Frank, feminist, and super funny, Sarah Silverman is poised to launch the next great political comedy show. Here, she opens up about being open, understanding Trump supporters, and the unifying power of shit.
When I walk into comedy superstar Sarah Silverman’s cover shoot for BUST in a big, airy studio in West Hollywood, she’s lying on a makeshift bed with a small crew of people standing around her, all murmuring approval. I’ve heard she’s warm and friendly—and the rumors soon prove true—but she can’t see me yet. So I’m greeted not by the multitalented comic/actor/musician/author/activist, but by her little dog, Mary.
Silverman, 46, has been busily prepping for her new Hulu political show, I Love You, America—out October 12—when we meet. The show, which will feature a monologue by Silverman, additional stories from a group of in-studio commentators, a live audience, and field pieces produced around the country, is hoping to bridge the divide between Americans with very different political points of view. When discussing her vision for the show, Silverman emphasizes repeatedly that her aim isn’t to make a fool of anyone or to engage in “gotcha” journalism. It makes sense when one considers that throughout her 25-year career, she’s never been the kind of comic who gains points from attacking or humiliating others for sport.
Instead, Silverman has honed an onstage persona in which her feigned ignorance, lack of sensitivity, or naïveté render her the true fool. (When this works, as it usually does, it’s hilarious. When it doesn’t, or when her meaning is misunderstood, she can come off as the very ignoramus she’s lampooning.) She’s far likelier to make herself the butt of the joke than to mock an unsuspecting interviewee (one planned field piece involves Silverman dining with folks in the Deep South who’ve never met a Jew before). Her modus operandi for I Love You, America sounds like the ultimate exercise in genuine friendliness.
When we finally settle onto a couch for our interview, we are immediately joined by the very lovable Mary. Silverman tells me that when her previous dog, Duck, died in 2013 at age 19, she asked a friend to take every dog-related thing out of her house so she could mourn. “And then, like, within six months, I was just aching to be able to love something so smotheringly much,” she says. “The only animal that really can take that is a dog.” So she went to the Burbank pound, where she found Mary, then a little skin-and-bones creature who’d been abandoned in a crate in a Costco parking lot. Silverman says she’s “a little Buddha.”
“Hey Mary, are your ears burning?” I ask, at which point Mary happily sticks her tongue in my mouth. I am sincerely honored. Silverman grew up with dogs (and geese, and ducks) in the country in New Hampshire. She has three older sisters, all of them accomplished storytellers in their own right: Susan, a rabbi; Laura, an actor; and Jodyne, a writer and producer. Their brother, Jeffrey, passed away in an accident as an infant before Sarah was born.
There’s a familiar trope in stories about comedians, and it involves a terrible childhood with awful parentage, leading one to grow up to become a sad clown. This isn’t the case for all comics, and it certainly doesn’t seem to hold true with Silverman. Her fondness for both of her parents is evident when she talks about them. Dad is Donald Silverman, a Boston native who ran a department store called Crazy Sophie’s Factory Outlet. “I never pick up the phone when he calls because his messages are so good,” Silverman says. “He’s got this thick Boston accent and he’ll be like, ‘I know you’re big hot shit now, but maybe if you find some extra time you could call the guy that gave you life.’” He lives in Boca Raton, Florida, and tweets @rantsfromboca, where his political leanings and ribald language often match his daughter’s. (Sample: “Boca entitled. ‘I made my money, why should I pay health insurance for others who can’t afford it?’ Because you’re a fucking human, asshole.”)
Her mother, the late Beth Ann O’Hara, once served as a photographer on George McGovern’s 1972 campaign for president. Beth Ann was also an accomplished theater director and producer in New Hampshire, who was involved with over 50 plays before she passed away in 2015. I observe that Silverman has no trace of a New Hampshire accent, and she attributes that to her mother’s fondness for clear pronunciation and careful diction: “When and where,” she says, blowing air through pursed lips at the beginning of each word
.I ask Silverman if growing up in New Hampshire, the site of the presidential primary/media circus, made it impossible to not be at least a bit political as a kid. “I mean, that’s the first stop for every presidential candidate and you just get really involved,” she confirms. “And my parents were both vocal citizens. My dad was forced to run for office once—like, some local office, where there was literally no Democrat that would run.” Donald Silverman’s slogan was, “If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve.” Later, her family supported Jesse Jackson’s campaign for president. It seems fair to say that while Silverman’s not exactly from a Kennedy-esque New England dynasty, her parents were certainly more engaged with the political process than most.
