An Interview with Sarah Silverman
Sarah Silverman trusts that the introduction to this interview will be adequate, but I am not convinced. We agreed that it would be wise to avoid hyperbole, like “The triple-threat entertainer can now add the title ‘producer’ to her growing list of hyphenations.” I just don’t feel comfortable making comparisons like “Sarah Silverman is this generation’s Rusty Warren” or “If Lenny Bruce had sex with George Carlin, their comic spawn would be Sarah Silverman.” A biographical recap also seems unnecessary, although it may be worth reminding readers of her stints on The Larry Sanders Show, Crank Yankers and Mr. Show with Bob & David, as well as her controversial appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Sarah thinks all will be OK as long as I mention how pretty and youthful she is.
If you’re skimming, I’ve provided bullet points for your convenience:
- Sarah does not want to talk about her brief stint at Saturday Night Live, because it’s “boring.” She was fired from SNL via fax.
- A natural athlete, Sarah is surprised by her underwhelming beach volleyball skills.
- Sarah’s recipe for cannabis brownies is to die for.
In her forthcoming film, Jesus Is Magic, which arrives in theaters in November, Sarah cracks wise about the Holocaust, AIDS, musicals, bongloads, bed-wetting, being hirsute, rape, Catholics, Jews, blacks, Christ, peeing, facial money shots, 9/11, the Japanese, Ethiopians, labor unions, misguided activism, lesbians, retards, positive spin, sexual harassment, Harvey Weinstein, her dead grandmother, old people, altruism, masturbation, Martin Luther King, Jr., dutch ovens, molestation, strippers, anal waxing, porn, world hunger, Barbie, Nazis, midgets, Puerto Ricans, Gary Busey, acne, homosexuals, Patty Hearst, low self-esteem, Mexicans, and ’70s prog-rockers Yes.
Sarah is pretty and youthful.
I interviewed Sarah via email because she is shy.
I. “YOU ALWAYS WANT TO GIVE YOURSELF THE FREEDOM TO BE A LITTLE FUCKED-UP.”
THE BELIEVER: Every article about or interview with you (including this one) mentions that you are a woman and Jewish. What is the most annoying and/or offensive thing about being qualified as both/either?
SARAH SILVERMAN: A lot of people come up to me and say that I’m their favorite woman comic, or they confide in me that they usually don’t think women are funny, but they think I am. You know, soul-killing compliments like that. I remind myself they mean well, thank them—I’m able to be gracious through disassociation—and write them off. I’ve talked so much about being Jewish in my stand up, which is weird because I’m not religious at all. I think it’s because I identify as a Jew ethnically. But that chunk of Jewish material is my strongest and possibly my only connection to Judaism. That, and I’m cheap.
BLVR: Is anybody in your family a practicing Jew?
SS: My oldest sister, Susan, is a rabbi. We grew up with no religion, but she got into it on her own, and from the influence of her now-husband, Yosef Abramowitz, a journalist and super-Jew. He’s one of those super-smart but super-sloppy East Coast Jews with the yarmulke dangling by the tip of a bobby pin off the side of his head, Red Sox hat on top of that, one tail of his shirtfront in and one out, stains, a couple pens in the upper pockets. In other words: a-dorable.
BLVR: I imagine you were always funny, but, like most artists, it took you some time to “find your voice.” When was that magic moment onstage (or off-) when it all began to click?
SS: I think people get funny as a defense mechanism or survival skill of childhood. Humiliate yourself before the inevitable humiliation comes from outside forces. We develop all these survival skills that, as we get older, it would probably behoove us to unlearn. That’s probably why lots of comics are afraid of therapy. Because chances are, to be truly healthy, they will no longer feel the need to be funny. I like therapy and am interested in it, but you always want to give yourself the freedom to be a little fucked-up.
BLVR: How are you fucked-up?
SS: Hmmmm. Let’s see… One day in eighth grade, I was walking off the school bus and what felt like a black cloud came over me and didn’t lift until three years later, just as fast as it came, while I was drinking from a water fountain. When the depression first hit, I was sent to a psychiatrist, who prescribed Xanax and told me to take one “whenever I felt sad.” My mother dropped me off for my appointment the following week. I sat on the waiting room couch until the hypnotist from upstairs— I was going to him as well, for bed-wetting—came downstairs, tears in his eyes. He looked at me, and in a gust of mad hysteria cried,“Dr. Markham hung himself!” I sat there the rest of the hour until my mother picked me up. That was awkward.
