by Dana Goodyear
(5032 words Originally published in The New Yorker. Compilation copyright (c) 2005 The Conde Nast Publications, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)
The comedian Sarah Silverman exerts a kind of mesmeric control over an audience. She doesn’t laugh at her own jokes, and when she smiles it is deliberately inappropriate. The expression that lingers on her face is usually one of tentative confusion or of chipper self-satisfaction, as if she had finished her homework and cleaned up her room, and were waiting for a gold star. “I’m just sensitive,” she says onstage. “My skin is paper thin. People don’t realize it, because I’m sassy and I’m brassy, but I just— I see these care commercials with these little kids with the giant bellies and the flies, and these are one- and two-year-old babies, nine months pregnant, and it breaks my heart in two.”
As the audience reacts, she presses on. “It breaks my heart in half. And I don’t give money, because”—out of the side of her mouth—“I don’t want them to spend it on drugs, but I give. You know I give. I, this past summer, sent fifteen really fun cowl-neck sweaters to this village in Africa, in really fun colors—expecting nothing, by the way—and they culled their money together, whatever they call it, and bought a stamp and sent me a postcard thanking me, and it said thank you and that they had enough sweaters for every single member of the village to get one and that they were delicious.”
Silverman is thirty-four and coltish, with shiny black hair and a china-doll complexion. Her arms are long and her center of gravity is low: she is five feet seven, and moves like a vervet monkey. Onstage, she is beguilingly calm. She speaks clearly and decorously. “Quiet depravity” is how Michael McKean, who was with her in the cast of “Saturday Night Live” (she was a writer and a featured player for the 1993-94 season), describes her demeanor. The persona she has crafted is strangely Pollyanna-ish and utterly absorbed in her own point of view: “I wear this St. Christopher medal sometimes because—I’m Jewish, but my boyfriend is Catholic—it was cute the way he gave it to me. He said if it doesn’t burn through my skin it will protect me.” In another of her bits, she invokes the events of September 11th: “They were devastating. They were beyond devastating. I don’t want to say especially for these people, or especially for these people, but especially for me, because it happened to be the same exact day that I found out that the soy chai latte was, like, nine hundred calories. I had been drinking them every day. You hear soy, you think healthy. And it’s a lie.” Her constructions are minimal but the turn is sharp. “I was raped by a doctor,” she says. “Which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.”
Comedy is probably the last remaining branch of the arts whose suitability for women is still openly discussed. Several years ago, Jerry Lewis, then in his early seventies, reportedly told an audience at the Aspen Comedy Festival that he didn’t much care for female comedians and couldn’t think of one who was any good. Lewis’s views were criticized in public but upheld by some, in modified form, in private. “When you went home alone and did the math, he was just kind of right,” Penn Jillette, the magician-comedian, says. “I mean, what passes for funny in women is, like, Lucille Ball, who was never funny.” Lewis apologized in a press release—he praised Phyllis Diller and Carol Burnett—and later clarified his position on “Larry King Live”: “I said, ‘Some women comedians make me uncomfortable,’ because a man comedian can do anything he wants and I’m not offended by it. But we’re talking about a God-given miracle, who produces a child. I have a difficult time seeing her do this onstage.”
Phyllis Diller, whom Jillette, too, regards as funny, dispensed with the gender thing by wearing a wig and silly boots and gloves and telling jokes about how ugly she was. “I came out as a clown,” she says. “A clown is androgynous. They didn’t worry if I was a man or a woman.” Moms Mabley, safely old by the time she entered mainstream comedy, joked about her taste for young men; Roseanne Barr was a stout blue-collar “domestic goddess”; Margaret Cho says she is a “fag hag.” Silverman presents herself as approachable though deranged, a sort of twisted Gracie Allen, and she never breaks character. She talks about herself so ingenuously that you can’t tell if she is the most vulnerable woman in the world or the most psychotically well defended.
