“I’m gonna be indulgent,” Sarah Silverman notes around halfway through her new Netflix stand-up special A Speck of Dust. It’s a different tactic for her, even if it doesn’t sound like it at first. While Silverman’s most famous comedy routines do indulge in their share of pushing (buttons, envelopes, boundaries, whatever else can be pushed with risqué jokes and matter-of-fact delivery), her actual jokecraft tends to be sharp and concise. Not all of her routines are pure one-liners, but her instincts for them are killer; see her famous “I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.” That joke may traffic in shock, and court trouble by encouraging less skilled comics to go for similar shocks, but indulgent it is not.
Nor, really, is A Speck of Dust. But it does find Silverman in a more conversational mood, going further in the direction she’s been signaling at least since her 2013 HBO special We Are Miracles. Her earlier stand-up work often affected the persona of a self-centered, clueless, or even cruel white woman, and her dedication to the bit made her jokes sting all the more. But Miracles ventured and Speck Of Dust now continues into experiments with more seemingly personal, and certainly less ironic, modes of joke delivery.
Silverman has always been self-aware, but in Speck that self-awareness feels less prankish and more authentic. For her, this means making some digressions, and pointing out that she’s making digressions: “Put a pin in that,” she says repeatedly when pausing her material for a sidebar in what becomes a sort of low-key running gag. This hour-plus of material doesn’t have the effortless storytelling flow of truly breathtaking stand-up, but the self-commentary adds a compelling wrinkle to her style. In the past, she would hone one-liners out of sexism or racism, unafraid to make herself look terrible. Here, when she makes a joke about validating Jewish stereotypes, she pauses to admonish, then excuse herself: “Did it get a laugh? Yes? Okay.”
Later, she makes a great throwaway joke about her new dog and then doubles back to talk about the “coolness” of making a throwaway joke. She also pauses to identify a “release laugh” after a (supposedly true) story that sounds like it’s going to be harrowing and turns out to be merely hilariously gross, and stops to marvel at the empathy the audience just displayed by going quiet for the scary-sounding stuff.
This might all sound, as Silverman alludes, enormously self-indulgent, like some kind of self-help comedy seminar where a comedian overexplains her craft. But this self-referentiality is one of several places where Silverman’s gifts for both irony and sincerity really pay off. She jokes about the mechanics of her act, but also takes genuine pleasure in them. She acknowledges the zig-zagging nature of her storytelling while taking what feels like real, human notice of how it affects her audience. It’s not so different from chatting with a funny friend, though of course Silverman has been shaping her jokes on the road.
As such, even when it sounds relatively off the cuff, it seems likely that Silverman has been working on this material for a while. We Are Miracles in 2013 contained bits that she had tried out as early as 2008, when she surprise-opened for Jenny Lewis at a New York gig. But she now makes choices that make the material feel spontaneous even when you can see her scribbled notes on the stool next to her onstage. The Netflix performance, filmed at the Los Angeles date of her tour (and clearly including several friends and family members in the audience), leaves in some mild delivery flubs, like when she trips over and repeatedly re-pronounces “horror stories.” This warmth and looseness is undermined by a few choppy cuts on the special’s way to a 71-minute running time—roughly the same as her theatrically released Jesus Is Magic, which featured several songs and brief sketches (and, like this piece, was directed by Sifl & Olly’s Liam Lynch).
The furthest Speck gets from “regular” stand-up is a pair of bits at the end—one brief audience-interaction riff, and a brief selection of home-video footage that airs over the credits. The latter functions as confirmation that at least some of the stories she describes in the special are, in fact, true. That doesn’t necessarily make this material “better” than her past stuff—there are fewer of those perfectly crafted one-liners, though they’re far from absent—but it is gratifying to see such a talented comic change up her act. When Silverman talks about, say, Barbie, Bratz, and other “sex worker dolls,” she describes them sarcastically as a great idea for young girls that makes them understand they should feel like shit about themselves early in life. But it’s traditional sarcasm, not sarcasm through playing a character who looks and sounds just like herself. It’s always hard to say for sure with comics, but for most of this special, it seems like Silverman is simply being herself—no playing necessary.