The evolution of Sarah Silverman

The trailblazing comic says she’s moved on from her “arrogant ignoramus” act to being “aggressively dumb”

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      Sarah Silverman is many things: standup comedian, actor, activist, political animal, goofball. Above all, though, she is a standup. And a very influential one at that. The comedy landscape is full of comedians who affect the arrogant ignoramus persona Silverman perfected (and has since abandoned) while broaching hot-button, or otherwise taboo, subjects. Before Silverman (BS on the comedy timeline), one didn’t often hear female comics casually joke about abortions. Or poop. They weren’t ironically racist. One of the biggest names in the business now—Amy Schumer—is a direct descendant, and she, in turn, has influenced others.

      In her 2005 special, Jesus Is Magic, Silverman famously joked, “A couple nights ago, I was licking jelly off my boyfriend’s penis and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m turning into my mother!’ ” This past December, Saturday Night Live’s hilarious Kate McKinnon, playing her Ms. Rafferty character, said, “I am still pantsless, so I’m spending Christmas morning in the back of a squad car with my grassy knoll and my gassy hole hanging out, and I’m thinking, ‘Damn it, Colleen, you’re becoming your mother.’ ” Essentially the same joke, right? Silverman was ahead of her time.

      Fellow L.A.–based standup Natasha Leggero saw Silverman’s influence firsthand. “A lot of my friends started out just basically doing Sarah Silverman impressions,” she says on the phone from California. “As soon as I started [in 2002], I had a manager who was like, ‘You have to see Sarah Silverman, you have to see Sarah Silverman!’ She was pretty much all people were talking about.”

      But as one of the most impactful comedians of her generation, Silverman doesn’t give it much thought. “I’ve seen comics before me be very frustrated and kind of destroyed by the fact that other people have kind of taken what they have started and gotten rich from it,” she says on the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “I’ve seen it destroy people, but really it’s something that should be a point of pride. Like, why did we do this if not to influence people and push other artists farther?”

      Anyone who knows Silverman talks about what a kindhearted person she is (ex-boyfriend Colin Quinn told me in a separate interview “She’s so great!”), so her magnanimous response doesn’t surprise. She adds: “Sometimes it’s frustrating when I’m just sitting on my couch and I see my own reflection, and I don’t have my own washer and dryer—I share it with my floor!—but at the same time, I want for nothing. I love my life, and the rest has nothing to do with me. To get tied up in that shit, one, it ages you, and two, it’s just no way to live. But if I’ve influenced people, that’s a good thing, I think, you know?”

      Silverman has been a standup for 29 years… Wait. That can’t be right. Twenty-nine years?! She doesn’t seem much older than 29 herself. But she does the math for us.

      “I’ve been a standup since I was 17,” she says. “I’m 46. That’s 29 years.” Like any good comic, she continues to evolve. Gone are the ironic racism and the arrogant ignoramus. She’s got a new descriptor for her act. “It’s aggressively dumb,” she says. “And then there’s a lot of other social politics, which is more what I’m interested in: people.”

      When she brings her act to the Queen Elizabeth as part of the JFL NorthWest Comedy Fest on February 25, just before shooting a one-hour special for Netflix, it will have been nine years since she last headlined here. So don’t expect the same old song and dance this time around.

      “I’ve changed, the world’s changed,” she says. “I’ve never been someone to be like, ‘I’m this character for my whole life.’ I change and my act changes. People are either still fans or they’re not anymore. Or different people are fans. It has nothing to do with me. I love standup and to me it’s about expressing how I’m feeling now and talking about the stuff that I think is funny now.”

      Leggero concurs. “I feel like she’s transitioned and started to get more personal. She’s so bold, but she’s always changing and evolving, and I think that’s inspiring because the hardest thing to do is to get out of your old shtick and come up with something authentic.”

      Silverman has been at the centre of the news cycle several times throughout her career. In her excellent 2010 memoir, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee, she recounts the media storms over three jokes: one that had her shirking jury duty by filling out a form with an inappropriate racial epithet, one about Paris Hilton, and one about Britney Spears. People love to be outraged and the mainstream media eats it up. Silverman weathered those storms. On February 1, she found herself in the middle of another one, this time involving Donald Trump, when she tweetily suggested the military aid in the resistance (as if the military takes orders from celebrity comedians). A passionate liberal who supported Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton, Silverman has been outspoken on Twitter about the seemingly unhinged demagogue who himself tweets out inflammatory messages day and night.

      When it blew up in the harshly divided political climate, she tweeted out a mea culpa the next day. She hasn’t said much about it to date, but did tell the Straight she has no plans to abandon her homeland.

      “I really love this country,” she says. “It’s where I’ve always lived. I think that people on the left are easily generally like, ‘If you voted for Trump, you’re in the KKK!’—I mean, definitely, they all voted for Trump—but a lot of hard-working people who were promised jobs by this famous businessman they had heard of voted for him because, listen, they’ve been ignored. The Democrats were supposed to be the party of the working class and they have been ignoring the working class. Having all this globalization and jobs being gone, these people didn’t feel listened to. I think a lot of them are now feeling very betrayed. If you go to @Trump_Regrets, it just goes on forever. My heart goes out to them, because they deserve to be listened to. They’re the heart of this country. This is a divided country where each side is getting their facts from different places and they’re not the same, you know?”

      Her act won’t be one long harangue, though. She’s still a goofball who loves both high and low comedy. “On Twitter I’m way more political, because I feel an urgency,” she says. “I don’t know how any citizen can consider themselves not political anymore.” (She also admits that she never missed an episode of Celebrity Apprentice or the original The Apprentice, both hosted by you-know-who.)

      People will hear what they want to hear, though, no matter what her subject matter is. That’s the nature of the comedy business these days, and Silverman knows this as well as anyone.

      “That’s the thing if you want to do something in the arts: you cannot control how people infer what you put out,” she says. “Maybe they’re wrong about it; maybe you’re wrong about yourself, I don’t know. I mean, you gotta get a little Zen about it. We’re literally in outer space. How seriously can you take it all?”

      Sarah Silverman is at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre next Saturday (February 25), as part of JFL NorthWest.