Silverman crosses boundaries that it would not occur to most people even to have. The more innocent and oblivious her delivery, the more outrageous her commentary becomes. Lenny Bruce’s “Jews killed Christ” joke (“I did it. My family… . Not only did we kill Christ, we’re going to kill him when he comes back”) is reprised with a harder edge. “Everybody blames the Jews for killing Christ,” Silverman says. “And then the Jews try to pass it off on the Romans. I’m one of the few people that believe it was the blacks.” She skewers hypocrisy and self-righteousness, but there are times when her narrative ingredients—rape, dead grandmothers—threaten to overwhelm the delicate balance of a joke (rape being one of the last remaining taboos in today’s sexual politics; grandmothers being what they are). In a catchy song she sings about porn actresses—“Do you ever take drugs / so that you can have sex without crying? / Yeah yeah”—the bald sermonizing, over an upbeat pop melody, is dissonant and odd but somehow not really funny. Who doesn’t feel sorry for porn actresses?
In “The Aristocrats,” a documentary by Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette, which shows dozens of comedians telling their own versions of what is supposed to be the world’s dirtiest joke—an improvised yarn about a performing family who approach a talent agent with a pornographic act called the Aristocrats—Silverman decides to turn the story inward. She begins, “I don’t put the Aristocrats on my resume anymore. It doesn’t take away from my pride. I actually was an Aristocrat. It’s kind of weird to be part of that legend.” She goes on to describe a shocking choreography (“It’s pretty spectacular, and it’s all about timing”) and the special interest taken in her family by Joe Franklin, the gnomelike “King of Nostalgia,” who for forty-three years had a talk show on which he interviewed celebrities.
"Joe Franklin loved the Aristocrats," she says. "He was, like, our rehearsal director when dad and my brother weren’t there. And my mother, and my nana—weren’t there. I was on his show. He said it wasn’t a ‘taped show,’ but we, like, did a show… . It was his office, but he had a bed in it, like a couch, that he called Uncle Joe’s bed for little people." She looks awkwardly into the corner of the room and, after a few seconds, turns her eyes back to the camera and says, "Joe Franklin raped me."
Provenza, who directed the movie, says, “Everybody else has gone so far out of his way to make it abstract and surreal in order to feel comfortable with these kinds of transgressions. She chooses to make it more real, and to actually have the emotional experience of somebody who’s suffered this horrific, horrible existence. It’s very disconcerting and uncomfortable. When it comes around at the end, she does what she does repeatedly, which is add some spin to it that makes it O.K. to laugh at. If the choice of who raped her was anybody but Joe Franklin, we couldn’t deal with it. But by making it Joe Franklin she spins it off into absurdity yet again. Imagine Joe Franklin being sexual. There’s an irony in that alone.”
Franklin, who says he had never heard of Silverman until he was persuaded to comment on her work for the film’s closing credits, is considering suing for defamation of character. “You know I’m in the ‘Guinness Book of World Records’?” he said, when asked about the contretemps. “You know who I am—the world’s longest-running TV talk-show host?” He went on to explain his position: “I was set up, I was duped, I was framed.” He worries that the accusation won’t play well on the nursing-home circuit. “The look on her face is severe,” he said. “The other guys in that movie, most of them had a happy, jolly look. What’s the word? Spoofing, tongue-in-cheeking. But she was very, very harsh and very convincing.” Silverman further antagonized him when she went on television and, obviously having a good time, said, “He doesn’t have the balls to sue.”
Silverman rents a small apartment near Miracle Mile in Los Angeles. The living-room walls are striated with yellow paint, and decorated idiosyncratically: an antiqued photograph of her grandmother, her nana, who died five years ago at the age of eighty-eight; a sombrero; some abstract studies painted by her sister Laura and rescued from the trash. There is a cobalt-blue velvet couch and a silvery-pink armchair; the coffee table is mint-green, glass-topped, chipped. She has a little oil painting of her boyfriend, Jimmy Kimmel, made by a security guard for the late-night talk show he hosts on ABC, and a painting of a male nude by Anna Nicole Smith. In her office, formerly a dining room, with a faux-Tiffany stained-glass light fixture, are stacks of papers covered in notes: “Sarah Silverman’s Tushy Party,” “stubbed my vagina.” Pictures of her cleaning lady’s baby granddaughter, and of herself running a red light, as documented by a traffic-surveillance camera, are tacked to a bulletin board.
