After the song about strippers, after the jokes about the Holocaust, after the story about saying “Chinks” on NBC, but before the three-part harmony rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” with her vagina and her asshole, Sarah Silverman pauses for a moment and dedicates her one-woman show, Jesus Is Magic, to somebody who might not have enjoyed it: her grandmother.
She recently died, Silverman explains. “She was ninety-three,” she says. “So naturally I suspect foul play.” The audience laughs. “I’m spending my own money, and getting her body exhumed, and I’m getting a full rape exam. And I’m going to get to the bottom of this. And my parents aren’t behind me. What else is new? Well, they’re wrong this time.” Silverman stops, struck dumb with indignation. And then she whispers, “Oh, God, please find semen in my dead grandmother’s vagina.”
Because she’s a provocative comic who does smart material on issues like race and abortion, people often compare Silverman to Lenny Bruce. Of course, nobody under fifty can quote a single Bruce line. He’s a footnote in comedy history, the provocateur who made Howard Stern possible. Silverman has the advantage of being funny as hell, and not dead.
“I’m always repeating her jokes to people,” says Kevin Nealon, formerly of Saturday Night Live. “My favorite is, ‘The other day I was licking jelly off my boyfriend’s penis and I thought, “Oh my God, I’m turning into my mom.”’”
“She’s my saving grace in L.A.,” says her pal Lizz Winstead, co-creator of The Daily Show. “In a world gone mad with women seeking men and boob jobs, she’s really strong and knows herself. Lots of comics are really timid, but she’s not afraid to say that there are things in the world that are fucked up. If you’re stupid and don’t understand satire, that’s not her problem.”
The joke that’s gotten Silverman in the most trouble was on Conan last year, when she told a story about avoiding jury duty. “My friend said, ‘Why don’t you say that you hate Chinks?’ I didn’t want people to think that about me, so I filled out the form and said, ‘I love Chinks.’” Although clearly a joke about racism, it provoked the ire of the Media Action Network for Asian-Americans, a media uproar, and an official apology from NBC. Discussing the controversy in her show now, Silverman says, “As a member of the Jewish community, I’m concerned… that we’re losing control of the media.” And: “You have to be able to laugh at yourself–that’s what I tell Asian people.”
Silverman fits right into the mostly male world of professional comedy, playing poker with other comics once a week and joining Garry Shandling’s basketball game every Sunday. Among her peers, she’s willing to go the extra mile for a joke, whether that means pretending to stuff pennies up her ass on her answering machine message or actually pissing in her apartment building’s hallway. With gamine good looks and lines like “I love everything about strippers–except the way their butts get that metal-pole smell,” she’s become a cult sex symbol. When I tell her that half my male friends have a crush on her, she replies, “I think it’s good when people like Jews sexually.”
“I’ve wanted to be a stripper ever since I was molested,” Silverman jokes onstage. Asked later why strippers are funny, she says, “Because they’re so tragic.” Her best comedy relies on getting the emotional weight of topics wrong; she treats trivial concerns as pieties and vice-versa. “I almost always say what I don’t mean,” she says. Onstage, when Silverman lusts after a jewel that can only be found on the tailbone of Ethiopian babies, she expresses moral reservations–because she thinks they’re mistreating the unions that debone the babies.
Silverman, thirty-one, grew up in Bedford, New Hampshire, with her three sisters. Her parents divorced when she was six, although they’re now friends. Her father owns a discount women’s clothing store called Crazy Sophie’s Factory Outlet (no, really) and has written The Event, a well-reviewed thriller about a sociopath. “I’ve always been convinced that my father killed a man,” Silverman says.
Dad taught his daughters to swear when they were young. “Sarah really took to it,” says her older sister Susan. “We would swear if we had a reason, but she enjoyed it. She would sit on Dad’s lap saying ‘Bitch-bastard-damn-shit.’”
When I meet Susan, now a rabbi and the mother of two, she has “JEW” written in ballpoint ink on her shoulder: she fell asleep in her hotel room and got inscribed by Sarah. Susan says, “Sarah insists that she just has to be funny, but I know there’s more–she’s got a truth and she’s going to bring it to power.” Is Sarah the funniest member of the family? “No. I am.”
