Women aren't funny. This is the premise of a long essay in January's Vanity Fair by Christopher Hitchens, best known for his broadsides against Mother Teresa and defenses of the Iraq war. His first theory as to why--in a nutshell--is that women don't need to make men laugh to impress them. (Either that, Chris, or they just don't try that hard in front of you.) His second--in a smaller nutshell--is that they make babies. "Those who risk agony and death to bring children into this fiasco simply can't afford to be too frivolous," he wrote. "They are innately aware of a higher calling that is no laughing matter."
You might expect Sarah Silverman, comedian, to be innately aware of a different higher calling, namely, to give Hitchens a rhetorical beatdown. But you would be wrong. "I got all these e-mails from magazines saying, 'Hey, would you write a rebuttal to this?'" she says. "I read it, and I thought, I'm just not offended by this at all. It is absolutely true--if you're going to generalize--that culturally, women don't have to be funny to attract the opposite sex. None of it made me mad, but none of that stuff ever does. It just doesn't affect me."
There are a few ways of reading that response. You could call it apathy, although Silverman cares about being funny. You could call it a kind of blasé postfeminism--What is this, like, 1973?--although Silverman's stand-up has always had a strong woman's consciousness. Or you could just call it confidence, which Silverman, 36, has every reason to feel. For more than a decade, she has been known as a comic's comic for her demurely provocative stage act--captured in the 2005 movie Jesus Is Magic--in which she delivers jokes about AIDS, race, the Holocaust, 9/11 and ethnic stereotypes with disconcerting intimacy. (One of her most famous jokes: "I was raped by a doctor--which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.")
On Feb. 1, she adapts her Jesus persona into sitcom form with The Sarah Silverman Program, a surreal mix of comedy, singing (she has a lovely, musical-theater voice) and animation that pushes more buttons than an Empire State Building elevator operator. In one episode, her character ("Sarah Silverman") sleeps with God, who is black, then blows him off, but not without guilt. "I'm not one of those people," she protests, "who's like, 'Oh, God is black--is he going to steal the moon or something?'" In another, she takes in a homeless man to upstage her sister's humanitarian boyfriend: "I'm going to change him from a homeless person to a real person!"
The Sarah Silverman Program (Thursdays, 10:30 p.m. E.T.) airs on--Hitchens, take note--guy-friendly Comedy Central, the network that gave us The Man Show (which her boyfriend, Jimmy Kimmel, co-hosted). How did Silverman get invited into this male cable tree house? Executive vice president of original programming and development Lauren Corrao says Silverman's a rare woman comic whom guys like: "She's a beautiful woman, but her sensibility is very male." (Silverman has female fans too, although anecdotally, women seem more likely to find her grating or offensive than men do.) The most common explanation for her appeal to young guys is her smokily pretty looks, but you can only take that so far. Men don't need comedy to look at babes--they have an entire porn-filled Internet for that--and you can ask Jenny McCarthy how long hotness can sustain a comic career.