“It’s so hot. There’s no air in this building,” says Sarah Silverman, leaping up from the couch in her office at the West Hollywood studio where her new show I Love You, America is filming. She opens the door. “Could it be less hot in here?” she shouts to no one in particular. Silverman, dressed in a T-shirt and sweatpants, her hair tucked under a “Beer Nuts” hat, is just over a week ahead of the show’s October 12 premiere on Hulu. She plops back on the couch, behind which hangs a map of the country, and a giant American flag adorns the opposite wall. “I’m the boss,” Silverman says, then whispers jokingly, “but the staff isn’t afraid of me. It’s not okay.”
Since she started out as a stand-up in 1992, Silverman has been testing the limits of what is and isn’t okay for us to talk about, while also becoming an increasingly public activist for progressive political causes. I Love You, America, which promises to be a peppery, politically informed, and cheeky mix of field segments and in-studio monologues and interviews, is in keeping with her larger desire to move beyond the taboo-busting that made her famous. Underneath any scatology and button-pushing, I Love You, America is an earnest attempt to figure out what connects us — earnest for Silverman, anyway. “It’s still super-dumb,” she says of the show, “with the tiniest drop of being intellectual and emotional. I’m mostly just doing what I always do, which is talking about the stuff that’s on my mind. And making poop jokes.”
It’s been such a grim couple of weeks in the news, and the mood reminded me of something you said earlier this year on a talk show, about Donald Trump’s presidency making you feel dead inside. How do you push back against that kind of discouragement?
Law & Order reruns. Those are comforting to me. A short nap is even better. My mom used to watch MSNBC nonstop, and she’d just go crazy about the state of the world. I’d be like, “Mom, this is good that you care, but every once in a while you gotta watch a Bones or something.”
Part of the premise of I Love You, America is that you talk to people with whom you don’t have much politically or culturally in common — you go have dinner with a family in Louisiana that’s never met a Jew before. If we’d heard about a show where, I don’t know, the idea was “Larry the Cable Guy has dinner with New York Jews,” we’d be pretty skeptical about its purpose. Do you think it’d be fair for viewers who lean right to be similarly skeptical about your show?
I don’t know Larry the Cable Guy’s politics. Do you?
I always heard he’s a good guy. I’m not sure I can answer that question. But our show — and I hate to use a Sarah Palin word — is not trying to do any “gotcha” stuff. There are other shows that do it brilliantly: They interview someone and those people say real dumb shit and it’s very exposing. That’s not something I’m interested in. I’m interested in how people’s porcupine needles go down. I want people’s defenses to go down so that we can connect. But the segment you’re talking about is just one aspect of the show. Any political discussion is stuffed in a very bready sandwich of the aggressively silly.
The assumption is that the Louisiana family learns something from meeting you. But what’d you learn from meeting them?
We loved each other. Listen, they said some stuff I thought was bananas. They all voted for Trump — and they Googled “Jew” before I got there. The one thing I’ve learned overall about this is that facts don’t change people’s minds. If you get a one-on-one opportunity with someone who disagrees with you politically, you get more with kindness and warmth than you do by saying, “Here’s this fact and this fact and this fact and this fact.”
How does that emotional connection then turn into getting someone to actually change his or her politics?
Okay, for instance, the more people who come out of the closet and don’t move to the coasts but stay where they are — once that happens enough, it will create normalcy in the red states about people who aren’t straight. But people fight change. It’s so odd to me that people, and they tend to be on the right and the far right, don’t learn from history. How many times did they fight things that are now a normal part of their own lives? I used to say, “That’s so gay.” And in defense, I’d say, “I have gay friends. Gay just means lame!” I said stuff like that in my first special. Then I remember being in the middle of defending my use of that word, and thinking, Oh my God, I’m the guy who says “colored.” It was so nothing for me to sacrifice using a word that can feel like a stab to the heart to someone else. So I don’t understand people who can’t make some change in their language just because it’s not comfortable. You can’t take half a fucking day and come up with a new word? “Cheesy.” Use that instead of the offensive word. There you go.
You often see comedians nowadays arguing that the policing of language has gotten out of hand. Is that something you’re at all concerned with? You’ve never been shy about using words that make wide swaths of people uncomfortable.
