It's not that Sarah Silverman tries to court controversy. Yes, her jokes tend to fly in the face of political correctness, and audiences are often left gasping once they've finished laughing. And quick-witted barbs such as "If God gives you AIDS, make lemonAIDS" might not be everyone's cup of tea. Still, the petite, sweet-faced comic with the mouth of a Teamster never fails to be surprised by the commotion her act can stir up. In this summer's documentary The Aristocrats, a film full of lewd and disgusting tales, she garnered the most headlines for infuriating Joe Franklin by jokingly saying the genial talk show host had sexually assaulted her. In 2003 she earned the ire of Guy Aoki, of the advocacy group Media Action Network for Asian Americans, for a racial slur she used in a joke on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. But she might just have the last laugh; Aoki is even thanked in the credits of her new film, Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic. "He gave me a good chunk of material," she explains with a knowing smile.
Jesus Is Magic is part musical, part concert film, and all Silverman. Filmed over seven days at sold-out performances of her solo show at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood by commercial- and music video director Liam Lynch, it features the comic at her raw, uninhibited best. In Jesus, which ran Off-Broadway in 2004, she uses her dry deadpan and innocent expression to riff on everything from 9/11 to porn stars as role models. Interspersed throughout the lean 72-minute film are barbed sketches and surreal music videos, such as a number called "You're Gonna Die Soon" set in a nursing home.
For Silverman—who has frequently been relegated to what she calls the "bitch" roles in films including Evolution, School of Rock, and The Way of the Gun—it's an opportunity to have a starring role without boundaries. It also comes at a time when she has never been more in demand, after 15 years in the business. She will also appear in the upcoming big-screen adaptation of the hit musical Rent and recently inked a deal for a new Comedy Central series. On the eve of her 35th birthday, the actor finds herself a hot commodity—the girl guys want to date and women want to be best friends with. But the frank Silverman has heard it all before. "People have been telling me it's my year for the past 12 years," she notes. "So we'll see. If it doesn't happen, I won't be fazed."
In third grade, Silverman filled out a workbook page that asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. "I wrote, 'An actor, a comedian, or a masseuse,'" she recalls. The young Silverman managed to avoid the lure of the day spa and concentrated on becoming a comic. "I saw it as a viable thing, because I was in a generation where I saw comics on Evening at the Improv and the Letterman show and The Tonight Show," she reasons. "It's a pretty typical comic story: I was the class clown; I was funny in my family. So I just started doing it."
A native of New Hampshire, Silverman attended summer school in Boston before her senior year of high school, where she performed her first act at an open mic. It bore no resemblance to the raunchy, raw comedy she's known for today. "I was in high school, so I told jokes about the popular girls and about wearing red with maroon," she says. "I remember I closed with a song about being flat-chested. My best joke was, 'If you say something that rhymes by accident, you say, "I'm a poet, and I don't even know it." But what if you say something free verse by accident? Do you say, "Oh, I'm a poet, and…I never realized that"?'"
It may not be on par with, say, "I was raped by a doctor, which is a bittersweet experience for a Jewish girl" or anything from her current canon, but the impetus to pursue standup as a career was firmly planted. She enrolled at New York University as a drama major, then got an unusual form of encouragement from her father. "My dad said, 'I'll make a deal with you. If you quit college, I'll pay your rent and utilities for what would be your sophomore, junior, and senior years,'" she recalls. "He wanted me to quit; it saved him a ton of money." If a father asking his daughter to leave college sounds backward, consider this: Silverman continued to attend classes. "I just stole into them," she explains. "I didn't need to get grades."
At 19, she was getting paid—albeit poorly—to perform standup in New York City. Although young and female, she says she never felt anything but welcomed by her peers. "I've always had comic friends," she insists. "You stay friends with the people you start out with and sit in the back of the comedy club with, waiting to see if they'll let you on at 2 a.m. for five minutes. You're all in it together, like war buddies." she is aware that many female comics encounter resistance—she's heard some say they've been told that women just aren't funny—but she remained philosophical.
"People are going to prejudge you," she reasons. "That's just the way life is. Between looking at you and experiencing you, they're going to make judgments. But it never really occurred to me. People say, 'What's it like to be a woman comic?' I don't know; it's all I've ever been. If I had ever been a male comic, I'd be able to give you a contrast between them, but I'm unable to." She sums up her philosophy with one simple statement. "Funny always wins out," she says. "I always think that women who complain about people who say women aren't funny are probably not funny. Because, really, who gives a shit?"
Silverman's alternative education paid off. By the time she turned 22 and would have graduated from college, she was hired as a writer and performer for Saturday Night Live.
The powers at SNL had caught her act on the television show Comic Strip Live and came to check her out in person. According to Silverman, it all happened quickly. "I met with Lorne Michaels, which is probably the first and last time he spoke a word to me, and he hired me," she says. She appeared only sporadically during her year on the show—she might be best-remembered as a dancing chop suey in Adam Sandler's "Lunchlady Land" song or for explaining how a Pap smear works on Weekend Update—but generally felt the experience was positive. "I got along with everybody, and it was fun, despite the long hours," she says. "Every time I didn't get a sketch on, I'd be, like, 'Eh, first-year dues.' It was interesting to be a fly on the wall. It felt like everyone around me was grown-up, but they weren't acting like grownups. It was weird to see these grown men having screaming fights."
She was shocked when she was fired from the show; she found out when Michaels faxed her agent. "I was busy writing sketches for the next year. Granted, they were probably awful, but it didn't occur to me that I wouldn't be asked back," she recalls. "My confidence level went so low." She says it took about a year to recover from the blow to her ego, and she still has dreams in which she's hosting the show and gets to be herself: "loose, funny, everything I was never able to be." But she realizes now that she was too young to be there, and the experience made her stronger. "It was kind of, like, if I could make it there, I could make it anywhere," she admits. "It was like a broken bone; it just healed stronger. Nothing in terms of a downfall in my career could faze me after that."
