The Lost Roles of Sarah Silverman

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Comedian / writer / actress / producer / musician Sarah Silverman first entered the national spotlight in 1993, when she was hired by Saturday Night Live as a featured player and writer at age 22. Silverman found the show wasn’t to her liking and left after one season, like many talented comedians before (Harry Shearer, Larry David, Ben Stiller) and after her (Chris Elliott, Rob Riggle, Casey Wilson). Despite the unsuccessful debut on SNL, Sarah Silverman kept busy in the decade that followed, balancing supporting roles in crowd-pleasing classics like Seinfeld, There’s Something About Mary, and School of Rock with recurring roles on revered cult comedies like Mr. Show and The Larry Sanders Show.

After spending several years trying to get her own sitcom on the air, Sarah Silverman finally scored big with The Sarah Silverman Program, a Comedy Central show she starred in and created with Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab. The show was a critically-acclaimed comedy that racked up a slew of awards nominations and jump-started the careers of actors Steve Agee, Tig Notaro, Armen Weitzman, and writer Harris Wittels, while keeping Mr. Show alumni like Jay Johnston, Brian Posehn, Scott Aukerman, Doug Benson, Jill Talley, and Paul F. Tompkins on our screens. Perhaps the best indicator of Sarah Silverman Program’s legacy is that it was a stepping stone for co-creator Dan Harmon getting Community on the air. If Harmon hadn’t created a successful sitcom already, then NBC probably wouldn’t have taken a chance on him with Community, and you wouldn’t be mad about the thing you’re mad about right now.

Sarah Silverman can next be seen guest starring in tonight’s episode of The League and in a short cameo in Jason Segel’s Muppets movie, which opens next week. Plus, she has a big role in the upcoming comedy-drama Take This Waltz with Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen and is currently developing a new Ron Howard-produced show that NBC won in an intense bidding war. Over the course of her 20+ year career, Sarah Silverman has had more than a few parts slip through her fingers, including starring roles on several TV pilots that never made it to series. Let’s take a look at the “lost roles” of Sarah Silverman, including projects that would have seen her collaborating with Kevin Smith, Steve Carell, Doug Benson, Patton Oswalt, and Jon Favreau.

Writing for Mr. Show (1998)

Sarah Silverman appeared sporadically in Mr. Show’s first and third seasons, and Bob Odenkirk and David Cross liked working with her so much that they offered her a position on the show’s writing staff during its fourth season. Silverman turned it down to film the Norm Macdonald-Dave Chappelle comedy Screwed, which was then called Ballbusted, instead. If Silverman had been staffed on Mr. Show, she would have been the first and only female writer in the history of the program (that “Mr. Show Boys Club” sketch was grounded in some reality). Silverman still regularly collaborates with the members of the alternative comedy community who made up Mr. Show’s cast and crew, having used many of them for The Sarah Silverman Program.

Clerks II (2006)

The role: Becky Scott

Who got it: Rosario Dawson

Kevin Smith offered Sarah Silverman the role of Becky, Dante’s boss and love interest, in Clerks II. She turned it down, sick of being relegated to inconsequential girlfriend parts in movies, saying that she would have accepted the role of Randal “in a heartbeat.” Smith then cast Silverman’s Rent co-star Rosario Dawson, who ended up being a nice match for the role and one of the movie’s bright spots. Throughout the early stages of her career, Sarah Silverman was stuck in thankless supporting roles, playing girlfriends to bigger, more active characters. Her turns as Mike White’s overbearing significant other in School of Rock and Norm Macdonald’s romantic companion in Screwed serve as the two most notable examples. Starting to reject parts like this was a turning point in Silverman’s career. Her refusal to play second fiddle to male characters led to her landing a lead role in her own Comedy Central series the following year.

Unproduced Ivan Reitman Project (mid-2000’s)

Sarah Silverman worked with director Ivan Reitman (Stripes, Ghostbusters, father of Up in the Air director Jason) in a small part in his movie Evolution, but she was up for a role in a movie of his that never got made, as she revealed in this 2010 interview, saying:

“it was really good and it had a beautiful female part, this hippie free-spirited woman, that I really wanted to do. But he [Reitman] wanted me for the cunty girlfriend who the main character dates before he realizes what love really can be. And I told him, “I can’t play those parts anymore, they’re killing my soul. But I love the hippie lady.” And he goes, “Sarah, people will never see you that way. They will always see you in the bitchy role.” I was stunned. I think I cried a little bit. And then I was embarrassed for myself. But I look back on it now and I just don’t agree with it. I was the cunty girlfriend in School of Rock and now that’s all anyone will accept me as? Surely people have bigger imaginations than that. I look up to [Reitman] so much. I’ve worked with him before, and he’s a legend. But I was just so disappointed in him for saying that.

Postal (2007)

The role: Faith

Who got it: Jackie Tohn

Much-maligned filmmaker Uwe Boll, the best director of video game movies Germany has ever given us, had a lot of trouble finding actors for his controversial 9/11 comedy Postal, which featured Larry Thomas (Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi”) as Osama bin Laden. Sarah Silverman wisely turned the movie down, along with Rob Schneider, Ron Perlman, Jamie Kennedy, and David Cross, presumably because their agents dissuaded them from taking part. The biggest names Uwe Boll was able to convince to sign on were Verne Troyer, Dave Foley, and J.K. Simmons.

