DIRTY ROTTEN PRINCESS
Behind Sarah Silverman's pretty face is one of the filthiest minds in comedy. So how did Daddy's little girl grow up to be the funniest, most outrageous woman in America?
IT'S A SUNDAY AFTERNOON, AND SARAH SILVERMAN IS OVER AT HER BOYFRIEND Jimmy Kimmel's house, a Spanish-style minimansion in the hills of Burbank, California, with a pool, a billiards table, a pingpong table, a poker table, a popcorn maker, a karaoke set, a recording studio, many musical instruments, a wet bar topped by a neon JIMMY'S BAR sign, and a new wood-burning pizza oven — "the world's most inconvenient microwave," Kimmel calls it, sliding a mushroom disc from its door. His sweet-faced kids from his first marriage hang around waiting for a slice, but his daughter's friend, over for the afternoon to complete a construction-paper-centric French project, demurs. "My mom says I have to have dinner at home," she says.
"That whore," says Silverman under her breath. Then: "You eat that damn pizza or you will not be welcome in this house."
Well, Silverman never said her comedy was for the kids. A comic since she dropped out of New York University at nineteen, Silverman, now thirty-four, has been a moderate success for a long time, a draw on the standup circuit, a player of bit parts in movies like There's Something About Mary and School of Rock. "People have said that it's going to be my year for the past twelve years" is how Silverman looks at it, but this year people might be right. There she is, as Hadassah Guberman on Comedy Central's Crank Yankers, one of the high points of The Aristocrats; the second-most-memorable person on the televised roast of Pamela Anderson ("I'm glad [Courtney Love] is here" was one of Silverman's lines. "I left my crack in my other purse"). Most important, there's Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic, her concert movie, out in theaters on November nth. On display is her full wit and wisdom. Silverman is a shock comic, and she's a sexy comic, and the combination is exponentially titillating.
Silverman's onscreen persona is a JAP-y ego monster with a Jessica Simpson sunniness and all the wrong values, so miseducated that a chain of stereotypes passes for analytical thought. You have your Jewish jokes: "I was raped by a doctor," she says, "which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl." You have your black jokes: "I used to go out with a guy who was half-black who totally broke up with me because I'm a fucking loser … I just heard myself say that. I'm such a pessimist. He's half-white." You have your sex jokes: "A couple nights ago, I was licking jelly off my boyfriend's penis. And I thought, 'Oh, my God. I'm turning into my mother.'"
And then you have your doody jokes, and it's these that Silverman really enjoys. Like: "I didn't lose my virginity until I was twenty-six. Nineteen vaginally, but twenty-six what my boyfriend calls 'the real way.' OK, that's a joke. That's a fucking disgusting joke. My asshole is totally for decoration. It's like an appendix. I tell people I was shot. My friend was like, '[Anal sex] is not disgusting, it's natural.' I was like, 'First of all, doody comes out of there, and second of all, doody comes out of there.' I don't need two reasons where doody is involved."
It would be fair to say Silverman is doody-obsessed. Despite being almost too cute — a Jewish Cameron Diaz — Silverman has the mentality and wardrobe of a teenage boy (if she ever wears anything but a baseball T-shirt and jeans, I missed it). Before the pizza dinner, she bounds across the exquisitely landscaped plot of land next to Kimmel's house. Her small eleven-year-old dog trots behind. "Do a doody. Duck," she tells Kim. "It's natural. It's totally natural." At some point, she says, "Doody, poopy, darn, crap” — I'm not sure in reaction to what. She talks about being backstage last night at the Improv in L.A.: "Chris Rock came by, and we were all hanging out and then somebody farted. I almost vomited. I couldn't stop talking about it. I had to leave the room. No one else left. I guess they wanted to hang out with Chris."
Back at Kimmel's place, talk turns to the number of televisions housed therein. "There are twenty-one!" says Kimmel's son. "I've watched them all, except the one in Dad's bathroom."
"There are seventeen," says Kimmel.
"You just remembered twenty-one," says Silverman.