Silverman loved musicals in high school, playing leads in Sweet Charity and Bye Bye Birdie. She thought she would come to New York and get cast as Eponine in Les Miserables. Fortunately, when she arrived for her freshman year at NYU, she did standup comedy instead, handing out flyers for ten dollars an hour, and blowing off her classes. Dad offered a deal: if she dropped out, he would finance her next three years of standup.
Silverman faced the usual career obstacles, like indifferent crowds, and some more unconventional ones, like club owners who would masturbate in front of her. “And the first manager I ever had was just crazy,” she says. “I was 19, and he wanted me. He asked me to come up to his office and do my ten minutes for him. At the end, he’s very pensive, and then he says, ‘You know what you need? A funky hat.’”
Silverman worked as a writer for the 93-94 season of Saturday Night Live, and then, to her surprise, was canned. “I got fired from a bunch of things in a row,” she says. “For a long time, every day I went to work, I would check to see if my name was still on the dressing-room door.” Moving to Los Angeles, she developed a specialty of memorable guest appearances on cult TV shows: The Larry Sanders Show, Mr. Show, Star Trek: Voyager, even V.I.P. When people recognize her, it could be from any of them, which lets her do amateur sociology. “People don’t recognize how many black Trekkies there are,” she notes. “I really like the people who like me. It’s pathetic. I talk to them for too long, and it always ends with them saying, ‘I gotta go. I have a curfew.’”
Silverman’s also had a string of tiny parts in movies, but aspires to larger ones. “I want a part like Bill Murray in Stripes, or Bill Murray in Meatballs, or early Tom Hanks movies, where you just want to be their friend and they’re cool and they’re funny. Girls don’t get those parts, but that’s what I want.” Silverman’s biggest payday so far was for serving in the cast of the late, lamented Greg the Bunny, which lasted for only thirteen episodes on Fox. She earned enough money to afford a 1997 Volvo sedan, and decided she hates sitcoms (although she loved her co-workers). “I really have a feeling I’m not going to age well,” she says. “So every time somone wants me to write a screenplay, or approaches me to write a book, I think, ‘Can I just pursue acting until I’m ugly?’ I want to be a leading actress, and then I’ll eat what I want and I’ll be a character actress and write. But I’ve got a small window, and I can’t waste it on things like thinking.”
“I’ve been able to make my niece laugh since she was born,” Silverman says. “You know what babies love? Ethnic jokes.” In an empty theater, Silverman is rehearsing Jesus Is Magic with director Sam Seder, an ex-boyfriend. They discuss whether they could do a joke about Silverman’s niece being deaf. She balks: “I say I’ve been raped, I haven’t been raped. I say that my boyfriend’s black, he’s not. I lie all the time, but I can’t say my niece is deaf.”
Sprawled on her belly, Silverman lies on the stage, taking notes as they work on an extra song for the show, about the drummer in her backing band having diarrhea. (The brow is higher on some of Silverman’s jokes than others.)
“The song’s not just about diarrhea,” Seder advises. “It’s about the empathy you have for Phoebe.”
“I’m her confidante, bonfidante, gonfidante,” Silverman says, looking for a rhyme.
Silverman can improvise with the best of them, as her prank calls on Comedy Central’s Crank Yankers demonstrate. But sometimes she’ll carry around half a punchline in her datebook for months, like “an angel with AIDS.” Right now, one of those building blocks is “looking for coke in the rug.” She wants to pair it up with the desperation of the Jewish people in Nazi Germany, but hasn’t yet found the structure of the joke. “I grabbed this book when I was home, Facing History and Ourselves, about the Holocaust,” she says. “That chunk of the show is a little harsh, and there needs to be some insight. I’m hoping that if I reread the book, I’ll find something deeper… to make a joke about.”
Article by Gavin Edwards. Originally published (in a somewhat shorter version) in Rolling Stone 906 (October 3, 2002).