Silverman grew up in a liberal household near Manchester, New Hampshire. “We were a family that would talk back to the television,” her mother, Beth Ann, says. “We would question everything. She learned that it was O.K. to make fun of what seems to be ridiculous.” Beth Ann was the director of the theatre at a small liberal-arts college. (She founded the company, which has since become independent, and called it the New Thalian Players, after the muse of comedy.) Sarah’s father, Donald, owned a small chain of clothing stores called Junior Deb/Varsity Shops, and an outlet in Concord called Crazy Sophie’s. (Its motto, which he delivered on the radio in a slurry of New England vowels, was “Spend your time at the mall. Spend your money at Crazy Sophie’s.”) Nana, whose most frequently quoted line was “I love you, you’re beautiful, don’t get a perm,” thought that Donald had named the store after a friend of hers called Sophie. “That’s not nice,” she said. He replied, “If I’d named the store after your friend Sophie, I’d have called it Ugly Sophie’s.” “I thought that was the best thing I’d ever heard,” Sarah recalls. Donald taught Sarah to say “bitchbastarddamnshit” when she was two or three.
Sarah’s parents divorced when she was six. She says that’s when she became a “hard-core bed-wetter,” a problem that persisted into high school. Susan, the oldest child (she is a rabbi, and the mother of four children, one of them adopted from Ethiopia), was fourteen; Laura, now an actress in Los Angeles, was eleven. Laura told me, “We saw Sarah crying after they told us—we were all crying—and we were, like, ‘Oh, Sarah, are you O.K.?’ “
"They were crying because their whole world had just fallen apart," Sarah said."I was crying because I was doing a dance and no one was watching."
At twelve, Sarah had the lead in the Community Players of Concord’s “Annie”; later, in school, she played the Jester in “Once Upon a Mattress” and Charity in “Sweet Charity” (“a popular high-school play about whores”). “Sarah’s diction is immaculate,” Beth Ann says. “Her final ‘t’s and ‘d’s and ‘p’s—everything is beautiful with her.” Sarah was small—“skinny, pale, and covered in black fur,” Laura says—the size of a ten- or eleven-year-old until she was fifteen. She had panic attacks and, in ninth grade, missed three months of school. She observed adolescence from a distance. Even now, when she talks about herself in compromising ways, there is an air of exemption. She was in love with Steve Martin (whose seamless comic persona she clearly learned from) and her tenth-grade history teacher, the only Russian-Polish Jew outside of her family that she’d ever known. Susan remembers that at one of Sarah’s early standup gigs—she was seventeen, and appearing at La Cantina, a local Mexican restaurant—she sang a song, to the tune of “Memories …,” called “Mammaries,” about wishing she had breasts. Susan says, “A few years later, she was doing that song and one of her fellow-comics said, ‘Sarah, you know that you have boobs now. The song doesn’t make sense anymore.’ “
Silverman went to N.Y.U. and spent her freshman year passing out flyers on street corners to earn five-minute spots at a comedy club. After a year, her father agreed to let her take some time off to work on standup. (She never went back to school.) Her stepsister Jodyne Speyer, who studied film at N.Y.U., made a short film of her performing at the Boston Comedy Club, in Greenwich Village. In the footage, Silverman is nineteen, with coiffed bangs and a long, oval face she hasn’t quite grown into. Her jokes are anodyne, the irony unhoned: “You know these mounted cops? You know what I’m talking about? I don’t know what the deal is with them.” Colin Quinn, a standup from Brooklyn who later had a show on Comedy Central, makes a cameo: “Sarah Silverman is a funny comedian, O.K.? She’s not a funny female comedian. She’s a funny comedian who happens to be female… . Her aura is funny—and hot.”
Three years later, Silverman was hired by “Saturday Night Live,” and joined a cast that included Mike Myers, Kevin Nealon, Julia Sweeney, and Adam Sandler, who had been in Laura Silverman’s fourth-grade class. Michael McKean says that at that point the show “wasn’t just a boys’ club—it was a depressed boys’ club.” Silverman says she managed to get one sketch through dress rehearsal, but it was killed before the live show. She had her best luck in the Thursday punch-up meeting. “People look like they’re growing molds after, like, three in the morning. They’re sunk into the table like some sort of a fungus,” McKean says. “Sarah just had this juice going at times. She used to remind me of Tigger. In the midst of all this gloomy, fearful dialogue there was this crazy girl jumping around.” The one time Silverman got on Weekend Update with Kevin Nealon, she gave a “personal news” report, with a picture from her sister Susan’s wedding in the background:
Well, Kevin, I guess the most important event of this past week was, of course, the wedding of my sister, Susan Silverman, to Yosef Abramowitz. It was a really neat wedding, too, you know, ‘cause they took each other’s last names and hyphenated it. So now my sister’s name is Susan Silverman-Abramowitz. But they’re thinking of shortening it to just “Jews.”
