Sarah Silverman Wants to Pop Your Bubble

Sarah Silverman Wants to Pop Your Bubble


Since Ms. Silverman became a star at the start of the new century, the stature of the comedian has shifted away from its roots as spitball-tossing outsider. For better and worse, some stand-ups are now treated like political oracles on social media. And during times of tragedy, late night talk show hosts regularly deliver solemn monologues. On the day I interviewed Ms. Silverman, Jimmy Kimmel unleashed a scathing broadside against the Graham-Cassidy health care bill that dominated the conversation about the legislation the next morning.

While Ms. Silverman is avoiding that kind of argumentative tactic in her own show, she saw his success as supporting her views about change. “He was not a political person at all until it affected his life,” she said of Mr. Kimmel, referring to his son, who was born in April with a heart ailment. (Mr. Kimmel and Ms. Silverman once dated.) “Sometimes, it takes a personal experience to get woke to things.”

Ms. Silverman, tall and poised, has a warm presence, listening to questions as intently as she answers them. She sometimes shifts between plain-spoken, even folksy slang and her old kewpie doll voice, code-switching between savvy and silly, gimlet-eyed and wide-eyed.

She grew up in Bedford, N.H., in one of few Jewish families in her neighborhood. Her mother ran a community theater and her father inherited the family clothing business, passing along his sense of humor. When Ms. Silverman was a toddler, he taught her how to say a string of curse words. “She’d sit on his lap — short black bangs, adorable round face — and say this, and we’d all laugh,” recalled her older sister Susan Silverman.

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Ms. Silverman goes over an “I Love You, America” episode script with show writers in her office.

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Brinson+Banks for The New York Times

Ms. Silverman, whose childhood bedroom ceiling had “I love Steve Martin” written on it, was a comedy prodigy. She told jokes onstage for the first time at 15, and dropped out of college after freshman year at New York University to work clubs; by 22 she joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live.” She lasted only a year, but sketch comedy and sitcoms were never the goal. “She was the rare stand-up back then who didn’t see it as a means,” said Sam Seder, who directed Ms. Silverman in her first film, “Who’s the Caboose?” “Stand-up was the end.”

When asked about her ambition in her first years of New York comedy, she said she wanted to sleep with everyone. “I was so excited about sex once I had it, and I lost my virginity to a comedian, so it was like in front of everyone,” she said. “I was attracted to funny people.” She speaks fondly of her formative days in New York clubs, but also said she now realizes what a “misogynistic culture” she dwelled in.

“I was told: You’re only a real comedian if your material can be said by a male comedian and it still worked,” she said, with exasperation. “I bought that. Looking back, it’s mind-blowing. I accepted talking about the female experience as hack.”

Ms. Silverman eventually pushed past that attitude, telling jokes about sex and dating whose innocent affect belied what she was really saying. Mr. Seder, who dated her in the early 1990s, recalls traveling to New Hampshire with her to perform a benefit given by her mother. On stage Ms. Silverman told a story about how in the middle of licking jelly off her boyfriend’s penis, she realized: “Oh my god, I’m turning into my mother.”

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Ms. Silverman rehearsing, seen through the viewfinder of one of the show’s cameras.

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Brinson+Banks for The New York Times

“I couldn’t believe she did that joke, not just in front of her mother, but her entire world,” Mr. Seder said. “But they laughed.”

Over the next decade, Ms. Silverman developed a reputation as a sharp joke writer and performer, but she burst on the national scene in 2001 after saying a racial slur for Chinese people on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” that drew condemnation and an apology from the talk show. She debated Guy Aoki, of the Media Action Network for Asian-Americans, on “Politically Incorrect.” “That whole Conan controversy made me famous,” she said. “I’m not proud of it but I have to admit it.”

In 2005, Ms. Silverman had a major breakthrough with “Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic,” an influential Off Broadway show turned feature film where she made elegantly crafted jokes in the voice of a naïvely offensive Jewish woman. Building jokes about rape, the Holocaust, AIDS and race, she used what she calls her “unreliable narrator” character to distance herself from her material.

She received many glowing reviews, but a critique from A.O. Scott in The New York Times made her take a hard look at her act. It argued that her kind of ironic, transgressive humor flatters herself and her audience, playing it safe. “Looking back now, I was playing an ignorant character, but I also really was ignorant,” she said. “When A.O. Scott wrote that, it hit me hard. I just felt like it opened up my mind like a good hallucinogeni …”

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“You’ve never changed someone’s mind by arguing,” Ms. Silverman said. “Or facts.”

