Charming delivery and crass punch lines are Sarah Silverman’s bait and switch. With a youthful smile — the 42-year-old comic looks 25 — and a disarming demeanor, she sweetly executes bathroom humor and social satire alike. Asked whether she’s particularly excited about performing in Washington (she appears at the Warner Theatre on Thursday), she confidently responds, as if doling out a pearl of wisdom, “It’s the capital, you know.”
That kind of adorable foolishness is precisely how Silverman lures audiences into otherwise untouchable material. Similar to how Stephen Colbert lampoons misinformed punditry with oblivious gusto, Silverman subverts tactlessness with “gee whiz” naïveté. In her 2005 movie, “Jesus Is Magic,” she casually mentions that she was sexually assaulted by a doctor, but then notes that the experience was “so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.” The humor isn’t in the taboos, but in the nonchalant way Silverman’s onstage persona broaches them.
In rare moments of sincerity, Silverman reiterates that she generally believes the opposite of what she says in her stand-up routines. In an interview on the same day the Supreme Court was hearing arguments challenging the federal ban on same-sex marriage, Silverman first made a raunchy quip about the proceedings, but then let her guard down, repeating a stance she’d expressed before: “I just don’t know how any straight couple in this climate would get married. It’s like you’re joining a country club that doesn’t allow blacks or Jews.”
Race and sexuality frequently crop up in Silverman’s material, but she’s quick to point out that she doesn’t work with controversial material just for the sake of being controversial. “First, it’s the craft of the joke,” she says. “There are so many people who are like, ‘Race stuff, that’s edgy,’ so they’re just racist and it’s awful.” For Silverman, it goes deeper. “Audiences are like dogs — they can smell what’s underneath the material, and that’s something you can’t plan or fake. Sometimes people don’t buy it from me, and sometimes they do.”
Guy Aoki, the president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, didn’t buy it from Silverman in 2001 when she used a pejorative term for Asians in a joke on Conan O’Brien’s show, but Silverman refused to apologize. She stood by the joke as a clear satire of the misinformed logic of racism, not as a perpetuation of it.
“I never apologize for anything I’m not sorry for, and I can’t control how things are inferred,” she says, in line with her 2001 stance. However, in reference to the Onion’s apology for an insulting Oscars-night Twitter comment about the child actress in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Silverman says: “I thought it was great that they apologized because they were sorry. You should apologize if you’re sorry — not for ads or followers or likes or views.”
Apologies aside, Silverman is hoping to rack up views for her new YouTube venture, JASH. The comedian shares a channel with Michael Cera, Reggie Watts, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. Members of the group produce a comedy video every week.
“I get to wake up and have an idea and shoot it next week. It’s total autonomy,” she says. “Google and YouTube fund it, but we don’t have to show them anything . . . it might fail, but we’re not gonna get canceled.”
The YouTube project also gives her room to try different formats and subject matter at whim, which she says informs her stand-up, just as her stand-up informs her other projects. And as with all of her work, craft is priority No. 1.
“The only way I can be loose is when I’m prepared,” she says. “I feel like I’m always in process — I hone forever — so I’m excited to be loose and see if the audience likes it.”
Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Warner Theatre,
513 13th St. NW. 202-783-4000. www.warnertheatredc.com. $39.50-$59.50.