At the end of the season, Silverman was fired. Bob Odenkirk, who wrote for the show for several years, and got to know her doing standup in Los Angeles, says, “I could see how it wouldn’t work at ‘S.N.L.,’ because she’s got her own voice, she’s very much Sarah Silverman all the time. She can play a character but she doesn’t disappear into the character—she makes the character her. She doesn’t really do character voices. She puts out stuff that she would appreciate and then you can like it or not—she doesn’t give a shit.”
In television roles over the years, Silverman has stayed within the parameters established by her standup and her life. On “The Larry Sanders Show” she played a television writer; on “Greg the Bunny” she was a TV executive. In the movie “School of Rock” she played an unsympathetic, self-absorbed perfectionist. In a pilot she co-wrote with Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab, and which is being filmed for Comedy Central this fall, she plays a character named Sarah Silverman. Her sister Laura plays her sister Laura; Duck, her Chihuahua-pug mix, plays Duck. Her own apartment is the set.
Ten years ago, when Silverman had recently moved to Los Angeles, she decided to try something conceptual in her standup routine. She took a pair of khaki pants, dabbed a tiny bit of red paint in the crotch, and wore them to a gig at a club called Largo. After telling jokes for five minutes, she started roaming around the stage, admonishing herself aloud for not using it to better advantage. She did a somersault, and heard a slight, mortified intake of breath. “I just thought it would be an experiment, interesting because the audience would think it was funny and also be dying for me,” Silverman says. “Then I went back and did five more minutes of jokes, to see how it changed the room, how it was this elephant in the room.” At the end of the set, she allowed herself to notice the stain, and said, wincing, “Did you guys—you, you must think that I have my period and you’re probably dying for me. Of course you did. Why wouldn’t you? No.” She paused and said, as if to reassure, “I had anal sex for the first time tonight.”
Silverman does standup a couple of times a week, usually at Largo or at the Hollywood Improv, a mainstream club. One night in August, before a ten-minute spot at Largo, she was coursing around with a creased scrap of paper covered in crossed-out bits. (Her set list is often a cocktail napkin scribbled with notations: “Kabbalah/Scientology,” “9-11,” “old deaf black people.”) She was wearing a flowered peasant blouse, loose jeans, and sneakers. “I’ve got nothing,” she said buoyantly. “I’ve got nothing.” In the entrance of the club, Patton Oswalt, another comedian, was hunched over a small piano, working on his material. She came up behind him and pretended to spy on his notes; he leapt up and fake chased her, and she fake ran away, both of them jogging in place. “I have to pee again, but I don’t think I have time,” she said, and then it was her turn.
A few bars of music played while Silverman got herself to the microphone. Jimmy Kimmel stood against the wall and watched. “You know how a smell can take you to a place?” Silverman asked the room. “Like the other day I was in an elevator and it smelled just like my kindergarten. Jimmy’s balls smell exactly like my nana’s house.” Kimmel, who has a steady, saturnine disposition, muttered “great” and rolled his eyes, but seemed secretly pleased. “Cigarettes and brisket,” Silverman said from the stage. “God, I miss her. Or maybe Nana’s house smelled like Jimmy’s balls. Maybe that’s how you know it’s the one.” She scanned the dark house, one hand visoring her eyes. “I’m sorry, Jimmy. Now he’s going to withhold his tiny little penis from me. But it’s all right, because he has really big balls.” She finished, bounded off the stage, and found Kimmel. “I’m sorry!” she said, and they went to a grimy place next door to eat calzones.
"All standup acts are a riddle: Who am I?" Penn Jillette says. "When you’re a woman doing that stuff, you’re really walking a tightrope, because on one side you have, she’s just using the fact that maybe we can fuck her to get laughs and that’s cheap and that’s easy, and then on the other side you have, she’s telling us nothing about herself, she’s trying to be a guy. You have to walk right down the middle. Sarah just does that." He says, "I really think that her sensibility—not her style—and her material and her ability to write and her timing would all work just as well if she looked like Gilbert Gottfried. And yet she doesn’t in any way deny who she is. That’s all you want."