BLVR: Wow. That is fucked-up. I almost don’t want to follow that up, but… did the hypnotherapy work?
SS: It didn’t! Each week, he had me close my eyes and imagine I was in a meadow and walking near a stream or some shit. I really, really did everything he said, but I didn’t stop wetting the bed until years later, when I was about fifteen. I did have “dry nights.” I had this kind of chant that I made up that I’d say to myself and repeat a certain number of times before going to sleep. Very OCD, I know. But besides making sure I passed that crack in the sidewalk before that car passes me, I had very few OCD tendencies.
BLVR: So when your psychiatrist committed suicide, did you stop taking Xanax?
SS: That’s another long story. I started going to a registered nurse in Andover, Massachusetts. She wasn’t even a real doctor, but her husband was, and he would write prescriptions for me even though I’d never even met him. I would go before school—Andover was about forty-five minutes away—and she just upped my dose every time. It’s unbelievable to say now, but she had me on four Xanax, four times a day. Sixteen fucking Xanax a day! She should be in jail. Anyway, it didn’t even help me. I felt nothing. No different. Finally, I went to see this local shrink in Manchester—the only Mexican in New Hampshire—I think his name was Dr. Santiago. When I told him the meds I was taking, he couldn’t believe it. He weaned me off of it very, very slowly. One half of one pill less a week. It took months and months.
BLVR: When you finally kicked the drugs, it must’ve been a strange mixture of horror and relief.
SS: Oh, yeah. I remember that last half a pill so clearly. It was at the bubbler in the hallway of my high school, sophomore year. I was finally myself again. Until six years later, when I was overtaken by panic attacks. This time I was twenty-two and living in New York. I found a shrink that prescribed Klonopin, and it saved me. Now I only take it when I fly or when my mother visits. Shit. She will definitely read this. Mom, it’s not you, it’s me!
II. “I WROTE STEVE MARTIN’S NAME ON THE CEILING OF MY BEDROOM.”
BLVR: I read that you have no obsessions. That seems odd, especially considering the precision with which your material is crafted and executed. How obsessive are you about your set?
SS: I’m sure I do have obsessions. As for my material: first of all, with no deadline, I’m lazy as shit. But once I have the idea, sure, I want to say it just the right way. There’s no way to write it exactly. You have to try it on stage a bunch to get it just right. The worst is when you do a joke on TV and then subsequently refine it or change it in some way to make the joke so much better.
BLVR: When you write or perform a new joke, especially of a particularly revealing nature, have you ever thought, “Aw, man, I don’t want my mom to hear me say that?”
SS: What a boring answer, but no. Never thought about what my mom would think. But that said, there have been a few jokes over the years that my mother has begged me to drop. One comment I made in my movie [Jesus Is Magic] about Marlo Thomas shitting on a coffee table with Danny Thomas lying underneath it. I totally understand why she doesn’t like it. I might cut it out. It’s just during the credits. I really do think Danny Thomas was a really good man, and I love Marlo Thomas. I was a fan of That Girl and Free to Be… You & Me, and I wouldn’t want her to ever see it and feel bad. But it wasn’t planned. It was something that happened in the moment, and it’s just the fact that it happened in the moment that even makes it funny at all. (FYI, I didn’t invent that. There’s an old rumor that Danny Thomas was a plate man. Even at Canter’s Deli, the #2 Special is called “The Danny Thomas.” I can’t imagine that’s just a coincidence.)
BLVR: When you were a kid, did you listen to the LPs of your comedy idols over and over again, memorizing their act?
SS: My mother had a live Woody Allen double record and we listened to it all the time. And I loved Steve Martin’s Let’s Get Small. I was just in love with Steve Martin. I wrote his name on the ceiling in my bedroom. And it’s still there. When I go home, I can still see it. I got interested in art because I read he loved art. I also read somewhere that he loved David Hockney, so suddenly I loved David Hockney. Which, in retrospect is funny, since he’s so very California, and I was a sixteen year-old girl in New Hampshire.
BLVR: When did you first discover your gift for being “offensive,” or for saying or doing funny yet impolite things to get a reaction?