There aren’t concrete answers about who is allowed to say what, but in general, if I talk about Jews are cheap, it doesn’t cause the same feeling in your gut as if someone who’s not Jewish is talking about Jews are cheap. Period. You know there are comics who say they don’t even want to play colleges anymore because of the PC stuff?
Seinfeld has talked about this.
I worship Seinfeld, but basically I believe students tend to be proven right historically. So if college students are saying it’s not cool to say something, they’re probably correct. Students are always on the right side of history. Old people aren’t always.
Your attitude toward provocation has changed over time. Has your process changed along with it?
I use my Notes app now on my phone instead of a legal pad. Does that count? It was funny, Kanye West once took me to lunch. He likes comedy and he wanted me to do something that I was not the right person for, but we realized that we both use the Notes app — me for stand-up and him for lyrics. We went one-for-one with what we were writing. He went something like, “Weak is a description / weed is a prescription,” and then I was like, “My grandma gets really heavy periods.”
Is it harder to generate material now that you’re not focusing so much on breaking taboos?
I don’t think so. To me, when you just have blue sky to write on, it can be paralyzing. I remember Larry Charles, we wrote a couple pilots together, and we would get notes back and I’d be like, “Fuck these people!” And he’d say that even the dumbest note from the scuzziest network executive is valuable because it gives us boundaries, and when you have to work within boundaries, you get so much more creative. That was the greatest revelation. Boundaries are great for comedy. They force you to find other words. Even just avoiding jargon is a good boundary. You don’t see the fucking Dalai Lama using hoity-toity words.
They’re not jargon, but there are these words that are all over the place now that I still never get straight: oligarch, plutocrat, demagogue.
David, you know we live in a time where you can just double-click on the word and get the definition? It’s incredible. It’s changed my life. But just today I was ranting at the writers’ room going, “You’re not understanding how crazy it is that the word shit is taboo in this country.” I don’t get it: There are a million synonyms for it that are fine to use.
Doodie. The fact that s-h-i-t is for some reason taboo is totally out-of-nowhere bizarre. It’s crazy we just had to bleep “shit” in a song we did for the show.
Ah, so that’s why this is on your mind.
We don’t have to bleep anything on Hulu. On Hulu we can say “cum-guzzling.” But for that promotional song, we wanted to put it out on the internet and we have to bleep “shit.” Do you know why that word isn’t allowed? Because I don’t.
It’s like how people accept that Catholic priests don’t get married. Do you know the reason for that?
It has nothing to do with anything in the Bible. It’s because the Church didn’t like how priests were leaving their assets to their wives and families. There’s no real reason for it anymore but nobody questions it. It’s just because “it’s how it is.” Anything that happens because “that’s how it is” is something to be skeptical about.
On the subjects of cum-guzzling and religion.
Yes, go on.
At the end of your most recent special, you do a bit where you ask a Christian in the audience —
I don’t say Christian! If you heard Christian, that’s on you. I say Christian, Muslim, or Jew.
Ah, sorry. So you ask a believer in the audience whether or not he’d let God come in his mouth. And I understand that the joke —
I understand that joke is working on a bunch of levels, but were you at all concerned about coming across like you were bullying a believer?
I don’t think it’s a bullying joke because it comes from a genuine question. It’s about belief, and I want to know the answer. If Abraham was willing to murder his own son for God, would you take a load of cum for God? The question seems very innocuous.
Abraham might have thought differently about that question if he’d had to answer it in front of a crowd at a comedy show.
Touché, David. But it’s not like I single people out. I ask people in the audience to raise their hand. Probably three or four people out of ten say they’d swallow God’s cum. But mostly they say no. It’s interesting to me.
This joke aside, you’ve made a decision to not lean so hard on taboo-busting material anymore. What other adjustments have you made to your act over the years?
I’d cringe if I were still doing the same material I was doing in my 20s and 30s. Comedy has to be a reflection of where you’re at and not something where you’re beholden to a character that got you famous. You have to be brave enough to lose fans or gain new fans or, God forbid, have older fans grow with you. And the shit I was doing doesn’t necessarily age well. I like the stuff I did earlier in my career, it’s just not totally me anymore. I haven’t gotten softer, but I used to do a character that said the opposite of what I meant. The character I was doing — an arrogant ignorant — was something I continued with on The Sarah Silverman Program. But now we have a president that’s an arrogant ignorant, so it’s not my thing anymore. It’s done.
