Can pretty girls always get away with perversity

On my personal laugh-o-meter, “Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic” scored several smiles, a handful of chuckles and no guffaws. For 70 minutes of comedy, I consider that a pretty weak batting average.

I’m sure Silverman could care less.

The L.A.-based performer is the antithesis of most standup comics, who measure success by the decibel count of the audience’s laughter. Silverman takes her satisfaction from leaving the crowd mildly amused, noticeably shocked and more than a little off-balance.

“Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic,” a concert film comprised almost entirely of a standup routine she performed off-Broadway as a one-woman show a few years ago, opens Friday, Nov. 18.

Every comedian has a stage persona that may or may not bear any resemblance to her or his actual personality. Silverman presents herself as a perfectly nice but perversely mischievous Jewish gal with a potty mouth.

“I was raped by a doctor,” she announces out of nowhere at one point. “Which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.”

It’s as if she’s a talking id and doesn’t fully comprehend how bad the stuff she’s saying sounds. The audience is expected to see beyond this faux innocence, and yet it still reacts with ambivalence. There’s a burst of laughter, which dies out rather quickly as people wonder if they just sanctioned a taboo or revealed their inner prejudice.

Silverman takes a typical standup approach — setup, misdirection, punch line — and sets it to a 4/4 beat of political incorrectness. She doesn’t believe what she’s saying, of course. It’s a shtick, but one that doesn’t truly provoke and doesn’t totally entertain. Call it Lenny Bruce lite.

Bruce satirized the unacknowledged social contract that dictates and restrains our vocabulary and speech. He lampooned the ridiculous and exposed the hypocritical, and made people laugh and think at the same time.

Sarah Silverman makes you think, too. Not about social mores, standards of decency or institutional racism, as Bruce did, but about the metaphysical question of what makes a joke funny.

“Everybody blames the Jews for killing Christ,” she says matter-of-factly. “And then the Jews try to pass it off on the Romans. I’m one of the few that believes it was the blacks.”

Silverman’s a sharp cookie and, taken as a whole, her routine has a political point. Namely that in our society an attractive white woman can get away with saying anything.

Silverman’s bits come off funnier in print than when she delivers them in “Jesus Is Magic.” Her onstage demeanor — a deadpan delivery followed sometimes by a confessional smile and other times by a “what did I say?” look — is carefully calibrated to allow her the pleasure of uttering all sorts of naughty words while sabotaging the audience’s impulse toward catharsis through laughter.

The lengthy standup routine is interspersed with a handful of songs, which morph into music videos. The staging of these numbers, as well as the sketch that bookends the movie, both embraces and skewers celebrity narcissism.

It comes as a surprise to see Silverman working Sandra Bernhard’s territory, although her style is quite different and she’s easier on the eyes.

All in all, “Jesus Is Magic” feels a bit like a demo reel for Sarah Silverman, the actress, and Sarah Silverman, the singer. Sarah Silverman, the comedian, is here too, but she’s not as talented as those other two.

“Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic” opens Friday, Nov. 18 at the Lumiere in San Francisco, the Act in Berkeley and the Aquarius in Palo Alto.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.