Performing an American Persona: Tillman on “Jesus is Magic”

Here are a few thoughts on Sarah Silverman’s Jesus Is Magic, pulled from Aaron Tillman’s essay “‘Through the Rube Goldberg Crazy Straw’: Ethnic Mobility and Narcissistic Fantasy in Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic” (Studies in American Humor 2009).

In her performance film Jesus Is Magic, Sarah Silverman cultivates the indefinable territory––the territory that resists taxonomy (“that thing that you just can’t define” is the line she sings before the stage portion of her film)––portraying herself in a multitude of ways, depending on the circumstances: as Jewish, as white, as cute, as straight, as thin. She uses stereotypes of her Jewish American identity to indulge a conversation about extreme materialism; she uses the ethnic connotation of Jewish American to feign sensitivity to accusations made by an Asian American watchdog group; she uses religious mythology to claim a “chosen” privilege; she uses a connection to historical atrocity to perform self-righteous indignation; she uses her fair complexion to deny any ethnic association. Despite the elasticity of Silverman’s persona, there is a consistency and a familiarity that her audience can recognize. Such recognition enables her observations and conclusions to shed light on our national and cultural landscape. The more she extends her performance, the more recognizably ludicrous––and potentially poignant––her satire becomes.

In her portrayal of an assimilated, narcissistic, Jewish American woman, Silverman ridicules a movement in American culture, one that impacts the development of the budding American persona. She is satirizing the “MySpace” generation, where the projection of and consumption with the self has reached new levels. It is a generation of consent by convenience, where issues of ethnicity and culture are played up or down based solely on how they affect the self.


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