Kimmel's son scrunches up his face. "You made a two and a one," he counters.
"Ah ha ha," says Silverman, letting out a rare belly laugh.
HANGING OUT WITH SILVERMAN IS SO FUN it feels like a cool new girl has moved to town and all your current friends suddenly look dull and dorky by comparison. She has the best qualities of both sexes — the silly, sexually charged affect of a confident girl, and the silly, kid-around conversational banter of a guy. At an age where most single women are stuck in a Sex and the City/surban-cougar mind-set, Silverman is not desperate. She has rarely been without a boyfriend in adult life and has only dated comedians ("A comedian not dating a comedian is like a gay guy not dating a gay guy," she says). She doesn't want to bear her own children. She has her real answer why; "I like kids, and I might adopt sometime in my forties, but outside of vanity, I can't find a reason for having my own right now," she says. And then she has her joke answer: "I always think I should get on it if I want to have kids. Because once you hit thirty it can be difficult to conceive — it can be dangerous. The best time to conceive is when you're a black teenager."
She doesn't want to get married, either, though she doesn't have a joke about that. "I don't want to be part of some club that doesn't include everybody," she says. "Also, I don't want to be called 'wife.' I see too many guys in my world say the word 'wife' and roll their eyes. Jimmy and I are totally committed, I say we're 'life partners,' but I don't know that I want him to feel like he's got me. Getting married would take away a little of the romance. Plus I don't want to move into his house — it's not decorated at all how I would do it, so why would I live there? I love my place, and I'm saving up to buy an apartment. Maybe ten years from now, it would be great to live together."
So a few nights a week Silverman and Kimmel stay at her rental apartment, a second-story walk-up decorated Pottery Barn-by-way-of-the-thrift-store, with loads of family photos and paintings by one of her sisters (she has three), as well as a Hunan Taste calendar and an outdated bumper sticker posted on the wall (LICK BUSH AND DICK 2004). It's in a decent area of the flat part of L.A., near a strangely alluring megamall, the Grove, her favorite place to get stoned and see movies (Silverman doesn't drink alcohol, because it nauseates her). She keeps iced tea in her nearly empty fridge, because she knows Kimmel likes it, and a bunch of boxes of cereal on top of the fridge, because she likes to eat that when she's stoned. Silverman likes to get stoned.
"It's down to, like, four nights a week," she says. "After I perform, I have to have it. I used to like all that stuff, mushrooms, acid. I think I was high from nineteen to twenty-one years old. It was the best time. I remember the first time I tripped, in Washington Square Park [in New York], All of a sudden we heard explosions and we thought we were at war — we forgot it was July 3rd. We went to a cafe and got hot chocolate with all these homeless people who we had made friends with. Finally we got back to my apartment, which was painted dark purple to match my bong. We got on my bed, and my friend started freaking out a little. I had strawberries on my sheets, and I was like, 'It's all right, let's just go strawberry picking,' and he was like, 'It is all right.' Joe Jackson's 'A Slow Song' was playing at that very moment. And then we listened to Squeeze Singles for the rest of the day, and we played in the shower with our clothes on." She shakes her head. "God! We were so free."
Backstage at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in LA for "Comedy Death-Ray," a 10 P.M.-to-6 A.M. marathon of ten-minute spots, Silverman is the pet of the male comedians, a little sister whom they all love to kid. Nick Swardson spies her and shouts, "Who wants to fart in my mouth?" He puts his arm around her. "Remember that time I put my penis on Duck? He doesn't ask about me, does he?" A bunch of the other guys come over, and Silverman is suddenly surrounded by very lanky males. "Is this a tall party?" she asks.
Silverman — followed by an angry Janeane Garofalo berating the audience for not understanding that New York Times reporter Judith Miller is protecting a criminal in the Bush administration — tries out new material in her set. "I love how Palestinians and Jews hate each other," she says. "It's so cute. Honestly, what's the difference? They're brown. They have an odor. It's like sweet potatoes hating yams. It's like how coyotes eat dogs — they are dogs! And they eat them. There's no joke there, but it's a good point. It's like how birds eat eggs. You can't blame them, because eggs are awesome, but they're all —" she pantomimes eating an egg —" 'Yum, mmm, this came out of my pussy.'"
