Back From the Edge

Photographs courtesy of Bravo; Illustration by Christopher Sleboda

At the end of an hour of rapid-fire impersonations and shamanistic body slanguage—squints of eye, curls of lip, twists of neck, speed-freak patter, tiptoes, shrugs, snits, and shuffles—Sarah Jones interrupts herself with “breaking news from Queens.” (That’s Queens, New York, across the bridge. Mention is actually made of Northern Boulevard.) In this Queens, thanks to the miracle of film editing and mitosis, the characters Jones has created and embodied mill about with open mouths and indignant placards, protesting her exploitation of them, as if they were picketing Pirandello or Planned Parenthood.

This is what happens when you speak in tongues. Some of them start talking back.

If you caught her one-woman Off–Off Broadway show, Bridge & Tunnel, you have already met most of Jones’s characters—Rashid, the recovering rapper; Lorraine, the Jewish grandmother; Joey, the Italian-American cop trying to be more sensitive to minority feelings; Miss Lady, the bag lady with attitude. New to me is (Good) Ol’ Boy, a white-haired cracker who sings John Ashcroft’s awful song about the eagle. Nor do I recall Habiba, the Baghdad fashionista on public-access television. And more of the street will show up on-camera than we saw downtown. Nereida, for instance, “the spicy Latina,” takes over an information booth in Times Square to make double-talk fun of subway maps and the English of tourists from places like Wales. Rashid attracts a sullen crowd to his twelve-step meeting for addicts trying, one day at a time, to stop rhyming. Sugar, with her clipped Brit accent, gets to interview a variety of kind strangers on how better to behave like a black American. And the transfer to videotape makes multiple personalities possible both on a television game show, Excuse You, I Was Talking, and at an exercise class in a retirement home, Sweating With Lorraine, where the Jewish grandmother is surrounded by a half-dozen other rotator cuffs waiting to be torn.

Except for the dig at Ashcroft—and not counting an almost subliminal iteration of such fraught phrases as “deportation hearing,” “racial profiling,” “bathroom accident,” “land-mine management,” and “jiggy”—The Sarah Jones Show seems to have lost some of its politics in the translation from Off–Off. Which isn’t to say that it’s not welcome on a Bravo cable channel that has devolved alarmingly into wall-to-wall Queer Eyes, Project Runways, and James Lipton Actors Studio suck-ups, between reruns of Columbo and The West Wing. (For Black History Month, Bravo has bravely scheduled reruns of James Lipton’s interviews with Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman, and Will Smith.) But Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg hurt many more feelings in their salad days, and Anna Deavere Smith, after taking on the likes of Al Sharpton in Fires in the Mirror, her Crown Heights chorale, went on to inhabit and exorcise Charlton Heston, Jessye Norman, and Cornel West in Twilight: Los Angeles, her one-woman rendition of insurrection in South Central. Jones here is more like Tracey Ullman, acting out in the honorable but not exactly edgy tradition of Imogene Coca.

On the other hand, when Buster the Bunny gets banned from public television for hobnobbing with lesbian mothers in Vermont without the permission of Congress, maybe everybody’s ducking for cover. Maybe the Culture Wars are over, and the maniacs won. In which case, we will probably need James Lipton after all—at the very least for his fawn job on Robin Williams, because we will be looking back at Williams for a reminder that, once upon a time, our culture was high enough and low enough and vital enough to speak in a multitude of tongues, like a brilliant mind unmade-up of equal parts of politics and paranoia, of music video and psychotherapy, of Jacks in a Pandora’s box and eggheads who were scrambled.

The Sarah Jones Show
February 20, 9 P.M.

Back From the Edge