I know this is a clumsy and reductive question, but do you think your work has — or had — a feminist function?
My work is feminist because the things I say are coming out of the body of me, a human feminist. You know, I do remember being a little bummed — but mostly excited — the one time I met Barack Obama. I’m sure it was one of those things where an aide whispered in his ear “Sarah Silverman; she’s a comedian” before he met me. Anyway, I met him and he said — it was very funny and I took it in the best way — but there was a twinge inside me when he said, “I really enjoy your work, although I turn the volume down when my daughters come in the room.” I’m sure he meant it nicely but there was part of me that was like, It hurts me that you don’t see me as being very good for your daughters. I would turn down the volume of Real Housewives or The Bachelor before I would turn down the volume of anything I’ve said. But there’s just this thing where I’ve got this “dirty comedian” shit attached to me.
During the period of, say, 2005 to 2007, when you went from being a comedian to being a famous comedian, people like Dave Chappelle and Sacha Baron Cohen also did extremely well by being extremely provocative about culturally sensitive subjects. Those same subjects are even more fraught now then they were a decade ago. Has that change been good for comedy?
I can only talk about this in terms of myself. My first special, Jesus Is Magic, that’s when I got really famous. I had a lot of race stuff in there. A lot of it does not hold up. But I felt emboldened because I knew I wasn’t racist and [self-mocking voice] had a lot of black friends. I’ve talked about this before, but I remember a review by A.O. Scott of Jesus Is Magic. It was one not-good review. Basically, he was saying that what I was doing was, like, I’m a liberal and I’m not racist so I can say nigger. Reading that I felt like, Ah fuck. He’s right. I don’t know that I say that word in the movie, but I did say very racial things. And he was right.
Yeah, I remember that review. He was describing a version of both you and your audiences being unaware of your social privilege.
I talk about this in a song that’s coming out to promote the show: A couple years ago, I was like, Ah, there’s a real epidemic of cops murdering unarmed black teenagers. Then a few beats later, I went [gasps], That’s not a new epidemic, it’s how it’s always been. I’m just aware of it now because of social media. I became so ashamed by that realization. It just, like, Fuck. It made me look at my old stuff with a much more critical eye. And when I did, I was embarrassed. I was just, to myself, Oh fuck you — the arrogance of what I’d been doing. But you have to forgive yourself, as long as you grow and change. There’s always going to be stuff that comedians say that later on will make us go, “Can you believe they said that?”
In that same time period I just mentioned, a lot of what people were writing about you was based on the relatively shallow observation that you were a woman comedian who said shocking things. Were people paying attention to that aspect of your material at the expense of things that you thought were more interesting?
I’ve had a lot of therapy, so having how I feel about myself being totally defined by outside forces — I’ve come a long way with that. I’m going to really digress now if that’s okay.
Yeah, of course.
I remember saying to my therapist once — I was single — and I said, “How am I going to find someone who’s done this level of work on themselves?” He just smiled kindly and then I went, “Oh right. Not everyone needs this level of work on themselves.” Sorry, what was my point? Do I wish people saw me differently?
Or at least focused on more than just the fact that you said things that were shocking to hear a comedian, and a woman comedian in particular, say out loud?
When people say, “she’s a dirty comic,” it always drives me crazy. It drives me crazy that my book is never at Hudson News and every other comic’s book is. I know it’s because I’m thought of by mainstream America as just a dirty comedian. But to me, my book is so beautiful and it’s no dirtier than the books at Hudson News by many of these brilliant women comedians that I love. You know, if I were clean, I would be heard more. I remember when I was dating Jimmy [Kimmel], this whole subject made me nuts: “Everyone just says ‘Dirty comic! Dirty comic!’ And that’s not who I am.” And he said, “Yes it is.” I understood what he was saying — that’s how I was seen — but that reaction always surprised me because that wasn’t how I saw myself. It kind of hurt when people would say, “She’s so pretty” — now that I’m 46-and-a-half I can say that about myself 20 years ago — “but why does she have that mouth?” Or they’d say, “The contrast of her looks and that mouth? It’s so interesting.” I felt like they weren’t getting a bigger picture of me. But at the same time, I understand that art is subjective and that once I put it out, it’s simply not mine anymore. I don’t know. I don’t give a shit.