Because Silverman is a comedian, she doesn’t like to dissect what she does. “Part of who I am onstage is a person who would say”—she put on a lofty voice—” ‘Well, I’m the kind of person that is like this and like this and like this.’ I’m interested in that kind of person, but I’m not that kind of person. It’s an unreliable narrator. I do consciously do that. Something that I enjoy—so maybe I also create it—is contrast. People say I’m a nice girl saying terrible things. I tend to say the opposite of what I think. You hope that the absolute power of that transcends, and reaches the audience.”
One afternoon at the end of August, Silverman was on the set of “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” getting ready to shoot a sketch whose premise was that Comedy Central had asked her to fill in for the black comedian Dave Chappelle as the host of his show. (Chappelle had disappeared just as the season was supposed to begin.) She was going to impersonate Chappelle doing his impressions of black male characters like Rick James, “the King of Funk,” and the rapper Lil Jon. In the wardrobe room, on the third floor of the old Hollywood theatre where the show is taped, Silverman put on a pair of pleated black leather pants and black platform boots: Rick James. “I feel so black. I’m sorry, but I do,” she said. The stylist who was helping her, a black woman in a head scarf and sweats, grunted in amusement.
"I’m Rick James, bitch," Silverman said, rehearsing the line Chappelle uses for James. She put on an oversized red-and-black giraffe-print velour jacket and looked in the mirror. "I feel beautiful, though, still," she said, shrugging. "I feel like I’m going to Nell’s. My best friend in New York was"—she whispered—"African-American. She used to take me there."
Silverman tried her line again, this time in an annoying, whiny voice. “I’m going to do that as whitely as possible,” she said. She was fitted with a cornrow wig, with bangs and wooden beads, and went to the greenroom, which had been set up for a lounge scene. “Where my bitches at?” Silverman asked as she entered. There were two black women, in hoochie hot pants and fishnet tops, on a couch. “Hello, ladies,” she said. A technician fired the smoke machine, and Silverman tried a take. “How was that?” she asked, before the first shot was over. “It’s hard to figure out what’s best. Do you want it to be more me?” She tried the next take purely as herself: “I’m Rick James!” she said, exuberant. After the camera had stopped, she realized, “I forgot to say ‘bitch’!”
Back in the wardrobe room, Silverman put on the Lil Jon costume—a purple velour tracksuit. “You know who wears this?” she said. “Young black people and old Jews.” She added a Yankee cap, a medallion in the shape of a hand grenade, and a pair of blue suede sneakers. “You know what it feels like?” she said, mainly to herself. “Home.” A crew member had fashioned her a set of “crunk teeth,” with rhinestones embedded in them. She sat down while he rolled a fixative between his fingers.
"It’s going to taste like rubber," she said. "But at least it won’t taste like your filthy hand." She peered at him. "What’s your nationality?"
He remained focussed on his task and didn’t look up. “My mother’s Eastern European.”
"And my father’s Irish-American and Indian."
Kimmel’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Katie, came in, wearing a school uniform.
"How was high school?" Silverman asked, through the crunk teeth.
"You look so ridiculous," the crew member said approvingly.
"You’re ridiculous, you crazy Native American Irish Jew." He finally smiled.
A few years ago, Silverman was invited to tell some jokes on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” In one of them, she describes trying to get out of jury duty by writing something disqualifyingly biased on the form. A friend suggests she write “I hate Chinks,” and, worried that people will think she’s racist, she writes, “I love Chinks.” Before the taping, she says, she was told that she could say “spic” or “Jew” but not “Chink.” She decided to say it anyway. “Jew would be funny if I wasn’t Jewish,” she says. “But it has to be offensive, it can’t be a self-deprecating thing. Then I thought, If you’re saying I can say spic, I’m going to say Chink, because it’s a funnier-sounding word. You know? It’s got the ‘ch-’ and the ‘k-.’ I needed the most offensive word I could use on television.”