Afterward, Silverman steps into the greenroom and grabs her backpack. She takes out a joint. "Look what we have here," she says, and settles on a stool in the corner, contentedly puffing away.
THERE'S MUCH ABOUT SILVERman that still seems free, a girl on an adventure through life with very little interest in what people think of her or how many awards are on her mantel. She likes to call herself "lazy," and her stand-up act is more in the vein of the George Carlin "Don't fix it if it ain't broke" school than the ad-libbing pyrotechnics of Chris Rock. Silverman is as far from the reigning breed of driven, ambitious Angelina Jolie-type dragon ladies as one can get. She certainly knows how to manipulate an audience, but in real life you feel you could manipulate her without much trouble. She's Daddy's little girl, the youngest of four sisters growing up in 1970s and 1980s New Hampshire, the daughter who bonded most with her dad, a discount-clothing supplier at Crazy Sophie's Outlet who wrote thrillers on the side and thought of himself as an amateur comic. Her father taught her swearwords early and would give her presents of numbered Truly Tasteless Jokes books. "I remember the very first joke was the joke about the wolf stopping Little Red Riding Hood in the woods, and he says, 'Eat, eat, eat, doesn't anyone fuck anymore?'" says Silverman. "I didn't get it: Eat what?"
They say that people do comedy to exorcise their demons, and despite, or perhaps because of, this open attitude to life, Silverman certainly needed to clean house. Her dad and mom divorced when Sarah was six; in elementary school, she would watch The Love Boat or Fantasy Island and then one of the soft-core Cinemax videos that were lying around near the TV too. She was a small kid and extremely underdeveloped. In fact, it took her until seventeen and a half to get her period. "I was with my girlfriend in the bathroom and she was looking in the mirror, primping," says Silverman. "I went to pee, and I was like, 'Oh, my God, I got my period!' She was like, 'I hate that.'" It was a couple of years before that, at around fifteen, that about four mornings a week Silverman no longer woke up to find she had wet her bed.
How about this one: At thirteen, Silverman was trotting up a mountain on a school camping trip when a cloud of despair so dark fell upon her that she missed three months of school and spent the next three years in a deep depression. Her parents took her to a psychiatrist. He gave her Xanax and told her to come again the next week. When she showed up, he had hanged himself. "I had to sit in the waiting room for an hour until my mom picked me up," says Silverman. "The first thing I thought of was that he had braces. I was like, 'Wow, he didn't even wait to get his braces off.'"
There's more. "When I was in eighth grade, I went to visit my sister in Berkeley, where she was in a summer program. This guy in the dorm befriended me. He gave me all these porn magazines, like Playgirl and Variations, all this stuff I hung onto forever because I was like a boy in that way — I was just sexualized so young. I mean, I wasn't molested, I'm not a stripper, but in a nonphysical way I was very sexualized. It's not all jokes in my act. Like when I say that my dad when I was nine told me he had to see hookers because my mom was frigid. Anyway, one day this guy held me off the fifteenth floor of this dorm from my ankles. He wouldn't let me go until I screamed enough. Can you believe it? I never said that out loud until a few years ago." She snorts. "Of course, instead of going home and telling my parents, I went home and was like, They have the biggest slices of pizza at this place called Blondie's!'" So the answer as to whether Silverman's stories in her act are true is … sometimes. When she talks about her "bevy of unwanted facial hair," like, yeah, she got it all waxed off, and no vestige of the formerly furry Sarah is to be found. Mostly, though, things are either entirely false or half made-up: like when she says, "I don't care if you think I'm a racist, I just want you to think that I'm thin." Of course she doesn't want you to think that she's a racist, you'd have to be a moron to do so, but yes, she does want you to think she's thin — badly. Perhaps the only time I saw her unironically insecure was when she asked me nervously, "Do you really think I'm skinny?" Says Silverman, "The one kind of joke that really bums me out is when people make fat jokes, because I think all women think of themselves as fat, no matter how evolved we are or how much we don't read ridiculous Cosmopolitan."