She’s become well-known for her own political activism in recent years—from advocating “The Great Schlep” in 2008 to encourage young Jewish people to go to Florida to convince their grandparents to vote for Obama, to campaigning for Bernie Sanders, to speaking in favor of Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention. I ask if anyone has encouraged her to run for political office. She says they have. “I mean, it’s not something I crave in any way, but I kind of understand it,” Silverman says. “I never really think about the future, so I don’t know. The only time I think about the future is when I think way in the future, when I just want to have enough money to be in a really nice nursing home with other comedians.” This desire to surround herself with other comedians comes from the fact that, as a tribe, they are a diverse lot who grew up in a variety of economic, social, and cultural circumstances. “Every age, every color, every creed, every religion, every class,” Silverman says. “And it is nice. We’re all friends.”
Alongside her biological family, her chosen comedy family, and Mary, there’s also someone else who has earned a spot in Silverman’s inner circle—her romantic partner of three years, actor Michael Sheen (with whom she appeared on Showtime’s Masters of Sex). Sheen lives in Wales, and Silverman lives in Los Angeles, so it’s a long distance thing. She told her ex Jimmy Kimmel on his show earlier this year, “he’s there a lot, and then we just long for each other and we see each other and we love each other.” They began dating in 2014, back when Sheen was based in L.A. in order to be close to his daughter, Lily, who was living with his ex Kate Beckinsale. But when Lily turned 18 this year and left for New York to attend NYU, Sheen moved back to his hometown in Wales. She tells me his area was dependent in large part on industry, and as globalization changed the economy, jobs left and didn’t come back. “He’s just dedicated his life to learning the business model of a cooperative and trying to bring that back to his town on some level,” she explains, “where everyone from the janitor up owns this company they work at and is invested in it. It’s a great model…it brings the classes closer together.”
I remark that it sounds as if they both have a real commitment to activism. She clarifies by describing it as more of a shared interest in social service, and then brings up the frequent conservative talking point that Hollywood liberals should stay out of the political discussion. “It’s a very interesting thing to see Trump and people with his agenda surrounded by oligarchs, talking about the ‘Hollywood elite,’ which I think is just kind of the new version of ‘Jews,’ you know?” she says. “And it’s just very ironic, because the Hollywood elite they’re talking about are just people with voices who are using them, not for their own benefit, but because they have empathy and care for people in this country, and this world.”
I Love You, America will take her on the road to try to connect with people who by choice or by circumstance might not ordinarily hang out with, say, a Jewish feminist progressive comedian who voted for Hillary Clinton. I ask her if she’s nervous about these segments, which won’t take place in the controlled environment of a studio. “I have a bunch of anxiety about it,” she says. “The one thing I just tell myself, going through each of these things for this show, is like, ‘Be open and be brave. Just do that.’”
Not that she’s interested in making excuses for Trump and his agenda. “This isn’t about being open to hearing out Trump and his gaggle of lobbyists and billionaires controlling policy,” Silverman says. “I will never be open to that, because it doesn’t serve the American citizen in any way and I think it’s shitty. To be honest, I think it’s a genuine addiction, like crack. I think that they are addicted to money and power and it’s not bringing them happiness at this point. They’ll sell out their grandmother for more money.”
Following this line of thought, she recalls a conversation she had with the late comedian Garry Shandling about the billionaire class of conservatives in politics. “After you take that first hit of coke, you’re always chasing that feeling, and you’re never going to get it,” Silverman says. “That’s what this is. And [Shandling] said, ‘You know, it’s like giving a bunch of cokeheads a mountain of coke and saying, ‘Distribute this evenly among your people.’ It’s never going to happen.’”
“But the people who voted for Trump—they believed in a man who promised them jobs after being truly ignored by the party that’s supposed to put them first. I mean, I’m a Democrat, but the Democrats, like the Labour Party in the U.K., have not been representing the working class as they were designed to do. Globalization has taken jobs and has devastated areas and people and they’ve just been left to hang. Of course they’re going to go for someone who promises to fix that. You know? He just happens to be lying. He’s a pathological liar.”
