It's been eight years since we last saw Sarah Silverman do proper stand-up. She's kept herself busy with a variety of other projects — The Sarah Silverman Program, Take This Waltz, Wreck-It Ralph, her YouTube channel, and the memoir The Bedwetter, to name a few — but her stage presence has been missed. Thankfully, she's back with a new hour-long HBO special, We Are Miracles, which premieres this Saturday at 10 p.m. It's a bit of departure for Silverman, who's very much performing as herself this time around rather than as the "arrogant" character she'd admittedly put on in her previous work. (That said, the special is still full of the brash humor Silverman is known and loved for, Variety be damned.) We spoke to Silverman yesterday (before the aforementioned Variety piece dropped) about the identity crisis that prompted her to change things up, aging, porn, and her "cunt" song.
Did you see that People named a Jewish guy Sexiest Man Alive?
Oh my god! Who’s the sexiest man alive?
Oh! That’s exciting! Yeah, you don’t get that much. Although, Scarlett Johansson’s been the Sexiest Woman Alive a bunch of times, and she’s got a little Jew in her, but she’s one of those passable Jews, so she doesn’t totally count. He even has a Jewish name, which never happens.
When did you decide that you were gonna do another special?
I just knew I had another special in me, and I hadn’t done one in a long time. I had met with HBO and they offered a special and I was like, Perfect! I’m ready to do one. Isn’t that a great story?
Stylistically, it feels very different. You step away from the persona that you had for most of your career. How did that transition happen?
You’re right. It was really a character of that kind of very ignorant and yet very arrogant person, which is something I really love to play. That was the character I stayed with for my Comedy Central show, The Sarah Silverman Program. So, when that was all done, I was like, Is this who I am? And I started thinking about comedians from when I was growing up that were one specific thing and then seeing them as a comedian later in life being beholden to be this character that made them famous. I just didn’t want to do that.
I want to be a comedian; I want to be vital. I want to talk about stuff that reflects what I’m thinking about now. I think so much of my last special is based on shock, and I take nothing away from that. I like that, but when you continue from there and say, “I want to give the audience what they want,” if you’re giving them what they’re expecting, that negates the shock altogether. I drove myself crazy and I had this mini identity crisis and then all of a sudden I realized comedy dies in the second-guessing. I have to just drop that. It doesn’t matter. I may keep my audience; I may lose my audience and get a different one. It doesn’t matter! I just have to do what I think is funny, period. And go out and bomb and eat shit and figure out what’s funny and what works. Start from zero again. And that’s what I did, and that’s what I'm about to do again. I don’t do any plotting. I don’t go, Ooh, what should I ... ? It just organically happens. And then it ends up reflecting me fairly accurately, because it’s me.
And it makes sense, because that character was so singular when you started. There wasn't anyone else doing anything like that. Did it feel like something new? And now does it feel like a lot of people are doing "Sarah Silverman"?
I feel like I had hit on something that was just uniquely me. I notice it in people now, but it doesn’t bother me. I think it's natural. I’m sure I was influenced by people when I first started out.
I wanted to talk about using cuteness in your act. Not just your looks, but using a sweetness or bubbliness — and then subverting it.
I do definitely play with contrasts because I think that’s interesting. If I say something hard and then I say it in a hard way, there’s no natural dichotomy in it. Things aren’t all one thing. I don’t put too much thought into it, but, look, I can’t help it if I’m fucking adorable. I mean, that’s subjective, but if you find me adorable, that’s your problem.
You were on Totally Biased a couple months back, and you talked about the James Franco roast and the fact that all the other roasters felt comfortable making fun of your age, despite the fact that you weren’t even the oldest person there. You said it was partly because you were a woman. Have you given that more thought?
It’s hard to talk about it, because I’m very protective of the format of a roast. So, those guys had every right to say what they said. They were funny jokes. I was brutal to people. It’s all in good fun, but we’re made of feelings as human beings and it took me by surprise that I was suddenly perceived as old. I’m the same age as Kamau! I’m younger than a lot of new faces in comedy. I can’t help it if I’ve been around and haven’t died. I just feel like there is a conceit that’s maybe not spoken out loud, that is a gas in the air, that is, as soon as a woman is old enough to have opinions and be strong, she’s often encouraged to crawl under a rock and be ashamed of herself and that’s just bananas. That’s some fucked-up shit. Then it was cool to be forced to think through that. I think that was a gift for me.
To that point, is there any value in being asked about being a female comedian, as it allows people to think and discuss gender? Is it an interesting conversation or is it too hard to get away from the cliché of it?
What I say to that, and I don’t mean this to shame you, because I think the question being asked lets this come to light, but to me the last relic of the whole "women in comedy" issue is that interview question. That’s like the last thing left of it. I mean, women run comedy. I mean, it’s Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Chelsea Handler. Women run comedy. Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy. Women have had to be undeniable in order to come to light, and they have, so there’s a real force now. It’s an undeniable force. Is anyone better at hosting awards shows than Amy and Tina? I mean, it’s nothing. All that’s left is that question that is always, always, always asked. I’m glad you asked, because then I get to say that.
So, the video for “Diva” came out yesterday and it’s also part of your special. It ends with you singing “cunt” very joyfully. Is it a word that you love? Do you want to reclaim in a way?
No, I don’t think I want to turn it into "my niggah” or whatever. I don’t know if I said that right. Oh, lord. But I’m not looking to reappropriate it or something. I mean it. I mean that women who excuse bad behavior because they just say they’re a diva are cunts. That’s all. But I liked the video being almost like a children’s song. It just had this "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" thing. Like that old Coke commercial. Like a peace-and-love-filled thing to contrast the fact that we’re telling you you’re being a cunt.
The special starts with you discussing porn. Do you have a completely positive relationship with porn?
It literally is exactly how I say it: I don’t look at it much, but when I do, it comes over me like a fever and, no, I don’t judge myself about it. It just is what it is, and then sometimes when I’m done I'm a little disgusted. I clear my history immediately.
Your special airs on the same night as Bill Cosby's. Did you want to talk trash about the Coz?
No, you can watch both! Don’t be ridiculous! I can’t wait to see his special. Bill Cosby Himself is one of my favorites, and I can’t wait to watch it. You can watch both. There’s a lot of various technologies, and I don’t even think we’re on at the same time.
I think his ends immediately when yours starts.
Perfect. Some nice wholesome comedy and then debauchery.
What makes you laugh consistently and what makes you cry consistently?
Hmmm. I don’t know. People make me laugh. I have certain friends that I just die. My boyfriend, Kyle Dunnigan, and my friend who’s not a comedian, Heidi from San Francisco, who’s a therapist — they’re probably the two people that just [make me] sob laughing. Just, like, uncontrollable laughter. Belly laughs. I’m also somebody who could watch America’s Funniest Home Videos and die laughing. In full disclosure. I don’t know what makes me cry. Movies. Sad, happy. Anything Pixar fucking kills me. I can’t handle the thought of a lonely robot in space like Wall-E. Fucking forget it. I’m already crying. I already can’t deal with it. Even good things. Like my mother sent me an e-mail — I think I might have even said this in the special [Ed note: She did] — it just said, "Elephants reunite after 20 years" and I was like, There’s no way I can watch this. It will kill me. My heart can’t take it.