Burt Wonderstone (2013)

The role: Nicole

Who got it: Olivia Wilde

In pre-production now, Burt Wonderstone is a comedy from director Don Scardino (30 Rock) that will star Steve Carell and Jim Carrey as a pair of rival magicians. Along with Olivia Wilde, Michelle Monaghan, Judy Greer, and Jessica Biel, Sarah Silverman was up for the lead female role, that of Carell’s magician’s assistant and love interest, but Wilde won out. Silverman swore off playing girlfriend parts years ago, but the magician’s assistant angle seems like it would add an extra element to the role and a comedy starring Steve Carell and Jim Carrey is a much bigger deal than one starring the clerks from Clerks.

Unsold TV pilots

Susan Says Cheese (1999)

Sarah Silverman, Doug Benson, and Naomi Odenkirk (Bob’s wife) wrote the play Susan Says Cheese together, in which Silverman also starred. The trio started developing a show based on the play, with ABC and CBS expressing interest. Larry Charles (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Borat) even signed on as executive producer, but the show never came to pass. Susan Says Cheese was a “one-woman show,” despite using eight other actors besides Silverman, and followed “the day-to-day lives of a twentysomething woman and her buddies.” Bob Odenkirk, Doug Benson, and Laura Kightlinger originally starred in the stage version.

Smog (1999, UPN)

Jon Favreau wrote and directed this UPN comedy pilot, which starred Sarah Silverman as one of four L.A. yuppies and was called one of the best unsold pilots of the year by multiple sources. Also produced by Larry Charles, Smog would have seen Sarah Silverman starring alongside Noah Emmerich, of Truman Show and Walking Dead fame. With a respected auteur like Jon Favreau behind the wheel, it sounds like Smog was well on its way to becoming a critically-acclaimed hit and could have given Sarah Silverman’s career a major boost if UPN had had the foresight to order the series.

Super Nerds (2000, Comedy Central)

Patton Oswalt and Brian Posehn created the show Super Nerds, a sitcom about two geeky guys who run a comic book shop, for Comedy Central in 2000 as a starring vehicle for themselves. Comedy Central commissioned a pilot (which you can view below) but opted out of ordering the series. Sarah Silverman, along with Mr. Show’s John Ennis, was a part of the supporting cast, playing Gwen, a comic book-loving childhood friend of Oswalt and Posehn’s characters who they’re shocked to see has grown up to be an attractive woman. If Comedy Central had ordered the series, it would have been tough for Patton Oswalt to balance Super Nerds with the shooting schedule for King of Queens, which was in its second season at the time, but this could have been a chance for him, Posehn, and Silverman to gain exposure in a show that didn’t compromise their alt-comedies sensibilities, even if the laughtrack-heavy pilot seems dated now.

Rocky Times (2000, NBC)

Created by Mike Armstrong, former head writer to Craig Ferguson, Rocky Times was a proposed hour-long comedy that would have seen Sarah Silverman as part of an ensemble cast that also included Breckin Meyer (Franklin and Bash) and John Corbett (United States of Tara). Hour-long comedies are rare in television, but NBC had success with the show Ed, another double-length comedy on the air at this same time. The plot to Rocky Times concerned a guy who follows his girlfriend to a small town in Colorado, only to find out that she’s broken up with him.

Saddle Rash (2002, Adult Swim)

Loren Bouchard, co-creator of Home Movies, Lucy: Daughter of the Devil, and most recently, Bob’s Burgers, created this animated series for Adult Swim, using the same low-cost Flash animation he used for most of Home Movies’s run. Like Home Movies, Saddle Rash was an improvised, dialogue-driven show, but it was also a Western. The talented voice cast featured Bouchard regulars Jon Benjamin, Sam Seder, Todd Barry, and Mitch Hedberg. The story followed an armless nameless gunslinger known only by “Slim” (Seder) who faces off against his nemesis, the outlaw Tommy Morgan (Benjamin). Sarah Silverman provided the voice for Hanna Headstrong, the daughter of a rancher who falls in love with Slim.

Adult Swim passed on Saddle Rash, but, unlike most TV networks, they kindly aired it once, so at least we could see what it looked like. Sarah Silverman reunited with Loren Bouchard and his gang just this past year when she began voicing the recurring character Ollie Pesto on Bouchard’s current series, Bob’s Burgers.

Untitled Sarah Silverman Project (2003, HBO)

A few years before her Comedy Central series came to be, Sarah Silverman created another TV show starring herself, this time for HBO. The show was said to focus on “a narcissistic, well-meaning woman with a loose lifestyle who pokes fun at herself.” That’s a pretty generic logline and one that could apply to Silverman’s Comedy Central show (and probably her upcoming NBC show), but this HBO series was a separate entity from The Sarah Silverman Program. HBO would have allowed Silverman to perform more of the raunchy humor she excels at, making Comedy Central’s content restrictions look pathetic by comparison. Although an HBO series would have been a nice fit for Silverman, Comedy Central ended up being the right home for her first big sitcom – until the third season, when the network began mistreating the show.

Untitled Phil Hendrie Project (2003, Fox)

Silverman had a supporting role in this animated sitcom from radio personality Phil Hendrie. Fox ordered a short pilot presentation for the series, which also featured Amy Yasbeck, Nat Faxon, Neil Flynn, and Hendrie himself in the voice cast, before passing on it. The show revolved around a successful radio host who scores a job in major market,marries a woman with three kids, and moves into a gated community. The creative team behind the series is pretty prestigious, as well. The show was created by Steven Levitan (creator of Just Shoot Me and Modern Family) and the duo of Chris Miller and Phil Lord (Clone High creators who also directed Cloudy with a  Chance of Meatballs and Jonah Hill’s upcoming 21 Jump Street remake). With this talented group of comedians, writers, and performers assembled, this show really could have been something and could have broken up the Seth MacFarlane monotony that’s been plaguing Fox’s animated block for the past few years.

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.