. The Sarah Silverman Program may not be the stuff of lawsuits and nude wrestling, but its basic-cable offensiveness has a purity of heart to it, a non-P.C. spark that’s shiny and happy, as if Silverman’s message were: Can’t we all enjoy not getting along?
With so many network sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother and My Name Is Earl and The Office working hard to escape the institutionalized drudge that has gone a long way toward crippling the genre, it’s always a little surprising when one comes along that looks like it can barely muster up the energy to even feel old hat. CBS’s new Monday-night sitcom Rules of Engagement so lacks any comic drive or ingenuity in its hoary battle-of-the-sexes premise: In this corner, the wide-eyed young betrothed pair (Oliver Hudson and Bianca Kajlich); in that corner, the bitter married couple (Megyn Price and Patrick Warburton) — and providing color commentary, the single-and-proud lothario (David Spade). The series quickly begins to resemble one of those fake sitcoms you’d see in a snide movie that likes to take easy potshots at low culture. (I’m thinking of the L.A. segment of Annie Hall in which we see Tony Roberts’ laugh-track-enhanced show and are supposed to instantly feel that all the airwaves do is harvest cultural rot.)
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But hey, I like a good traditional sitcom, a well-crafted three-camera tele-playlet in which lively actors sell witty applause lines and even know how to make us laugh when they’re waiting for a guffawing audience to settle down — The New Adventures of Old Christine, for example. Christine practically buzzes with the kind of old-school personality humor that, let’s be honest, made American television worth caring enough about that when you eventually saw that bit in Annie Hall you could believe that something had gone terribly, terribly wrong.
This year’s model of that something is Rules of Engagement. It’s not vile or anything. Just . . . lazy. Lowered-expectation jokes you’ve heard before. Smarmy sexual innuendo in which confusing “annually” with “anally” is supposed to be funny. A puffy-looking Spade delivering his lines as if he’s finally tired of the you’re-an-idiot shtick. Spade and Hudson, not even bothering to seem like a believably close pair of friends. Price and Warburton having an exchange about balancing the checkbook that suggests they only met that morning. And Warburton can’t sell henpecked cynicism with that Paul Bunyan physique, square-jawed gaze and radio-announcer voice: He’s a shaving-cream advertisement, not a sitcom husband. If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, maybe this show is Uranus. Annually.
THE SARAH SILVERMAN PROGRAM | Comedy Central | Thursdays, ?10:30 p.m. Premiere episode Feb. 1.
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT | CBS | Mondays, 9:30 p.m. Premiere episode Feb. 5.