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Pure Evil in a Delicious Candy Coating

That's the best way I can describe Comedy Central's darkly whimsical The Sarah Silverman Program. Bright and cheery on the surface, deeply sick and wrong underneath, it's thankfully more than a mere showcase for the irrepressibly potty-mouthed Silverman; it's a half-hour trip into the comedienne's own private land of Oz -- the magical-kingdom Oz, not the sordid penitentiary Oz, although there are abundant hints of that, too.

For the most part, I find the things Silverman says -- basically, just a list of all the words you would have snickered uncontrollably at in third grade, on an endless loop -- not nearly as funny as the way she says them. She's just too damn adorable, and she knows it, delivering the most blisteringly filthy and insensitive gags with a sweet-faced and unwavering facade. (Mr. Show, the surreal HBO sketch comedy series on which Silverman occasionally appeared, had a similarly gee-golly approach to vulgarity, with equal success.) The disconnect between her winsome looks and six-year-old-hooker-on-meth sensibilities is her greatest comedic weapon, and it's showcased well here.

The Sarah Silverman Program has the star playing an unemployed, chronically selfish, lunatic version of herself, living with her marginally more normal sister Laura (played by, well, her sister Laura), across the hall from two geeky gay neighbors (Mr. Show vet Brian Posehn and Steve Agee, heterosexuals both). In the pilot, a case of the sniffles leads Sarah to an alluring bottle of orange cough syrup; it not only transports her to a magical stop-motion-animated wonderland, but kicks off her one-woman rampage of jealous destruction when Laura falls for her arresting officer (Jay Johnson, continuing a string of superb straight-man work from Mr. Show and Arrested Development).

Silverman's funny on her own, but her acidic and sometimes grating comedy is best in small doses. Thankfully, her show's got two secret weapons: Rob Schrab and Dan Harmon. Longtime writing partners, Harmon and Schrab got their first taste of the big time by penning the script for last summer's Monster House, but away from the Hollywood spotlight, they've been honing their comedy talents as the co-founders of Channel 101, an L.A.-based showcase for five-minute, zero-budget homebrewed TV shows.

Saturday Night Live's Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island cohorts got their big break through The 'Bu, their merciless Channel 101 skewering of The O.C. Schrab most notably created the Peanuts-on-LSD saga Twigger's Holiday, while Harmon's been the driving force behind a number of clever and hilarious series, from Computerman (starring an underpants-clad Jack Black) to Laser Fart, the epic saga of a superhero who, well, guess.

Their Channel 101 experience pays off big time here. Schrab's direction gives the pilot the childish energy and colorful, confident visual style it needs, and his and Harmon's contributions to the writing populate Silverman's off-kilter world with memorably bizarre throwaway lines and funny, charming characters. Posehn and Agee (another Channel 101 vet, among several to appear) are particularly delightful as the manliest TV homosexuals this side of The Wire's Omar Little, and their episode-closing declaration of their total gayness for one another is no less sweet for being completely hilarious.

As half-hour comedies go, The Sarah Silverman Program is a welcome breath of fresh, filthy air. It doesn't just avoid the typical sitcom cliches; it beats them senseless with a golf club, sets them on fire, and then proceeds to make up a silly, catchy little song about the whole endeavor while dancing around their smoldering remains. Silverman's mugging sometimes threatens to wear thin, but it's considerably leavened by her place as the unrepenetant jackass of the series -- the crazed, overgrown toddler around whose gravitational pull this entire universe warps.

If you watch this show, you'll likely laugh loudly, and often, which is about all you can ask of a sitcom. If you don't watch, you'll probably make Sarah Silverman cry. And do you really want that? I mean, come on -- just look at that face.


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