You know who has a tiny vagina?” Sarah Silverman asked, out of the blue, in her 2005 comedy special, “Jesus Is Magic.” “Barbie,” she said. “Not Klaus Barbie, the infamous Nazi.” At the time, Silverman was building a national reputation as a comedian who shirked no opportunity to make audiences uncomfortable with her cheerfully offensive Valley Girl persona. She noted that the best time to have a baby is “when you’re a black teen-ager,” and noted that she was “raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.” A few years prior, she’d been in a public spat with a Japanese-American civil-rights activist named Guy Aoki, who took her to task for using the word “chink” in one of her jokes. She addressed the controversy in “Jesus Is Magic”: “There are only two Asian people I have a problem with,” she said. “One is, uh, Guy Aoki. The other is my friend Steve, who actually went pee-pee in my Coke. He’s all, ‘Me Chinese, me play joke!’ ” Speaking to Dana Goodyear for a 2005 Profile in the magazine, Silverman said, “I tend to say the opposite of what I think.”
In her new standup special, “A Speck of Dust,” which premièred on Netflix on Tuesday, Silverman revisits Barbie, performing an extended riff on the impossible proportions of the dolls’ bodies. “We give our daughters Barbie dolls so that they have an image of what they should look like when they grow up that is not attainable—so that they can learn that they’re a piece of shit and that they should kill themselves,” she says. “It’s so important. We have to teach them young.” She points out that Barbie’s feet are so small and arched that she can’t wear flat shoes. “When she’s taking a shit at three in the morning, she’s wearing heels,” Silverman explains. Of Barbie’s nipple-less breasts: “We have to protect our daughters from the life-nourishing nipple. No nipples,” she says. “We can’t have our daughters seeing what nourishes life. Just the part that can sandwich a hard cock.”
This may sound a lot like the old Silverman—raunchy, deadpan, obliviously in bad taste—but “A Speck of Dust” also represents a strange form of comedic maturation. Silverman has not backed away from the gross-out comedy that became her trademark; if anything, she’s leaning harder into it. But, whereas she used to deploy vulgarity as pure provocation, these days she uses it in service of a sharp moralism. Much of “A Speck of Dust” continues in the same vein as the Barbie riff, with explicit imagery and anecdotes designed to expose the absurdity of American gender politics. Silverman fixates on abortion for a long stretch, and brings up a fact that she’s recently learned: spermatozoa have a sense of smell. “Sperm is life,” she says. By this logic, she argues, men in the process of masturbation, like women in some states seeking an abortion, should be legally required to visit a clinic, where they’ll have a long camera tube inserted into their penises. At this point, they’ll be shown imagery of their sperm, their “life,” before going ahead with their decision to ejaculate. This is tastelessness as moral righteousness, provocation as lecture—which sounds like it should be a drag, but in Silverman’s hands it somehow isn’t.
“A Speck of Dust” is only the third hour-long special that Silverman has released in her career; the last was 2013’s “We Are Miracles.” And yet the new show doesn’t exactly feel like a comeback—for one, it’s completely devoid of the fanfare that might surround the return of another comic of her stature. There are no cinematographic tricks or stylistic experiments happening here. While many comics have recruited big-name directors to make their specials, or have tried out fussy, left-field opening scenes, “A Speck of Dust” begins with a simple “Girls and boys, please welcome to the stage Sarah Silverman.” Silverman avoids building her special around recent events in her own life. In 2015, she lost her mother, and last year she had a brush with death when, during a tour, she was diagnosed with a dangerous throat condition called epiglottitis, which resulted in emergency surgery. The latter incident gets only a quiet mention, fifty-three minutes into the special. “I almost died this summer,” she says, matter-of-factly. Before surgery, when talking to the medical staff, she continues, “I proved to them that I wasn’t high enough by explaining Brexit.”
Unlike most comics with her level of national recognition, Silverman hasn’t become a box-office or TV-ratings juggernaut. She also hasn’t slipped into obscurity. Instead, she’s diligently worked away at an array of understated projects. She developed her own TV show, “The Sarah Silverman Project,” which was quietly admired but never fully celebrated. She dabbled in indie movies, playing a suburban mother paralyzed by depression and anxiety, in the 2015 film “I Smile Back.” She maintains a lively Twitter account and has thrown herself into political activism, launching an initiative to urge the U.N. summit to focus on women, campaigning for Bernie Sanders, and then working to bring Sanders supporters out for Hillary Clinton, once Clinton had clinched the Democratic nomination. (At the D.N.C., she told a crowd chanting Sanders’s name, “Can I just say, to the Bernie or Bust people: You’re being ridiculous.”)
It’s commonplace for comics—and comedy fans—to maintain that the stage is a place exempt from the rules of decorum and political correctness that govern other facets of life. When called out for insensitivity, they double down on their provocations, decrying P.C. culture as the bane of creative expression. Silverman these days seems to be interested in listening. In 2015, a Vanity Fair reporter asked her what she thought about the wave of “P.C. culture” that had ignited controversy on college campuses. Jerry Seinfeld had recently said that he avoided college campuses for this reason. Silverman, on the other hand, said that she felt she had something to learn from these college students. “I do think it’s important, as a human, to change with the times,” she said. In “Speck of Dust,” she describes seeing a young girl carrying an “Abortion Is Bloody Murder” sign at a protest in Texas, and approaching her with an empathetic frame of mind. “These people were raised by people who loved them who said, ‘There are people out there that want to murder babies!’ ” Silverman says. “And if I was that kid I’d be, like, ‘We’d have to stop them!’ ” Describing her encounter with the girl, she continues, “She goes, ‘God hates you!’ And I was like, ‘Do you really think God hates?’ And she goes, ‘Yeah, he hates YOU!’ And then I told her a doody joke.” Silverman pauses to mimic the young pro-lifer trying not to laugh. “It really is the great unifier.”