I ask why she thinks so many people bought those lies. If his voters aren’t inherently stupid, why did they get on board? “I think there are two kinds of [Trump voters],” she replies. “There are the people who believe his lies. And then there are rich people who want their taxes to go down at the expense of who cares who. But I think the majority are people who he promised jobs. He acknowledged their rage and he gave them a place to put it. It’s a time when people are very susceptible and very prone to blaming the other, you know? Immigrants, Muslims…. He either consciously or unconsciously sensed this.”
That Trump has not brought in a massive wave of new jobs, and likely never will, does not currently matter to many of his voters, in Silverman’s estimation. “I think a lot of people who voted for Trump—who should feel so wildly betrayed right now—a lot of them need [his promises] to be true,” Silverman says. “When people are presented with facts that disprove what they believe, they tend to dig in harder. Facts don’t change people’s minds. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true. They need what they’ve built their house of cards on to be true; for that foundation to be solid, at any cost.”
Which brings us to her new show, and its unique agenda. Silverman is clear about what her show is not. “I love The Daily Show, I love John Oliver, I love Samantha Bee, but this isn’t that show,” she explains. “You don’t need another one of those shows. Those shows are perfect. This show is about getting people’s porcupine needles down, because I think that until you can get people’s porcupine needles down, change can’t happen.” She adds that I Love You, America will instead feature “aggressive stupidity and silliness and just pure comedy—because as much as I like smart stuff, I have equal passion for the aggressively stupid.”
It’s an ambitious notion, but this woman from New Hampshire who schlepped down to Boston to try stand-up comedy for the first time at 17 isn’t known for lacking chutzpah. Silverman is now experimenting with comedy as a tool for change, comedy as an agent of compassion, comedy as a healing force. Will it work? There’s no way to measure how many hearts she may (or may not) soften or minds she may (or may not) change. But if it’s a hit and a reliable moneymaker for Hulu, we’ll likely see more of I Love You, America for years to come.
In talking to Silverman, it’s evident that I Love You, America isn’t a stunt. Her passion for politics and for making more genuine human connections is clear. Equally clear is her compassion—not pity, or condescension—but true compassion. This show means something to her. And clearly, she hopes it will mean something to others, too. “My Twitter feed is totally earnest, leftist, and passionate. I haven’t been funny [on Twitter] in so long, sadly, but I just feel a responsibility to push information forward,” she says. “But there’s a Twitter feed called The Dodo that’s just cute animal pictures. And sometimes I just go, ‘Let’s not forget this. We all can love this.’”
Silverman knows she’s not for everyone. “There isn’t someone less ‘for everyone’ than me,” she admits. “I fully understand that I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, so it’s ironic that I’ve chosen myself for this job. But I do believe that everyone wants to be loved. Everyone wants to feel seen. Everyone loves their friends and everybody has a humiliating story involving shitting. You know?”
Silverman’s willingness to talk about scatological matters has long been a hallmark of her comedy. But I tell her that while researching this article, I found a few recent pieces about her that all use the same word: “evolved.” It stands out because even when artists change their material and approach, many writers and fans will still peg them to their best-known earliest joke. But it seems she’s found favor with critics not only for maintaining her gleeful enjoyment of blasting through conventional rules about how a “nice girl” should talk in public, but also for trying new approaches and experimenting. The Sarah Silverman you see onstage today is the same one who gained widespread attention for her 2005 breakout comedy film Jesus is Magic. And she’s also very different.
“I like to be changed by new information,” she says. “It’s important, as a matter of fact. It’s vital to being both an artist and a human being. To stick to what you knew when you were 12 is odd.” She says there’s some old material she’d never do today, not just because it feels stale, but because she realized it could hurt people. So she evolved.
When I leave my interview with Sarah Silverman, I write in my notebook, “I think this is a story about hope.” And it is. Because whether or not I Love You, America succeeds, its creation is clearly an act of hope by somebody who refuses to believe that most people can’t find some common ground with one another and treat each other a little more kindly. And whether that’s an unrealistic vision of humanity or something truly within the realm of accomplishment, it is heartening to see somebody out there trying. Especially when she can also write a really, really great shit joke.
By Sara Benincasa
Photographed By Ramona Rosales
Stylist: Jardine Hammond • Hair and Makeup: Brett Freedman @ Celestine
Top photo: Leather jacket: Schott; T-shirt: Micheal Stars; 5 star 14k Necklace: Zoe Chicco
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2017 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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