Cries, cringes and familiar quips are only a click away in Sarah Silverman’s new Netflix special, “A Speck of Dust.” For fans of the Jewish comedian, the one-hour, 11-minute recorded set offers nods to past antics — Silverman mines rape, religion and politics with playful ease for particular purpose — but what differentiates her work in “A Speck of Dust” from “We are Miracles” (2013), or even “Jesus is Magic” (2005) is the increased engagement that she engenders.
Like most stand-ups, Silverman delivers in a traditional frontal fashion in which the viewer sees the mic, the stage and the performer; however, as opposed to pushing through memorized material toward a predetermined punchline, Silverman interrupts her gags with audience interactions. Such conveyances, though brief, allow her to envelop each joke until its ultimate release in an almost salvo.
Roughly 20 minutes into her newest comedy special, Silverman presents a bit on her sister’s bout with a not-quite sexual assault. After supplanting the supposed ending with the actual happening, the crowd delightfully reacts to Silverman’s true tale.
“I’m gonna say, like, I would call that a relief laugh or like a release laugh,” she says of her listeners’ response.
Silverman then follows with an observation. “I know that I’m your show, but you have to understand like you’re my show. You were so beautiful. You had so much empathy. You were so worried you could hear a pin drop in the story. It was so nice.”
This tactic of baiting, delivering and informing isn’t new. Silverman utilized the move in “We are Miracles,” when she offered a personal reaction to particular encounters. There, in that comedy special, Silverman similarly switched an account’s conclusion to achieve chortle from change, and likewise, after a brief pause, commented, “You don’t understand, I’m at a show too — you’re my show. And that joke is so fun to tell because, like, at the first juncture the guys are like this and the girls are like this, and then it just goes whew, it’s like the wave.”
But while Silverman then jumped to her next joke in “We are Miracles,” she prolongs her bits in “A Speck of Dust.” Specifically, after extolling the audience for its compassionate attention during the latter special, Silverman recapitulates her sister’s near plight and extracts one more giggle from the cumulative surprise.
The comedian’s cognizance of material, place and presence sprinkles itself throughout the digital shoot. At points, Silverman comments on her humorous handiwork, as, after a series of abortion related one-liners, she reflects, “Look, I know those last two jokes, they aren’t smart. They have nothing deep to say. They’re just wordplay.”
And earlier, after mocking a stereotypical Jewish complainer, rhetorically converses, “Why are you selling out your culture Sarah? Sorry. Did it get a laugh? Yes. OK.”
But while these approaches feel largely scripted, Silverman also makes moments of genuine connection, like when identifying inherent legislative hypocrisies and pillorying doll construction.
It is within her self-described denouement that Silverman’s system comes full circle. Whether it is the single shot of a fan flashing a thumbs up or her rousing religious exchange with an attending Christian, Silverman showcases her decades-developed repertoire, a collection of skills that Steel City residents unfortunately missed when she canceled her recent Pittsburgh show because of “scheduling conflicts.”
Silverman uses “A Speck of Dust” to proclaim herself a “godless” New Hampshirite who was “born to bleeding-heart liberal Democratic Jews.” But in truth, the self-assessment is nothing more than a siren song within Silverman’s shtick. At heart, she is a comedian, and one clearly capable of engaging the conversation that she creates.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.