Last night, I found myself on the second floor of the RMIT building on Swanston Street at 10.30. At separate hours of that evening, I'd had a bottle of Tooheys, a gin and tonic, and a pint of Carlton, so I was starting to think that maybe I might like to go to the toilet. I was there to see the film Jesus is Magic: Sarah Silverman, which was mostly footage of Silverman doing stand-up comedy in a large theatre, mixed in with various video clips of Silverman performing comedy songs.
I like stand up comedy; if it's done well, then it keeps you mentally alert. You have to listen to every word the comedian says, and the accent they say it in; and you have to usually keep an eye out for their gestures as well. Of course, there are people who go along to stand up comedy performances, or watch movies of stand up performances, and laugh anyway, without getting the jokes - essentially performing the role of a human laugh track. Well, I suppose somebody's got to do it.
On the other hand, Í'm not especially fond of the Melbourne International Film Festival. As I've mentioned before, it has an incomprehensible timetable, a reactionary slogan ('It's a long way from Hollywood'), and - worst of all - MIFF groupies. I had an encounter with one of these groupies as I was sitting, bored, in the lobby, waiting for the other film to finish and my film to begin. A leather clad 40-something woman with a white scarf. She burst in, laughed loudly for the benefit of nobody, walked over to the chair I was sitting on, beamed histrionically at me, and announced, 'Do you mind if I sit here?' I didn't mind either way; feeling slightly tired and drunk, I did the guy thing and buried my face in the MIFF timetable, giving short answers to her overtures. I think she got the message, since pretty soon she started chatting loudly to someone on her other sidé. 'Is this your first film? Really?'A bit later she started gabbing about how some film had a Lacanian Marxist subplot, and I conveniently discovered that I just had to go to the toilet (I'd been in just five minutes earlier).
Well, eventually I forced my way through the milling hordes of film festival groupies into the theatre, and settled down to enjoy the film. It was pretty simple, really; just one and a half hours of Silverman talking. I must say, she can be pretty funny, though the newspapers have been repeating some of her jokes ad-nauseuam. Here's a brief sampler that you might have read about already:
"When life gives you AIDS, make Lemon-AIDS."
"I want to get an abortion, but my boyfriend and I are having trouble conceiving."
"Ï was raped by a doctor. Which is bittersweet for a Jewish girl."
You get the idea. Silverman's shtick is, pretty much, making weird comments about things people are sensitive about, in an ironic way. You might call it politically incorrect humour, though that's just a convenient label whacked on this kind of thing for the benefit of newspaper columnists who can't be bothered coming to grips with this kind of humour. She's clever, and funny, and has a brilliant way of appearing uncomfortable on stage, in front of a huge audience, but being completely in control of the situation.
You might think that this sort of humour is political. In a sense, you're right; one of my favourite Silverman jokes is like this. Remember when you're reading this that Silverman is Jewish (her sister is a rabbi):
"Ï got in trouble for calling an Asian man a chink on national television. What the hell was that about? If a pretty white girl can't call an Asian a chink on national television, what sort of world are we living in? It's like the 50s all over again!"
Which is, I guess, a political joke; I especially appreciate the twist on the old cliche - 'Those conservatives are taking us back to the 1950s!' This comes out again in a parody 'music video', where she dresses up like a 1960s psychedelic singer, and wanders about a car lot with a guitar singing a love song:
I love you more than bees love honey;
I love you more than Jews love money;
I love you more than my boyfriend's come tastes funny;
It goes on in this way; a couple of verses later, you get this line:
I love you more than bleeding hearts turn to the right.
Which might offend you or make you laugh, depending on where you lie on the political spectrum. But what I really like about this comedy is that it brilliantly fucks up the old leftist slogan, 'The personal is the political'. Sure, politics can extend into people's personal lives; but you'd have to be a special kind of fanatic to extend it that far. Silverman actually does take it that far on stage - and further - but she's not serious. You wonder if she ever is serious; she even makes jokes about the holocaust, for fuck's sake.
I have to say, though, I didn't get too many laugh-out-loud moments in this film. A lot of the jokes were essentially the same, playing on this or that racial stereotype. Obviously the film festival audience didn't think the same; they went in, ready to laugh. In the opening sequence, one of the music video piss-takes, she's driving through town, singing about what her movie will be like. The film cuts to a shot of Silverman singing on a stage with a band about who will star in her movie; she throws out names like Julia Roberts before dismissing them. You can see the next joke coming; she walks over to a mirror and sings 'Ít has to be - me!' You could see this joke coming from miles away; but the audience laughed anyway. (More interesting is the bit at the end of the film, where she tongue-pashes herself in the mirror.)
It makes you wonder why stand up comedians go to so much work, if so many people come in ready to take on the role of human laugh tracks. They tell a story about Mark Twain - America's first stand-up comedian - that once while he was doing a speaking tour, he walked on to stage in front of thousands of people, and didn't say anything for several minutes. The audience found it hilarious. Even the uncomfortable silence is an old joke; it's been done before.
I enjoyed the film, and there's another screening of it before the film festival ends - next time at an even more ridiculously late hour. 11.30pm or thereabouts. If you're interested, and want to brave the Melbourne public transport, or the film-festival groupies, then you should get along to see it next week.
PS - "You really are a fucking idiot." Silverman takes the piss out of The Onion in a hilarious email interview.
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