SS: I never really thought about it. But your question made me think of a terrible thing. My parents had a son, between my two sisters, who died while he was in the care of my Nana. It’s a very tragic story. Anyway, I was told about it when I was five. Don’t ask me why. Every Sunday, my Nana would come pick my sisters and me up and we’d have breakfast. The Sunday after I heard this story, we got into my Nana’s car. She said, “Everybody buckle up!” I said, “Yeah, we don’t wanna end up like Jeffrey!” I was used to getting big laughs, but instead, this made her break down in hysterics. I’d never seen her cry, and now she was crying because of me.
BLVR: Good Lord.
SS: It’s kind of hilarious, though.
BLVR: An experience like that would make a normal person never try to be funny again. What compelled you to do stand-up comedy the first time?
SS: It’s just all I really wanted to do. It’s like being born gay. When I went to summer school in Boston, it was the first time I was living away from home, and I knew it was my chance to try it. I did a few open-mic nights at Stitches, which was on Commonwealth Avenue at the time.
BLVR: Do you remember anything from your first set?
SS: Oh, sure. I talked about the popular girls in my school and made fun of them. I talked about how sometimes you think people are deep just because they’re quiet, but really they’re just stupid. Thank God none of it survived, but some of those jokes stayed in my act way too long.
BLVR: What sort of sagely advice did comedy veterans give?
SS: The first manager I had made me do my act for him, standing right there in his office. When I finished, he stared at me pensively and then said, “You know what you need? You need a funky hat.”
BLVR: Ha! Did you get a funky hat?
SS: No. I never got one. I was young, but I still knew when something was gay.
BLVR: You started performing at the height of the mainstream stand-up boom (in the late ’80s). Was this also the birth of the Boston “alternative comedy” scene?
SS: I’m sure there was a lot going on in Boston, but I wasn’t really a part of it. Like I said, I just did some open-mics during the summer (of 1988). Janeane [Garofalo] was part of that scene, and Louis C.K., but they were probably just starting out around then, too. I don’t know who the bigger comics were in town. I guess Denis Leary, maybe. And all those Emerson [College] guys.
BLVR: What do you think about the whole mainstream-vs.-alternative comedy rivalry?
SS: I don’t know. I think the lines between them are blurry. There’s a lot of great stuff from the alternative world that thrives in the mainstream as well, and it’s important to bring it there. The alternative crowd always had this “us and them” vibe, and I loved being a part of that. But a lot of young comics today are born into the alternative scene. So for them, what is it an alternative to? They took on the swagger and jaded attitude of the comics who had actually bombed in mainstream clubs. They are just learning from the comics before them to be “fed up” with the mainstream.
BLVR: I’m sure that alternative comedy can be as restrictive and self-censoring as the mainstream.
SS: Oh, yeah. When alternative comedy first came around, it was literally an alternative to the mainstream. A place with no rules or boundaries. But now there’s a self-consciousness about it. There are rules. There are taboo topics—not stuff that’s dirty or “edgy,” but stuff that has been tread upon too much, or deemed uncool. So, really, there is no alternative anymore. Even though we’re living in ultra-conservative times, it seems to me that the mainstream is back to the “anything-goes” ways of yesteryear. That said, the mainstream clubs I play are mostly in New York, Chicago and L.A. Middle America may be a fucking nightmare for all I know.
III. “ALL COMICS WANT TO BE ROCK STARS AND ALL ROCK STARS WANT TO BE FUNNY.”
BLVR: Comedy, as you know, has never gotten much respect as a literary or artistic medium. Does that seem unfair to you?
SS: Well, who’s to say our definitions of art are the same? “Art” is a vague word, like “liberal” or “feminist.” It’s like the blind people fondling the elephant. Who’s protecting the elephant? I believe that comedy is art because it’s subjective in the way that art is subjective. The question now is, is something art because it’s subjective, or is something subjective because it’s art? The painting of the clown on black felt that hangs for sale on MacDougal and West 4th. Is that art? Yes. In someone’s opinion it may be super bad art, but it’s art. If we decide what’s thought-provoking and what isn’t, then who are we? Not friends of art. I think that art is anything that’s put out there for people to interpret from the context of their own personal experiences,and in the context of each individual life. You could shit something out with no intention of making art, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t art. If I’m affected profoundly by it, it’s probably art.