She relocated to the West Coast and soon began making the rounds on such shows as Seinfeld, The Naked Truth, and The Larry Sanders Show. She studied with acting teacher Cameron Thor, whom she praises endlessly, but admits she had trouble sitting through the classes. "A lot of times these young actors were just empty vessels, and you know what? It's what makes them great actors," she observes. "And it was depressing to see this girl with all the emotions in the world at her fingertips and to know I don't have that. It was frustrating. She'd do something amazing, and people would ask, 'What were you using for that scene?'" At this point, Silverman launches into a hysterical fit, screaming, "'My dogggg died!'" She reflects on this for a moment before noting, "It was this mixture of jealousy and disgust."
As Silverman's standup star continued to rise, she found herself keeping company with some of the brightest comic minds of the generation. She made several appearances on HBO's cult hit Mr. Show with Bob Odenkirk (who plays her manager in Jesus Is Magic) and David Cross, and she landed a supporting role in There's Something About Mary. One of her favorite roles was in the little-seen film The Way of the Gun, in which she played a character called Raving Bitch. When she went in to audition for writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, there was no one else trying out for the role. "He said, 'You're the only one we called in,'" she recalls. "I said, 'Where have you seen me before?' He said, 'We hadn't, but we read this article about you in GQ, and it was hilarious, so we called you in.' I was shocked."
Even now, she usually auditions for roles but insists she doesn't mind. "It's great to be offered parts, but it's also sometimes more comforting to get a part from an audition, because you showed them your take on it and that's what they want," she reasons. "Whereas if you're just hired, you wonder, 'Was I hired because of that episode of Monk I did? What "me" do they want?'"
Bringing Jesus Is Magic to the screen was a way for Silverman to present the real her to audiences, although she admits she's playing a character who is "kind of an assholier version of me." She confesses that she was beginning to fear she was being pigeonholed in the nasty roles, recalling a conversation she recently had with a friend. "I was screaming on the phone, 'I am so sick of playing bitches. If I have to play one more fucking bitch, I'm gonna puke,'" she recalls. "My friend started laughing, and I asked what he was laughing at, and he started doing this imitation of me. Sometimes you just need someone to hold a mirror up to yourself. I was, like, 'Oh, my God, I'm so sad.'"
Silverman points to her well-known role as the girlfriend of Jack Black's roommate in School of Rock, a movie she's thrilled to have been associated with. "It was so brilliantly written, and Jack is so magical, but, that said, I just played the bitch," she explains. "It was a part that had to be played, and I'm glad I got to play it, but it was, like, there's nothing to it. It's the bitch. And it kills my soul a little, because I'm a nice girl." Silverman takes a moment to consider this before bursting into laughter. "Although, if you have to say you're a nice girl, you're probably not," she reasons. "And then I get money to do anything I want, and I write this whole movie where I'm a bitch. So I guess we bring things upon ourselves."
Part of Silverman's act is the arrogant ignorance with which she makes savage statements—frequently played with a total cluelessness about just how offensive she sounds. Her appeal is summed up perfectly by Jesus director Lynch. "Sarah is more woman than your girlfriend and more of a dude than your guy friends," he says. "She goes in and out of being a princess and a truck driver while flirtatiously pressing your every button and shocking you. She mixes the sweet with the bitter—making fun of racists, perverts, the materialistic, the two-faced, and the self-centered—by acting like them all herself. Oddly enough, if any of these things bother you, then you'll love Sarah's work all the more."
Ask if anything is off-limits, and Silverman explains she has a simple litmus test. "Not if it's funny enough," she says with a shrug. "That's always the measurement. I don't think anything is off-limits as long as it's funnier than it is offensive. Of course something being funny is [subjective]. If people don't think something is funny, I never argue with them; I don't try to defend it or change their mind."
One exception was Aoki, whose outrage at the racial epithet caught her off-guard. The joke in question—about Silverman trying to get out of jury duty without coming off as racist and so writing "I love Chinks" on her card—is fairly innocuous compared to some of the sacred cows she slaughters on a regular basis. "On the talk show they told me, 'You can say "spic" or "Jew" but you can't say "Chink,"'" she recalls. "'Jew' wasn't offensive enough because I'm Jewish. It had to be the most racist thing I could say on television. And if you're telling me I can say 'spic,' I'm going to say 'Chink,' because it has the funny 'C-H' sound. And why would one be okay and not the other one? So I said it, and the rest is history."
She tried to have a conversation with Aoki after the incident, sending him a long letter suggesting they talk. Instead he gave out her email address, and she received hate mail for months. "I hadn't experienced anything like that before, where people are reacting to a buzzword," she says, still sounding surprised. "It's clearly a joke about racism and to even defend it gives it too much credence. And I could never say this in my defense, because it's like people who say, 'Some of my best friends are black,' but the truth is, that day there was a whole group of Asian students from Columbia, and they were big fans." After the show, the students approached her with a cue card they'd been given and asked her to sign it with the offensive phrase.
Brouhaha aside, don't expect her to tone down anytime soon. She clearly manages to keep the one thing her detractors don't have: a sense of humor about herself. And there are no hard feelings—not even for Franklin, who threatened to sue the filmmakers of The Aristocrats for Silverman's joke. "I don't think he was really that upset," she muses. "I can see he was caught off-guard, but I don't think he would ever really sue. I think he was milking the publicity he got, and good for him." She considers this for a moment before revealing a wicked smile. "You know what?" she asks. "I hope he does sue, and I hope it's when the DVD comes out."