Has Jimmy’s being more outspoken politically lately surprised you? Or was that a side of him you already knew about?
I don’t think it was something he was ever looking to do as a talk-show host, but I was thrilled to see him do it. What he’s been doing is beautiful. I emailed him yesterday telling him I was so proud of everything he was doing — I was plotzing. I didn’t use that word with him, of course, because he wouldn’t know what it means.
The issue you just touched on — the relationship between your appearance and your material — and the subject of gender and comedy is something I want to handle respectfully. I really don’t want to be a dope but —
David, you know I’ll tell you if you say something stupid.
Can you describe the tension between your appearance and your material? Even insofar as that tension was something you felt you had to be aware of.
I’m not sure what you’re asking me, but keep going with it. I think you’ll get to something good.
Okay, for example, I’ve heard women comedians say they felt they had to dress down in order to get men to actually pay attention to their jokes. Or, you know, even how there’s this whole strain of comedy by women, starting I guess with Phyllis Diller, that involves commenting on one’s own appearance. So what do you see as the relationship between femininity and your material?
I didn’t want to wear anything that distracted, even down to not wearing a shirt that had words on it. But I think of that as almost asexual. It’s closer to how I’d think, like, I bombed wearing this, so I’m never wearing it again. Or I killed in that, so I’ll wear it again. I don’t know — are you asking if I was worried about looking too hot?
I was trying not to put it in quite those terms, but I guess, yeah, what was your thinking about how your looks affected the reaction to your material?
As I’ve gotten older, my power has changed. Part of my prowess, whether I like to admit it or not, was tied to how I looked. There was a time when I couldn’t even imagine what kind of power over the audience I could have in my 40s, and that’s so sad.
So how is your power over an audience different now than it was 20 years ago?
My stand-up now is not necessarily based in sexuality at all. I definitely have a different set of tools. I’m able now to be more earnest and not have a shtick or a hook. At least I think I am. I don’t have a clear answer to this. I’m me at 46. I don’t know what that means.
In Jesus Is Magic, you have a line about how comedians are driven by humiliations. Was that true for you? Is it true for you now?
What I’m saying there is that comedians became funny as a means of protecting themselves. The classic example is the fat kid making the fat joke before anybody else does. For me, I was a bed-wetter till I was 15. I was sent to sleepaway camp since I was six. So it helped to be the funny kid because I was also the kid that smelled like pee. That’s a hard thing to survive. Also I was a Jewish kid in New Hampshire. I didn’t know other Jews outside of my family. That was a thing where I had to learn to be nonthreatening to friends’ parents. I was funny and likable because I needed to show my friends’ parents that I wasn’t something to be afraid of.
But what about the “now” part of that question? Is your comedy still at all driven by your trying to preempt or undercut harmful feelings?
No, because I’ve had a lot of therapy. I still have a drive to be a comedian but it comes from less desperate motivations. It comes from loving to make people laugh.
Even in just an ambient way, there’s the sense that successful women in show business often have an expectation put on them to be role models for other women. To varying degrees some comedians — I’m thinking of Lena Dunham or Amy Schumer — embrace that. But you’ve never appeared interested in being representative of anything or being held up as any sort of positive mirror. Is that by design? Is the idea of being a role model just not something in which you’re interested?
It’s a tricky question to answer. I don’t want to come off … the bottom line is that it’s important to not second-guess yourself about what an audience wants from you. It’s the most rewarding thing when women come up to me and say I’ve affected them in powerful ways, but I never let myself feel beholden to being a spokesperson for women or for anything. Part of that is because if I did, it would not necessarily be authentic. It’s not up to me to define how I’m seen, so to let the choices I make be influenced by that is something I’m not interested in.
There’s a story you’ve told a bunch of times about, very early in your career, hearing that the sign of a good woman comedian is if her jokes would work just as well if they were told by a man, which is obviously a crazily chauvinistic statement.
