A sly, clever stand-up, Sarah Silverman started performing at comedy clubs around NYU at age 18, alongside Colin Quinn and Chris Rock. She joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1992 at 22, only to be cut from the crowded show a year later. She then went on to land a string of small film and TV roles—from Kramer's girlfriend on Seinfeld to Jack Black's roommate's girlfriend in School Of Rock.
But Silverman's stand-up, captured in the new concert film Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic, has always been solid. Onstage, Silverman stretches the boundaries of both humor and logic, often turning stereotypes in on themselves until everyone laughs, or gets offended: In 2001, she incurred the wrath of Guy Aoki, a board member of the Media Action Network For Asian Americans when she told a joke he found racist on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. (The gist: a friend suggests that Silverman write "I hate chinks" on a form to get out of jury duty. She replies, "But I didn't want people to think I was racist, so I just filled out the form and wrote 'I love chinks.' And who doesn't?") Most recently, in the dirty-joke-doc The Aristocrats, Silverman angered Joe Franklin when she told her own version of the eponymous joke, which ended with Silverman deadpanning to the camera, "Joe Franklin raped me." The 79-year-old show-business legend is reportedly considering a lawsuit.
Recently, after being turned down for a phone interview, The A.V. Club e-mailed a bunch of questions to Silverman's publicist, who then e-mailed them to Silverman, who then e-mailed her responses to the publicist, who then forwarded those responses back to The A.V. Club. Here, Silverman types about the Boston Comedy Club, her new Comedy Central show, and what she thinks of journalists who ask about Saturday Night Live.
The A.V. Club: The New Yorker recently described you as "a sort of twisted Gracie Allen." How would you describe your onstage persona?
Sarah Silverman: I'd describe it as more of a Mexican Jeff Gillooly.
AVC: A lot of that article was spent trying to peg your position in comedy as a woman. Do you think that a sort of inherent bias still exists against women in comedy anymore?
SS: I never think about it. Do you think there's a an inherent bias against slutty Onion writers?
AVC: You worked as a barker for five-minute spots at comedy clubs when you were a student at NYU. What were your barking techniques?
SS: "Live comedy! Live comedy! Do you like comedy?? Live comedy tonight! You never know who's gonna stop by!" etc.
AVC: You performed at Boston Comedy Club around the time Chris Rock and Colin Quinn and Dave Chappelle were performing there. Did they have any influence on you?
SS: I learned from Chris Rock, actually. I remember the crowds were fucking ANIMALS most of the time, and he would go on stage and just start. He didn't yell to get the crowd to listen. If they missed the first couple jokes it was fine with him. Before you know it they would all be quiet and listening. They came to him, you know?
He's very different now—still hilarious, but a different style from that. But I really consciously learned from that. And Colin, he always stuck to his guns (still does) even if no one was getting it, or they wanted him to be that Remote Control guy, which is something that is hard to resist. You see a lot of comics big in the '80s that just continue to do this "thing" that the audience expects and no one wins. He never stops growing and is fearless about it. Not a funny answer, I know…
AVC: What was your act like at that time?
SS: Lots of sex stuff. Weird stuff. Stuff that I thought everyone would relate to that I slowly learned was not stuff that happened to everyone. I was all over the place.
AVC: How did audiences respond to you?
SS: Sometimes good, usually very uneven. I bombed a lot.
AVC: Do people actually still walk out on your act now, or does everyone pretty much know what they're in for?
SS: Not as much as they used to.
AVC: Why is rape so funny? Is anything funnier than rape?
SS: It's not funny. It's horrifying. The ultimate violation. But, as I always say, "If you take the 'e' off of rape, you'll see it's got a bad rap!" I don't really always say that. Only just here. That one is for us.
AVC: Is there anything from the stage show that didn't make it into the movie?
SS: Yeah. A bit about how Bayer Aspirin did medical experiments on Jews in the Holocaust. It was a long bit with a big payoff, but excruciating. Also a bit about going to my dad's hometown and finding his elementary school and seeing boys playing on the playground and finally forgiving my dad for all his shit, like telling me that Humpty Dumpty is about a guy who fucked his own shit.
AVC: The movie is part sketch, part concert footage. Did you have a model in mind when you were making it?
SS: Not really. I just wanted it to be totally different while in the same basic format of a classic concert movie. Richard Pryor Live On The Sunset Strip, Eddie Murphy Delirious, etc.
AVC: You were 22 and part of a very ambitious cast when you joined Saturday Night Live. What was that experience like?
AVC: How long do you think you would have stayed on SNL if you hadn't been fired?
SS: I don't know. That's a stupid question. You are a big dummy.
AVC: What was it like to be fired from that show?
SS: It was great!! You really are a fucking idiot.
AVC: You were also on Mr. Show for a few years. What was that experience like?
SS: The best. So fun. A big group of friends making something awesome. So happy to have been a part of it.
AVC: Why did you leave that show?
SS: I left the last season to be in the worst movie ever made.
AVC: You play a bitch a lot in movies. In fact, in The Way Of The Gun you are credited as "Raving Bitch." Why do you think you're always cast that way?
SS: Because I'm Jewish. That's what we get.
AVC: Do you think you'll ever have the lead in a Hollywood movie?
SS: In a possibly delusional way, yeah. Maybe. Who knows? Who cares?
AVC: When you first met your boyfriend, Jimmy Kimmel, at the Hugh Hefner roast, onstage you said he was fat and had no charisma. How quickly after that did you hook up?
SS: It wasn't for a long time. He hired me to do voices on Crank Yankers, and around the second season of that we started hanging out. A while after that he kissed me. On my rectum.
AVC: How does he take it when you tell jokes about him?
SS: He's not crazy about it but is a good sport. He gets me pretty fucking good as well, so it's even.
AVC: You've been doing stand-up for more than a decade, and are an excellent performer in your own right. How do you handle the fact that you're just "Jimmy Kimmel's girlfriend" to a lot of people?
SS: I am??? I don't care. I'm Jimmy Kimmel's girlfriend to me, too.
AVC: Joe Franklin says he's considering suing you over the joke you told involving him in The Aristocrats. What is your take on that situation?
SS: That would be great. Everyone wins.
AVC: Does Guy Aoki still think that you're racist and campaign against you?
SS: I don't know. Nobody does. I think he's a shut-in now full-time.
AVC: You defended the chink joke on Politically Incorrect a number of years ago. Do you still find yourself defending your jokes to some people, or do you prefer to let them stand on their own?
SS: No. I learned from that an important lesson: It's really stupid to defend your own jokes. That is for other people to do if they choose to. I never defend my material. Comedy is subjective. If they don't find it funny, then it IS offensive.
AVC: You're working on a pilot for Comedy Central. What's that about?
SS: In the pilot I need 4 AA batteries. Comedy ensues. And it's a musical.
AVC: Do you really prefer e-mail interviews? Really? Isn't this just more work for you?
SS: No. Much better. Because I can say things like, "You are a fucking idiot! That question is stupid!" and retarded things like that to a nice girl who is just doing her job and actually very well. In person I'm way too nice and my heart would break to be so rude.
AVC: Do you have a ranking system in your mind for which publications get live interviews (The New Yorker, Heeb) and which don't (The A.V. Club)? And if so, is there anything we can do to change our ranking?
SS: I try to do everything by email. If they refuse, then I decide if it's something I have to do or not. I'm shy. Okay? Stop riding me you weasely queer.