Funny that she isn't

February 21, 2010 

Sarah Silverman is a cute, darling thing, isn't she? Her glowing smile, complete with rosy-red cheeks, smoky eyes, blinding teeth and brunette hair usually held up in pigtails almost beam you into submission, as if to say, "You can't hate me - I'm purty!"

I wish I could feel that way about her stand-up, which I have tried to find the funny in for years. Silverman loves to cross the line, finding comedy in the most taboo subjects (sample joke: "When God gives you AIDS - and God does give you AIDS, by the way - make lemonAIDS") while, at the same time, maintaining a ditzy, self-centered demeanor (another sample joke: "I don't care if you think I'm racist. I just want you to think I'm thin").

But I just don't find the woman that funny as a stand-up, and I'm a big fan of anything dirty or inappropriate.

I do begrudgingly have to admit that her sitcom, "The Sarah Silverman Program," which recently started another season on Comedy Central (10:30 p.m. Thursdays), is quite funny. But that's probably because she's in an ensemble with other funny people, telling jokes and getting into shenanigans written by funnier people.

I'll usually laugh at anything. I've idolized comedians for years. When others wanted to be like Michael Jordan when they grew up, I wanted to be like Alan King. (Hey, he told jokes and smoked cigars!) I would've been a stand-up comic years ago if it wasn't for the constant fear of bombing in front of a roomful of people. I've laughed at the hackiest comedians. I've even found a couple of things Dane Cook said funny.

So it puzzled me that I wasn't feeling Silverman and her edgy shtick. I was beginning to think I was one of those guys who didn't think women were funny. But then I remembered something: I've found tons of women funny - Carol Burnett, Whoopi Goldberg, Amy Poehler, Amy Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Wanda Sykes. I've even found Mo'Nique to be a laugh riot when she's not yelling.

Memoirs of funny women

Last late year, I began reading memoirs from ladies - Kathy Griffin, Susie Essman and Lisa Lampanelli - I consider to be quite funny. In Griffin's "Official Book Club Selection," she starts by addressing Oprah Winfrey in the hope that the book will get Griffin on her show ("I will be your new showbiz confidante. I will be your new Julia Rob-iston-altrow-avolta-angelou.") before letting loose on all the family drama, failed relationships, bad stand-up gigs, botched plastic surgeries and rampant celeb bashing (poor Dakota Fanning!) that made her the foul-mouthed, publicity-addicted, self-made D-lister she is today.

Essman combos her personal life stories with sage advice in her book, "What Would Susie Say?" In the book, subtitled "Bullsh*t Wisdom About Love, Life and Comedy," she talks about growing up intending to be an actress, being a stepmom to four kids and her love for antibacterial lotions and gels. She also takes time out to drop the symptoms of perimenopause (including mood swings, weight gain, trouble focusing and "less hair on head, more on face") for the ladies.

Lampanelli spends virtually every page living up to her title as "Comedy's Lovable Queen of Mean" in her book, "Chocolate, Please." Anyone who's aware of Lampanelli's humor (which I'm not even going to attempt to replicate here) knows the lady is a firm believer in interracial dating. So of course, it's here that she lays out the sexual reawakening she experienced when she was with her first black man. Soon after, she says she "started going through men like New York City was a Godiva wholesaler."

Why do I like them?

"I think what you're experiencing is something I think everybody experiences at some point in time," says Sara Benincasa, a New York comic (she premiered her one-woman show "Agorafabulous!" in Chapel Hill last year) who I called to help me through this time in my life. "I mean, I certainly am a Sarah Silverman fan, but there are other comedians - male, female, black, white, Latino, Asian, whatever - who have some status that I don't understand because I just don't like."

It's particularly perplexing that I find Lampanelli funny, considering she's just as brazenly inappropriate and politically incorrect as Silverman. Maybe it's because Lampanelli, like Essman and Griffin, fully embraces her abrasiveness.

As a comedy consumer, I like comics who tell jokes with an honest, confident ease. Lampanelli, Essman and Griffin may be controversial and confrontational, but they're also conversational. They make the audience feel comfortable with their crassness, because they make it seem as though they've been this loud and profane their entire lives.

I don't necessarily get that with Silverman, who often looks like some young, overprivileged gal who wandered onstage and began spouting off shocking things just to get a rise out of the audience. Silverman always appears to detach herself from her jokes, as though even she doesn't believe what she's saying.

Or maybe it's just that humor is personal. Benincasa says she has accepted that some people may not find her funny.

"There are some people - I know there are some people - who look at what tiny amount of status I've achieved and go, 'Well, why? She's derivative. She's a Sarah Silverman rip-off!' . . . So, it just goes down to different strokes for different folks, really."

Well, I guess for every Sarah I don't find funny, there's a Sara who just has me in stitches.

craig.lindsey@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4760

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