It’s so crazy. I stupidly believed it at the time.
I wonder if, 25 years later, you’re still seeing other, more subtle forms of sexism from men toward women comedians?
I’m not, but that’s probably because of where I am in my career. Before anybody knew who I was, if I hung out with a friend who was famous, they’d go, “Everyone is so nice!” Well, yeah. You’re famous. Maybe I’m doing the same thing when I say that I feel like sexism is gone in comedy; I know I have to take my own observation with a grain of salt. To get a more accurate answer, you’d have to ask a woman who was starting out.
Your experience isn’t representative anymore.
But there’s no shortage of sexist experiences to be had. The other day I went to the eye doctor with a friend. The way the doctor — he was this old guy — talked to her was so condescending and demeaning it blew my mind. So I said, “Let me ask you something: I’m 46. She’s 33. If we were men would you talk to us this way?” It was so blatant. He was saying, “You girls. You’re pretty girls” — just bizarre. Then after I asked him that, he said, “Let me guess, you probably voted for that criminal Hillary.”
While we’re here: Do you have any hunches about why Trump did as well as he did with white woman?
Did you see the Michelle Obama quote that was going around the other day about how women who voted against Hillary Clinton voted against their own voice? Does that ring true for you?
I worship Michelle, but from hearing it secondhand just now that kind of quote is not really my cup of tea. I adore Gloria Steinem as well and she said something like women that vote for Bernie can’t be feminists. I loved Bernie and would’ve loved him to be president. In hindsight, which is easy, I think he could’ve won. But he or Hillary — she’s so brave in so many ways — would’ve been much better than the horrible baby-monster that’s currently president.
You’ve been the target of online misogyny from the alt-right but you’ve also dealt with similar shit from the left, especially after you spoke at the Democratic National Convention last year. Was the latter reaction at all surprising to you?
That whole Bernie bros thing — I still don’t understand what that is. I’ve never seen it. There are Bernie or Bust people, though. I know some of those people and they happen to be women. I also have friends that fucking hate him. I’m flummoxed by that. He’s everything I believe in. He asked me to speak at the DNC, and I did it because I adore him and wanted to get an ally of his, Hillary, in office. Being at the DNC, the audience watching at home wasn’t seeing what I was seeing onstage, which was the floor of the convention center. Most of the people there were bananas. Who wants to go to a fucking political convention? It’s wackos in Styrofoam hats with a million buttons on them — and there’s also people representing all the states and that part’s lovely. But right in front of me onstage were Bernie people screaming in the faces of Hillary supporters and it was ugly. So when I said, “You’re being ridiculous,” I was looking into the eyes of the people who were being ridiculous — the Bernie or Bust people. It was a rough day.
Just to go back to one of the concepts behind the new show — there’s this notion that comedy is useful in breaking down people’s barriers to new ideas. But wasn’t one of the lessons of 2016 that humor is not by default progressive. That it’s just as effective, and maybe even more effective, in entrenching retrograde ideas for the alt-right as it is in breaking those ideas down on the part of the left?
The alt-right, Nazi humor isn’t funny. It’s scary. Yes, comedy is subjective but I’m telling you that the alt-right’s idea of humor is not funny. I’m not saying that because I find it offensive, I’m saying that as someone who has thought a lot about comedy. Once in a while they get in a good one, I have to say. There were some right-wingers going after me because I’d tweeted that I thought I saw a swastika on the street — it turned out it was just a construction sign. A lot of the responses were, like, “She’s an out of touch rich person.” Meanwhile I live in an apartment building and my whole floor shares one washer and dryer. But some of them were posting pictures of random things and saying “is there a swastika in this?” I was like, Ok, that’s funny. But the reason there are so few right-wing comedians isn’t because of the Hollywood elite, it’s because they’re not funny. Be funny!
I’m half-joking here — maybe a quarter — but I think if people are doing something that by its nature is not going to involve a lot of Jews and other minorities, the ceiling for how funny it can be is only so high.
That’s the crazy thing about my show! I’m the only Jewish writer. We were writing one day and I looked around and thought, I can’t believe I hired no Jews.
