Saturday Night’s Children: Sarah Silverman (1993-1994)

Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 35 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.

Last week I had the awesome pleasure of seeing a surprise performance by Sarah Silverman at UCB East’s show Totally J/K, and I’ve been rewatching The Sarah Silverman Program on Netflix Instant ever since. There’s something so jarringly hilarious about Silverman’s use of perky naivety to tackle some of the most taboo and even disgusting material (see her appearance in The Aristocrats), and that disconnect defines her success in her show as well as her girly-grossout Comedy Central roast performances and songs like “You’re Gonna Die Soon” and “I’m Fucking Matt Damon.” Though she’s never been one to shy away from exploring some of the most avoided topics in comedy, Silverman started out with a stifled year as a writer and featured player on SNL during the heat of the Sandler/Farley era and dealt with enough rejection to keep her spine rock-solid for the years to come.

Silverman was born in Bedford, New Hampshire and performed in community theater as the lead in Annie at twelve years old. She made her first television appearance at age 15 in a local show called Community Auditions (clip below) and started performing stand-up comedy soon after. She attended New York University, but dropped out a year later to pursue a career in stand-up comedy, and at only 22 years old she was hired as a writer and featured player for SNL’s nineteenth season in 1993.

Silverman came to SNL up against an overcrowded and male-dominated cast including Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, Mike Myers, Kevin Nealon, Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, and David Spade and found no success getting her material on the air. Despite her lack of screen time, Silverman’s single appearance as a Weekend Update correspondent in January 1994 is available online. In the segment, Silverman reports on “personal news” like her sister’s wedding, her most recent pap smear (“it’s kind of like a throat culture, only you don’t gag”), and her father’s friendship with a 14-year-old boy. Silverman created no recurring characters and only one of her sketches made it so far as dress rehearsal, and she was subsequently fired at the end of the season. She told TV Guide in 1997:

SNL was the best boot camp. Then I got fired. So I went to L.A. and immediately got hired on a pilot. Right before we shot the first episode, I got fired. After that, I was so gun-shy. I’d wait until the last second to show up at any job, plenty of time for my manager to call and say, “Don’t show up, you’re fired.” And then, little by little, I didn’t get fired anymore.

After SNL, Silverman appeared in Mr. Show from 1995-1997 with David Cross and and fellow former SNL writer Bob Odenkirk and The Larry Sanders Show, in which she plays a female staff writer whose male boss won’t air her jokes. She’s also appeared in Seinfeld, School of Rock, Monk, The League, and Crank Yankers, in which she voiced the character of Hadassah Guberman. On the stand-up side, she hosted the 2007 MTV Movie Awards and Independent Spirit Awards, starred in her 2005 stand-up film Jesus Is Magic, and performed on the Comedy Central Roasts of Hugh Hefner, Pamela Anderson, William Shatner, and Bob Saget. Her show The Sarah Silverman Program ran on Comedy Central from 2007-2010 and earned her an Emmy nomination in 2009 for Lead Actress in a Comedy.

Most recently, Silverman’s book The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee was published by Harper Collins and Take This Waltz, a Canadian film she stars in with Seth Rogen and Michelle Williams, has been picked up for a summer 2012 distribution. Her brand of wildly iconoclastic comedy might not have helped her rise the ranks at SNL, but it’s certainly gained her recognition as a comedian who’s never afraid to crack jokes about everything from abortion to ass waxing to the Holocaust. “She can play a character but she doesn’t disappear into the character – she makes the character her,” Bob Odenkirk said of Silverman in 2005. “She puts out stuff that she would appreciate and then you can like it or not – she doesn’t give a shit.”

Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.

Saturday Night’s Children: Sarah Silverman (1993-1994)