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Queen of outrage

America's favourite taboo-breaker is sharper on gender than she is on race

<strong>Sarah Silverma

Sarah Silverman's single UK stand-up show (19 October) was preceded by so much advance publicity that by the time she stepped on to the stage, the audience was grappling with two conflicting desires: to see the best comedy show of their lives, and to witness an overpromoted American fall flat on her face.

Silverman is a telegenic 37-year-old who specialises in sharp anti-politically correct humour (having offended a Chinese-American group by using the word "Chinks" on a talk show, she retorted: "What kind of world do we live in where a totally cute white girl can't say 'Chink' on network television? . . . It's scary"). With a DVD (Jesus Is Magic), a television show and a number of YouTube viral hits, she has been hyped not only as one of the fastest-rising talents in America, but also as living proof that - shock! - women can be funny, too.

At first, Silverman was slick. Dressed snappily in a short grey skirt and minxy red high heels, she was an utterly composed presence on stage. The cavernous Hammersmith Apollo is a daunting venue for a comedian, but she commanded it instantly with an opening gag about Scientology ("It's just so gay - and I don't mean that in a bad way. When I say gay, I just mean retarded"). Then she breezed through the taboos: the Holocaust ("Why do so many Jews drive German cars? Is that like black people calling each other nigger?"), poverty ("I give, you know. I sent a bunch of DVDs to the poor in Africa. They wrote back and said thank you, they were delicious") and race. Her squeaky American schoolgirl voice belies a killer comic timing: approaching Barack Obama at a fundraiser, she asked whether he'd encountered any racism in his early days as a politician. "He looked at me and said: 'I'm Kanye West.'"

Silverman is famous for poking fun at racial sensitivities, but her bravado disguises a fundamental nervousness about issues of race. The jokes may be knowing, but still they rely on the hackneyed tropes beloved by comedians of the Bernard Manning school: Jews love money, blacks don't tip, Mexicans smell. Silverman is not racist; as she has pointed out, her audiences are - we hope - laughing at the stereotypes rather than directing their mirth at other cultures. Nevertheless, she leaves the stereotypes unchallenged. A racist could sit through a whole Sarah Silverman gig without feeling offended.

She is much better, darker and more challenging on gender. Silverman does not play for cheap laughs by making herself the butt of her own gags, as has been the temptation for female comedians from Jo Brand to Dawn French. Rather than underplaying her own attractiveness, she uses it as a foil for humour that would be repellent coming from anyone else. She tells a story about her pubescent niece who remarked innocently one day that her gym shorts had strangely started to smell like fish. "I looked at her and thought, should I tell her that, as a woman's body grows and develops, her pussy starts to stink of fish?" It's the kind of joke that only a woman with a film-star smile could get away with: at least half the auditorium had lost its heart to her, fish or no fish.

Where she backs away from taking a position on racism, she is happy to do so on questions of sex: "I've had an abortion. Well, more than one - abortiae? I can tell you it is in the top 50 most difficult decisions a woman will ever have to make." My favourite line of the evening was not exactly a laugh-out-louder, but it smartly nailed a deep and uncomfortable inequality. "I wish I could rape sometimes," she chirped. "And I know that sounds dark. I would choose not to rape, but give me that power."

In the end, however, she undid herself not by any lack of talent, but because she made the inexcusable error of not having enough material. The show - tickets for which had sold for upwards of £50 - ended after only 45 minutes, which included five minutes of filmed trailers for her TV show. Summoned back on with a furious slow handclap, Silverman offered ten minutes of nervous fluffing.

It was not so much fun watching her fall flat on her face, after all.

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Alice O'Keeffe's novel On The Up is published by Coronet. She is a literary critic and former arts editor of the New Statesman. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe, or on Instagram as @aliceokeeffebooks.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The death of Gucci capitalism