Still a comedy nerd’s wet dream, Sarah Silverman wants you to find other synonyms to describe her outrageous self.
Sarah Silverman and Vladimir Nabokov have something in common. And despite an early joke of hers (“I saw my father naked once, but it was okay because I was soooo young”¦ and soooo drunk”), it has nothing to do with Lolita.
Like the great Russian-American author, Silverman absolutely hates doing interviews that require her to converse. Sure, you see her on all the late-night talk shows, but those appearances are all scripted. And yes, you’ve read about her in countless publications, from Playboy to Maxim to Esquire to the New Yorker to this month’s Vanity Fair and everything in between, but many of those interviews are done by her preferred method: e-mail. The composed response is understandable when it comes from a composed man of letters—but from a woman whose entire professional life has been standing in front of a microphone, making people laugh? She has talked freely of her battle with depression, her bevy of unwanted hairs, and a problem with bed-wetting that lasted through her teen years. She’s not exactly shy and demure. What gives?
“I just come up with better answers,” she says from her home in Los Angeles, explaining her penchant for written responses. “I can think for a second. I’m not an improvisational comedian.”
Ahead of her rare Vancouver stage appearance—at the River Rock Show Theatre on Saturday (March 29)—the Straight was able to score an even rarer phone interview with the reluctant princess.
After 18 years in the business, Silverman has finally moved beyond her cult status as the wet dream of comedy nerds everywhere, and on to genre-crossing fame. Her 2005 concert film, Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic, was the first major stepping stone. It combined her standup act—delivered in the persona of a wide-eyed, self-absorbed ingenue who, despite her best intentions, always utters the most offensive comments manageable—with the catchiest tunes about farts, porn, and stereotypes you’ll ever hear.
Her jokes never cease to get her in trouble, usually with people suffering from an irony deficiency. The first public dust-up came in 2001, when she used the word chink on NBC’s Late Night With Conan O’Brien. To Asian American media watchdog Guy Aoki, that slur is never justified, no matter what the context. Fair enough. It was obvious to most, though, that her character wasn’t acting out of malice, but out of air-headed ignorance. If an artist’s intentions count for anything, it should be known that in 2000, well before the doody hit the fan, she performed that nascent bit at a Vancouver club before asking a Chinese Canadian friend of mine for his opinion. He thought it was hilarious. She seemed truly concerned the bit might be misconstrued.
Silverman says she will occasionally seek opinion on racially controversial jokes, because if she doesn’t feel comfortable doing the joke in front of an ethnically mixed crowd, she’s not interested in doing it at all. The last thing she wants is to send mixed messages by way of racial jokes for an all-white audience.
On sudden fame: “I’m a grown woman and I can handle it. It’s obviously a delight most of the time. But sometimes, like if I’m in Vegas where it’s like all tourists, it becomes really scary. And I think, ”˜Oh, my God, these young girls—like Lindsay Lohan or something—who have it [fame] a thousand times more than me, and they’re kids with no sense of self yet or anything’”¦ I can’t imagine that. I’d go nuts.”
On celebrity riches: “I swear, for the amount of famous I am, whatever that is, semi-celebrity, I’m the poorest semi-celebrity you’d ever know. It seems like people have so much money. Like, where do they get this money?”
On her work ethic: “We work all day on my show and if I can get a solid hour altogether of focus, it’s amazing. We actually had to make a rule in my office that you can’t take your penis out until 5.”
On goals: “I never thought like, ”˜Boy, I hope that by the time I’m 37 I have a show on basic cable.’ But I’m super happy. I really lucked out with the things I got and the things I didn’t get. I think of the things I auditioned for that God forbid I ended up on.”
On her lifestyle: “I’m a standup. I do standup. I like it socially, I like hanging out with the comics after, I like the whole world. It’s like being gay—it’s what you are.”
On the ups and downs of standup: “If I have a shitty set, I just think I’m not funny. I was on tour. I had had a bad set. I just had no fun at all when I was in Orlando.”¦I was on the bus on the phone with Jimmy [Kimmel], hysterically crying. I was like, ”˜I am not funny! I have nothing to say!’ My parents were in the audience and I just was like, ”˜Ugh, when does this stop?’ ”
Her next major move into the mainstream occurred last September, when she hosted the MTV Video Music Awards. Not surprisingly, it resulted in another uproar. Following Britney Spears’s disastrous comeback attempt, Silverman backhandedly enthused: “Was that incredible? She is amazing. I mean, she is 25 years old and she’s already accomplished everything she’s going to accomplish in her life.” Just another day at the office for Silverman.