The network aired the joke uncensored, and Guy Aoki, of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, an advocacy group, protested until the network apologized. Then Silverman and Aoki had a debate on Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect.” Aoki, who lives in an apartment in Glendale littered with videotapes of programs he has monitored, arrived with, as he says, “two pages of sound bites” and a crowd of supporters. Silverman got frustrated—“It’s not a racist joke,” she said; “it’s a joke about racism”—and called Aoki a “douche bag.”
"It’s stupid to ever, ever defend your material," she says now. "If you don’t like it, then you know what? It’s no good. It’s subjective."
But opportunities for Silverman to justify her work continue to present themselves. One day this summer, she made an appearance on a Los Angeles morning radio show. A man phoned in, said that people thought of her as a “racist Jewish princess,” and asked, “Why are you calling people Chinks on TV? You’re a Jew.”
"I don’t just call people Chinks," Silverman said. "Who would do that? There was a context."
"Thanks, kike," the man said, and hung up. The producer erased the call, but when they went back on the air the host said, "A guy called up and he was a racist." Silverman corrected him: "He wasn’t a racist. He was calling me a racist. He said— Can I say K-I-K-E?" The producer said, "You just did."
"But I want to say it," Silverman said. "It feels good."
"That kind of thing probably happens to me more than to an average person," she said, driving home. "It doesn’t faze me. I don’t get mad, I don’t feel bad. I completely knew who that guy was. He was so excited to say that word."
In September, Silverman took “Jesus Is Magic,” the concert-movie version of a one-woman show she did Off Broadway a few years ago, to the Toronto Film Festival, where it was screened at midnight for a crowd of twelve hundred. The next night, there was a party for her at the Club Monaco on Bloor Street, in the fashion district. She arrived at ten-thirty, wearing a knee-length gray woollen skirt and high-heeled black loafers. She looked around uncomfortably and said she didn’t know anyone. Strangers came up and introduced themselves (“Can I say hello? You’re awesome. Come to our party. It’s for a movie about queer hip-hop”), and photographers took pictures of her with festival notables. “This is a lot of attention,” she said. “I want to walk around, but I’m afraid.” In a downstairs room, set up for a poker tournament, an Us Weekly reporter asked her what was on her iPod, and a movie-theatre manager from Chicago told her that he and his workmates were recently talking about “scatting,” and who they would let do this to them. “You were my choice,” he said.
Silverman listened graciously, then found her way out to the street. She said she hadn’t minded the obscene confession. “When he came up to me and said ‘I want to tell you a story that might not be that flattering,’ I was like, Ugggh. People want to hurt your feelings.” Outside another premiere party, she was accosted by autograph collectors waving blank white sheets of paper for her to sign. (They would attach her head shot later.) They muttered among themselves: “Who is she?” “She’s really nice.” “What’s she been in?” “The Pamela Anderson roast.” “She’s very funny, she really is.” A young man in glasses, a red polo shirt, and a baseball cap called out to her, “I loved ‘The Aristocrats,’ ” and asked for her autograph. There was a hint of malice in her outwardly game response. She signed, “Vagina Silverman.”
"Jesus Is Magic," which comes out next month, contains Silverman’s most authentic response to the accusation of racism. She says:
I got in trouble for saying the word “Chink” on a talk show, a network talk show. It was in the context of a joke. Obviously. That’d be weird. That’d be a really bad career choice if it wasn’t. But, nevertheless, the president of an Asian-American watchdog group out here in Los Angeles, his name is Guy Aoki, and he was up in arms about it and he put my name in the papers calling me a racist, and it hurt. As a Jew—as a member of the Jewish community—I was really concerned that we were losing control of the media. Right? What kind of a world do we live in where a totally cute white girl can’t say “Chink” on network television? It’s like the fifties. It’s scary. There are only two Asian people that I know that I have any problem with, at all. One is, uh, Guy Aoki. The other is my friend Steve, who actually went pee-pee in my Coke. He’s all, ‘Me Chinese, me play joke.’ Uh, if you have to explain it, Steve, it’s not funny.
Backed up by a band she calls the Silvermen, she picks up a guitar and sings “A Love Song”: “I love you more than bears love honey / I love you more than Jews love money / I love you more than Asians are good at math …” Later, she says, as if to put an end to it, “I don’t care if you think I’m racist. I just want you to think I’m thin.”