Other than regarding her weight, these days Silverman takes Zoloft and feels OK. Pretty much any time after nineteen, she says, she's been happy. One of the turning points was discovering sex. "Once I had sex, it was all I thought about," she says. It brings to mind what Jimmy Kimmel said about Silverman before they started dating, at the roast of Hugh Hefner: "Next we have a woman of whom I have nothing bad to say in the hope she will add me to the very long list of comedians she's had sex with." (Silverman shot back, "Jimmy Kimmel, everybody, he's fat and has no charisma.") Silverman isn't at all ashamed of her past. "If I was hanging out with someone, chances are," she says, trailing off. "What I say to Jimmy is, 'All those experiences made me the person you're in love with!'" She breaks out into one of her thousand-watt smiles. "Zoloft might've affected my sex drive, but I needed it," she says later. "I was out of control."
THIS IS NOT TO IMPLY THAT ALL Silverman's jokes are a reflection of her own twisted past. There's a lot more in her show that's about the twisted present. An avowed liberal embarrassed to admit she voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, Silverman calls Bush a "psycho fundamentalist." "I don't want to compare him to Hitler," she says. "But if I did, it would be in the same way that you just can't believe what he's doing, because it's so unbelievable." Perhaps the most explosive of her jokes is her "open letter" to Martin Luther King Jr. "Guess what, Martin Luther King? I had a dream too. I had a dream that I was in my living room. It wasn't my living room, but it was my living room. I went to the back yard, where there was a pool. And before I got into it, a shark came out. And he had braces. So maybe you're not so fucking special."
A lot of people don't like that joke coming from a white woman — at a Times Square show a few weeks ago, she was booed off the stage as soon as she said King's name — but if they knew something about her politics, perhaps they wouldn't take such offense. Silverman believes reparations should be made to black Americans. "It would be billions of dollars divided among those who can be traced back to slavery," she says. "It would be just that basic. I don't know if it can happen. I don't know if it's possible. But I think without it the resentment will never truly go away. Certainly not by acting like everything's cool." Silverman has several jokes with the word "nigger" in them, and she says sometimes when there are black people in the audience she gets scared. "But I would never not say them if black people are there, because that makes those jokes racist jokes," she says.
At its best, Silverman's act forces you to think about why you don't transcend ugly childhood prejudices. It sometimes gets her in trouble, like when an Asian watchdog group panned her for saying "Chink" on Conan O'Brien a couple of years ago, or more recently, when she offended former TV talk-show host Joe Franklin with her spot in The Aristocrats. In the movie, she describes her experience as a member of a perverted family circus meeting with Franklin: "My father would come out onstage, the music would play, and he would start masturbating. My brother comes out, they'd do, like, a mutual masturbation, kind of like dueling banjos. They're holding hands and they spin. I stay in a stationary position; when the assholes came by, I would lick the assholes. And in one motion, my mother, both pinkies, up their assholes as they come, It's pretty spectacular, and it's all about timing … [Franklin] had a bed in [his office], like a couch, that he called Uncle Joe's bed for little people, 'cause a couch is like a bed for little people, you know?" She looks down, then up. "Joe Franklin raped me." (Franklin has been unamused by this obvious joke, and has threatened to sue for defamation of character.)
"I can't believe anyone not being interested in exploring taboos," Silverman says in her defense. "Maybe it is the thing where a Catholic-school worker needs only to see the word 'pussy' to get off, but a sex worker needs ten midgets and a juggler. A comic needs to make jokes about the most taboo topics, about race or AIDS or fucked-up sex, to be able to get the belly laugh, for themselves."
Sarah Silverman is a shock comic, and she's a sexy comic, and the combination of the two is exponentially titillating.
"I love how Palestinians and Jews hate each other. It's cute. Honestly, what's the difference? They're brown. They have an odor. It's like sweet potatoes hating yams."