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Brinson+Banks for The New York Times

Ms. Silverman paused, made a bewildered face and repeated the word “hallucinogenic” several times with slightly different pronunciations, tilting her head in a pantomime of confusion. Twice during the interview, she flamboyantly searched for the right way to say a word; she did it once in her test show, turning it into a self-deprecating verbal pratfall.

“I Love You, America” marries a long-running interest in scatological humor and stomping on taboos with a new, more politically conscious voice. In a video segment where she spends time with a family who never met a Jew before, she bonds with their young boy with the great unifier: a fart joke.

Unlike many veteran comics, Ms. Silverman does not lament that political correctness is ruining comedy, saying she no longer uses words like “retard”; on her test show, she brought up “micro-aggressions.”

“If you’re so scared of changing with the times, then you’re old,” she said. “There are comedians I love to pieces who roll their eyes. ‘Oh, another word I can’t say.’ You don’t know enough words?”

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Ms. Silverman in rehearsal. “I am interested in hearing about people’s feelings,” she said, “and as corny and hippie-granola as it sounds, it is the root of everything.”

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Brinson+Banks for The New York Times

The presidential election was clearly a turning point for Ms. Silverman. On the night Donald J. Trump won, Ms. Silverman was walking her dog when her sister called. “She was sobbing, beside herself, like her guts were coming out,” Susan Silverman said, “but in that conversation, she said we have to start listening to each other and can’t go on like this in our own echo chambers.” .

Ms. Silverman’s attitudes about ambition have changed too. She said she now puts her career first, adding that while she loves her current boyfriend — the British actor Michael Sheen — the relationship works because he lives an ocean away. “I’ve watched myself over many years give up a lot of things because I’m in relationships,” she said, describing herself as “oddly subservient” in romance. “I’m older now and I don’t want to do that. I want to make stuff that matters and put my whole self into it.”

Ms. Silverman has done more dramatic acting of late (see the current “Battle of the Sexes”) but after a few narrative pilots for television didn’t work out, she decided she wanted to try something closer to stand-up, a show where she plays herself, looks at the camera and talks to people who don’t necessarily agree with her. But it’s not easy.

She invited the conservative comic Dennis Miller to be a guest, but he turned her down. When she noticed that Ivanka Trump followed her on Twitter, she sent her a direct message, saying she has a chance to make a difference. No response, she said. (“I’ve given up on her since.”) And her forays into red state America for her show — she traveled to a small Texas town where President Trump won by 87 percent and spent a day with a family of Trump voters in a suburb outside New Orleans — have led to culture clashes.

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Ms. Silverman in the 2005 film “Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic.”

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Roadside Attractions

In Louisiana, a female Trump voter complained that President Barack Obama gave away “handouts,” while her family talked about being on Medicaid. Ms. Silverman spends more time listening than fact-checking, which may not satisfy liberals who delight in seeing John Oliver or Samantha Bee eviscerate conservatives. At the same time, it’s hard to see Trump voters thinking this segment is for them either.

The most obviously commercial aspect of the show may be Ms. Silverman’s star power. A live-wire performer, she has a sly, teasing sensibility that has always been far too off-kilter to be blandly relatable. Whether she has enough room to roam will likely be crucial to the show’s success.

Reflecting on her interactions with the family in Louisiana, Ms. Silverman said that she had a good time and found agreement on some issues, like same-sex marriage. When asked if this visit made her more hopeful for change, Ms. Silverman weighed her words carefully. “What makes me hopeful is when you’re face to face you can still enjoy and respect each other,” she said. “Did we change minds? No.”

What’s important, she said, is accepting that you might not always be right. Years of therapy have helped her find the joy in realizing when she is wrong. “I am lucky because most people hate it,” she said. “I’ve dated guys who I love to death but they cannot say sorry. It would kill them to say sorry. To me, I love it. It makes the person I’m talking to feel so good. A total high.”

This was apparent in our interview when we disagreed over how to categorize “I Love You, America.” I saw it as a talk show. Ms. Silverman disagreed, associating that genre with topicality and a guest promoting projects. When I said it’s interesting that she resists the term, she responded sharply that it’s interesting that I want to pigeonhole the show. It was tense, but not for long.

She paused, than flashed a big smile. “O.K., I am a host,” she said. “I don’t care, whatever you want to call it.”

On the show, her guests are often people who have undergone a change, and it’s clear that Ms. Silverman puts a premium on transformation (Megan Phelps-Roper, who left the Westboro Baptist Church, an ultraconservative group, will be a future guest).

Ms. Silverman finds the uncertainty of her own future exciting. “I might become a staunch Republican,” she said, shrugging. “Joan Rivers said she didn’t really find her voice until 70. So I’m on the edge of my seat.”



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