I’m always curious about why people are willing to engage in political arguments on Twitter like you do. I mean, you’ve gotten death threats as a result of things you’ve tweeted about. Why play in that swamp? Is it worth it?
I don’t really read my mentions. I only found out about the death threats because my manager saw them. But then I had to get metal detectors for my last tour and hire two security guards — it meant the whole tour was a wash financially. Every once in a while, I’ll look at mentions from verified people, which sounds elitist, but I would probably be too scared to say the stuff I say if I read all my mentions.
This is a totally different Twitter-related thing: Earlier in the year, you tweeted about your decision to pursue a career rather than motherhood. What precipitated those tweets? It was such an intimate thing to share with 11 million people.
It was just something I was thinking about it. I always think of a tweet as a message in a bottle. Of course I know that people see it, I’m not dumb, but somehow it still surprises me when people say, “I saw that tweet.”
So it was just an idle thought?
Yeah. I have working female friends with children — I don’t understand how they do it. It’s great they’re able to, but they’ve all made real sacrifices. Even being in a relationship — without kids — I feel I don’t put my work first. Not that I should put my work first, but my work is my passion, it’s me. I was on a tour two summers ago with a bunch of comics, and I was thinking about how I guess I’m not having kids. And one of the other comics on the tour said, “Why don’t you just do it? I have a two-year-old and it’s fucking great.” And I go, “Yeah, who’s watching your two-year-old right now while you’re on tour with me for two months?” It doesn’t even occur to men that, more often than not, they’re in a relationship with someone who’s the primary caregiver of their kids and they get to be the fun dad. I’d fucking love to be a fun dad. I’d be the best fun dad. I’d come home and give 40-minute increments of the best of me when I’m not on the road. That’s the fucking dream, but I love what I do. I don’t want to stay home with a baby all day. I fucking love kids, and I’d love to have the traditional dad role of parenting. It’d be incredible. I only ask that men be mindful when they talk about this stuff. Just be mindful that it isn’t as simple as, “It’s so fun, Sarah, you should fucking do it.” Why couldn’t the brilliant intellectual comic who said that to me process this: I’m fucking on the road for two months, dude. Just like you. Who’s taking care of your kid?
The career you pursued has clearly worked out fantastically well, but was there ever a point when you chased a different kind of career success? Were you ever hungry for a Hollywood romantic comedy or a network sitcom?
A big romantic comedy was not something that was available to me. I wanted to be an ingenue, but I learned very quickly that was not going to happen.
How frustrating was that for you to accept? Did you accept it?
You know what? Nothing could keep me from doing stand-up and being funny. That was the most important thing to me. But I did have dreams of a movie career when I was in my 20s and early 30s. I once had a very huge older director — an iconic director — tell me flat out that no one would ever cast me in the role of someone who deserved love.
He said I’d always only be cast as the loud, sassy friend or the cunty girlfriend a guy has before he realizes what love can be. He made no bones about it: “Oh, no one’s gonna cast you in a sympathetic role.” Tears just fell out of my eyes.
He’s an idiot. I find these things amusing now. Especially because Hollywood’s supposedly run by Jews, and I think it is, but Jews don’t like to see themselves reflected in art, necessarily.
You really think that’s true?
There’s Transparent and what else?
Woody Allen movies.
Woody Allen movies? Who are the ingenues in Woody Allen movies? Diane Keaton. Mia Farrow. Mariel Hemingway. He doesn’t want to see a Jewish woman as an ingenue. That was your one example and you made my point perfectly.
Let’s pretend it was on purpose.
Nice try, David. I’ve heard so many executives say Natalie Portman’s the only beautiful Jewish woman in Hollywood. It’s just amazing to me. I feel weird talking about this because it sounds like I’m talking about myself and my own career, but it’s just something I’ve noticed. I’ve seen what’s not available to me no matter my level of success or visibility. They were remaking Superman years ago, and I had all male agents at the time, and I said to them, “My dream is to play Lois Lane.” They looked at me like they were embarrassed for me — I have different agents now. The thing is, I like acting, I’m good at it, but stand-up is my joy. That’s what makes my arms itch with glee, and it’s what I’ll always do.
This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.
Annotations by Matt Stieb.