“When I’ve gotten in trouble in the past, I embrace it,” she says. “But the Britney thing really bummed me out because I felt set up. First of all, I didn’t know what we all know now, which is she’s fucking genuinely sick. She’s always been unbelievable at the VMAs. She’s always been spectacular. And I was set to go on immediately after her, so what do you do when you’re a comic? I have to do jokes about the act I followed.”¦I didn’t know she was going to be a train wreck.” What wasn’t reported was that these weren’t jokes she made off-the-cuff; she had been writing them for two weeks beforehand and would have delivered them no matter how Spears performed.
But it’s not all controversy for the 37-year-old. Her latest and biggest mark on the pop cultural zeitgeist was a comedic Dear John video called “I’m Fucking Matt Damon”, made in celebration of her boyfriend Jimmy Kimmel’s five years as host of a late-night talk show. It aired on Kimmel’s show in January and, to date, the clip has been viewed more than 10 million times on YouTube. The modest Silverman holds no illusions about its popularity.
“It’s so weird,” she says. “It seems trite to be like, ”˜I had no idea!’ I mean, Matt Damon’s in it—it’s pretty awesome.”
And if anyone thinks there’s always a hint of truth to everything in comedy, think again. She and Matt Damon are not boning. She’s still smitten with Kimmel five-and-a-half years into their relationship.
“He just makes me swoon,” she says in glowing tones. “I just think he’s awesome. I don’t want to dissect it, but I like his dimples, I like his sense of humour, I like his kindness, blah blah blah. Everything girls like about guys.”
Silverman, in fact, isn’t into dissecting much, preferring to let her work speak for itself.
“I think that’s for other people to do. You talk to all these writers and they ask for all this information that’s subjective about what I do. When did writers stop having opinions?” she says. “There’s a kind of positive ignorance that comes from doing what you think is funny and not wondering what it means.”
Nonetheless, she once described her stage persona as a kind of arrogant innocence, which is not bad for someone who’d rather not break down her act. Her jokes, many of which are racial, are nonetheless not racist—a fine distinction to be sure. It may be a generous interpretation, but Silverman’s material, to these ears anyway, exposes rather than espouses racism. Take this line: “Everybody blames the Jews for killing Christ, and the Jews try to pass it off on the Romans. I’m one of the few people who believes it was the blacks.” That’s just an absurdly goofball joke that also happens to show up those with a perverse pride in their own heritage for what they are. What confuses some listeners is that she is essentially herself on-stage, unlike, say, Dame Edna, another queen of the backhanded compliment. “I don’t take on a character,” she explains, “but it’s just like an uglier side of myself.”
Silverman has been the subject of numerous gushing features, but she still gives us writers a hard time.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been called a potty mouth,” she says. “It’s like, ”˜Really? You’re a writer. You write. You definitely Googled me so you definitely saw that 85 other articles called me a potty mouth, but you’re still gonna go with potty mouth? Could you even go to a thesaurus and type potty mouth and just use one of the other 85 synonyms?’ ”
(Silverman says she hates that people think she’s dirty. In her defence, during our 49-minute talk she used a variation of fuck only 21 times and shit a mere 10 times.)
When the April edition of Vanity Fair, featuring Silverman on the cover, hit the stands after our conversation, I e-mailed a follow-up question about the accompanying article, which itself was a response to a Christopher Hitchens column from January of last year entitled “Why Women Aren’t Funny”. Was she as surprised as I was that in 2008 this topic hadn’t already played itself out?
“It was an honor to be on the cover and in company like Amy [Poehler] and Tina [Fey],” she wrote, “but I found the article—that kind of ”˜Women are funny!’ piece—to be embarrassing.”¦I just didn’t share the basic sentiment of the article and felt it was written before it was written, you know? Like the point of view of it was planned out before talking to any of the subjects. I don’t mean to bite the hand that feeds me—again, it was an honor. I guess when you grow up with Vanity Fair and the New York Times and stuff, it’s disillusioning because your expectations remain so high.”
She much preferred the original piece by Hitchens: “It was not misogynistic in my opinion—not in the least. The title was provocative, as it should be, but the piece was smart and interesting.”
Silverman is a fan of good writing, which should be obvious from the glee she takes in penning and delivering such sweet poison. She considers herself a standup comic above anything else. Unfortunately, her day job, as star and writer of The Sarah Silverman Program on Comedy Central (aired on the Comedy Network in Canada), has taken her away from developing her act much beyond what we saw in Jesus Is Magic.
“I’m too lazy, and I spend all day every day working on the [television] show,” she says during our phone conversation. “It’s funny, but between these gigs I’m barely doing my regular night-time standup because I’m tired at night. It’s really fucked with me.”
Unlike a lot of standups, Silverman has never been one to tour her act much. “I hate it. I would do anything to get out of this one [in Vancouver],” she says with a laugh. “I mean, I love performing. I just hate being on the road. It’s fucking lonely.”
She says the act she’ll bring to Vancouver on Saturday will be split between Jesus Is Magic material and newer stuff.
“That’s reasonable, right?” she asks, eager to please.
Hell, we’re just lucky to see her.