TV Preview

This 'Sarah Silverman' Has Less Vinegar, More Appeal

Sarah Silverman (with Brian Posehn) turns the jokes on herself in
Sarah Silverman (with Brian Posehn) turns the jokes on herself in "The Sarah Silverman Program," premiering on Comedy Central tonight. (By Steve Agee)
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 1, 2007

As a standup comic, Sarah Silverman has gotten much mileage out of going way over the line, her intended-to-shock racist and homophobic punch lines delivered with a seeming Bambi-eyed innocence.

Self-deprecation, though, has never been among her charms. She is a jerk, and if she weren't so cute, you'd totally want to punch her.

So it's good news for viewers that in her often-absurd scripted series, "The Sarah Silverman Program" (premiering tonight on Comedy Central), the crude comedian dilutes the vinegar by turning the joke on herself -- to swell effect.

What works here is that her character is a naif, a pathetic work-in-progress rather unlike the rude persona Silverman has cultivated (in such work as "The Aristocrats," "Comedy Central Roasts" and her 2005 film "Jesus Is Magic"). The laughs come as we watch this "Sarah Silverman" glean lessons in sensitivity.

In the pilot episode, we quickly learn that Sarah is unemployed, unkempt and prone to social gaffes and infantile thinking. She is pure, immature id. Fortunately for Sarah, her sister Laura (played by real sister Laura) is so attached to her sibling (the characters are orphans) that she's blind to all the inappropriate behavior and even pays her slacker sister's rent. But so smartly does Silverman play the clueless, hyper-narcissistic "Sarah Silverman" that she inspires a pity that, it turns out, is pretty funny.

The show also relies on absurdity and bizarre silliness -- including a trippy animated sequence and a poppy musical number. In those ways, the show has much in common with two polarizing animated hits: "South Park" and "Family Guy." In the pilot, Silverman swigs from a nighttime cough syrup while driving and cartoony hallucination ensues; in a later episode, her one-night stand with God ends . . . badly.

"The Sarah Silverman Program," though, more strongly echoes another Comedy Central creation: the underappreciated "Strangers With Candy" (1999-2000), which also starred a woman (played by Amy Sedaris) who, cheated of her childhood, seemed clueless about social graces and political correctness.

"Candy" didn't last. And like that show, "The Sarah Silverman Program" breaks enough conventions that its future seems a tossup.

"Silverman" also will require patience as viewers get accustomed to the gauzy-lens look and the lack of a laugh track. Even harder to get used to are the juvenile song sequences. But the show is just silly enough -- and Silverman is just appealing enough, for once -- to cultivate at least a cult audience.

The Sarah Silverman Program (30 minutes) debuts tonight at 10:30 on Comedy Central.

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