“The Sarah Silverman Program” tagline — “Bound to make you feel better about your own life” — is true, except when you realize you’ve just wasted precious minutes of that life watching Silverman’s crappy program.
Silverman, known for her live stand-up routines that offend almost everyone in the audience, has taken her brand of humor to the small screen. Season one of “The Sarah Silverman Program” consists of six episodes structured like sitcoms, minus the laugh track. The episodes tackle subjects that morph from inane to offensive; Silverman turns even the shallowest topics (children’s beauty pageants) into chances to mouth off on shit that is controversial but not that funny (abortion jokes).
Each episode is bookended by two recurring events; the show usually begins at a coffee shop, where Silverman eats breakfast with her sister (Laura Silverman), her two gay neighbors and her sister’s policeman boyfriend. After living her life and fucking up in a number of ways, Silverman always ends up explaining to her dog, Doug, the lessons she has learned. These scenes are painful. The formula is clear — two Jewish girls, two gay guys, a hotheaded policeman eating waffles and a 30-something-year-old talking to a dog — except that the set-up isn’t funny. Assembling a bunch of stock characters and having them say “poop” a lot just doesn’t cut it.
Watching the show with preconceived notions about Silverman sets a viewer up for disappointment. If you expected quick wit, a foul mouth and “full frontal Jew-dity” (her words), the program may initially seem like just the thing, but after repeat viewings, it’s obvious the show can’t behave entirely like a stand-up routine. It has to stick to at least some kind of script and this presents a problem. The only thing Silverman wants to do is talk — not with other people, just at other people. Chemistry is missing from the majority of her on-screen alter ego’s interactions with those around her. Her character — also named Sarah — tries to be herself, which is commendable and often the best strategy a stand-up can adopt when transitioning to the small screen. Dave Chappelle certainly succeeded using that approach. But her “self” is too distinctive to gain anything from interacting with other, weaker characters: this girl can’t be shoehorned into a half-hour sitcom.
There are funny, saving moments hidden within season one; when Silverman is allowed to crack a joke that sounds made for her on-stage monologues, she really shines. Her intellect and ability to think on her feet are also intact. When Jay, her sister’s boyfriend, drops the word “dyke” in reference to his new partner at the police station, Silverman, having misheard it as “kike,” responds with a diatribe against anti-Semitism: “Hey! I’m one too, and so is she, and so is Albert Einstein.” If the show maintained this same kind of geniunely funny, rapid-fire exchange throughout, it would bear more semblance to Silverman’s routines and consequently be a lot funnier. But as someone who is used to free reign over her subject matter and artistic direction (or lack thereof) is forced to unify her jokes into some grand theme by the end of a segment, Silverman tends to crash and burn.
The show’s six episodes manage to pack in a lot of action. Silverman gets high off cough syrup and repeatedly crashes her car, invites a homeless man to come live with her, tries to become the HIV-negative face of AIDS, goes lesbian for a day or two and sleeps with God — of whom she demands, “Are you God’s black friend?” (The show probably couldn’t afford Morgan Freeman, but they went with some guy that looks a hell of a lot like him.) If you have any faith in Silverman as a comedian, you’ll want the show to pull off what it’s going for: absurd, over-the-top scenarios in which a comic should shine. It seems logical that someone who can make people laugh with just a microphone, an empty stage and her brain should be able to do the same with an entire production crew and a script at her disposal.
But Silverman isn’t one easily or willingly forced into manufacturing laughs when someone else in charge demands them of her. During a “Nightline” interview with Jake Tapper, she reacted as if intensely offended — a strange role reversal — when Tapper asked her to re-tell a joke that had made waves on Conan O’Brien a few years back. “I’m not your monkey, Jake,” she snapped back at him. She did go on to tell the joke but, in that setting, it seemed more like a racist anecdote than a racially charged joke.
In the end, the on-screen Silverman is just a woman with the mouth of a trucker, the promiscuity of a hooker and the naivete of a child. The elements don’t come together and result in a character serving the purposes of its script and its director, not of its actor. And the actor really should be served in this case. Silverman is hilarious when she wants to be, but she isn’t a good actor and isn’t being herself: The real Sarah wouldn’t have childish conversations with dogs, policemen and fat gay guys who live next door. She would make fun of them. “The Sarah Silverman Program” is weird, pointless and more than anything else holds back the title character. She belongs on a stage somewhere, offending everyone in the audience — something hard to achieve when that stage becomes a television screen and she can’t see her audience.