BLVR: Do you go see comedy movies at the box office?
SS: I liked Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I wish there were more actually funny movies instead of movies that are considered comedies because they’re “light.”
BLVR: What are some “actually funny movies”?
SS: Off the top of my head, comedies of all-time, I’d say King of Comedy, Broadway Danny Rose, The One and Only, Where’s Poppa?, Roxanne, The Jerk. I’m sure I’ll think of a ton more and kick myself later. Oh, Adaptation. And Vampire’s Kiss. In the recent past, Office Space, Wet Hot American Summer, and Rushmore. Rushmore is a perfect movie. I think we’re on the cusp of some great stuff. The Strangers with Candy movie is coming out, and Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny is in the works. It’s gonna be some sweet shit.
BLVR: Most comedians and comedy writers that I know don’t get amped up about the latest comedy theatrical release. However, they’re the first in line to see Batman Begins or The Aviator and TiVo every episode of The Wire. On the flipside, the people I know involved in making dramas and action flicks and sci-fi and horror don’t seem to have the same issues. They will gladly pay their $14 to see something made by one of their genre contemporaries. So… what’s going on inside the comic’s mind?
SS: Thinking about that—and it’s true, of course— I would say, “Well, comics are riddled with jealousy and competition and blah blah blah.”Which may be true to a degree, but I think that most comics are thrilled when a truly funny comedy comes out. It just doesn’t happen that often lately.
BLVR: Maybe it’s more disappointment than jealousy or competition?
BLVR: So how do things go so horribly awry and horribly unfunny?
SS: I think big studio movies and network shows have so many cooks they spoil the broth. Producers, executives, lawyers, way too many writers hired over and over and over. A great movie happens when there is a singular vision. When it’s just Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze. When it’s just Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson.
BLVR: True. But then again, The Simpsons has a lot of cooks and it’s sixteen seasons of funny. Granted, some funnier than others, but even at its unfunniest, funnier than most anything out there.
SS: The Simpsons is a massive collaboration of a huge table of Harvard dudes, but it’s one vision. From the beginning, James Brooks had a deal with Fox that in order for him to do it, there would be no notes from the network. Literally, zero notes. Unheard of. But I think a big reason the show has been so brilliant for so long is the fact that The Simpsons was able to start that way. A lot of extremely successful shows are left alone by the networks, but not until they’re huge.To be able to develop without network intrusion is so cool.
BLVR: The networks and studios are able to recognize talent and creativity, but don’t seem to know what to do with it.
SS: So often a network decides to work with someone who they think—or are told—is great, and yet they can’t just say,“We think you’re awesome, so go do what it is you do.” They have to project all their fears onto it, or otherwise make their mark on it. Right now, the show I’m doing with Comedy Central is the first situation where I feel they are letting us (Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab and myself ) be very free. They are entirely deferring to us for the vision of the show, and so far it’s the way you dream it should be. I wonder if by the time I read this, I’ll be pulling my hair out. But as of now, it really is dreamy.
BLVR: I know this is coming out of nowhere, but… every comic I know digs karaoke. Why is that, do you think?
SS: It’s because all comics want to be rock stars and all rock stars want to be funny. It’s like curly and straight hair.
BLVR: So what’s “your song”?
SS: Jimmy (Kimmel, my boyfriend,) and I always do Cruisin’ together. I’ve been thinking lately that I’d like to try Billy Joel’s Say Goodbye to Hollywood. That’s queer, I know. I guess that’s what’s great about karaoke. It’s so queer that you’re forced to be totally vulnerable. You’re forced to risk not being cool. And letting people see you that way.
BLVR: I recall a conversation with Bill Hicks’s parents, wherein they described him as a “preacher.” Do you ever see yourself in those terms at all?
SS: I don’t think of myself of a preacher. I don’t preach. But I do like the idea of saying things that force people to have opinions. We live in a whole country of managers and agents, in a way, where no one wants to say what they think. No one really knows what they think until they get a sense of what the general consensus is. But diarrhea is always funny. I can talk about black teenagers having babies, Jews driving German cars, the “alleged” Holocaust, and then follow it up with a diarrhea joke and all of a sudden everyone’s friends again.