There’s no middle ground: You either love Sarah Silverman or she makes you incredibly uncomfortable. And that’s a pretty effective way to critique a comedian in terms of lasting importance – if she consistently walks a fine line between alienating you and enlightening you, then she’s doing her job by making you think about things you might not feel like thinking about. After all, haven’t all the great ones – from Lenny Bruce to Richard Pryor to, hey, Andrew Dice Clay – pushed boundaries?
Silverman often says things that immediately raise “racism” or “sexism” or even “decency” flags, but she’s always got an underlying point – and it’s always coming from an honest place. Check out her deep stand-up routine as she makes her debut at the South Beach Comedy Festival on Saturday night at the Fillmore Miami Beach.
She talked to the Miami Herald about her set, her New York Times bestseller “The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee,” doing a nude scene in the drama “Take This Waltz” and how her brief experience on “Saturday Night Live” helped her develop as an artist.
What attracted you to this festival?
Well, a festival is always a blast because it’s a bunch of comics, and a reunion with comics you haven’t
seen in a while, and it’s fun when we’re all in the same town together and we can cause trouble.
But also because my dad and my stepmom are in Florida and that’s good, and it’s also kicking off a tour
of the East Coast I’m doing anyway, because I’m getting ready to do a special.
You’re notorious for saying anything, no matter how controversial. Is there anything truly off-limits to you?
No, I just kind of go with my gut, as corny or trite as that sounds. I mean, if it feels bad to say, then I don’t say it. And I usually go by the gauge that if it’s funnier than it is tragic, then I go with it.
What can we expect from your set?
I’m getting ready for a special, and I hone things for a long time. So it depends on how closely you follow me – you might have seen some things before, but it’s a lot of new stuff, and I feel like I’m always in-process. I’ll definitely do an hour, maybe an hour-10, something like that. It might be a tight hour – I’m trying to keep it really tight.
I’ve got Kyle Dunnigan opening for me, who’s amazing. He’s really only opening for me because I’m sleeping with him. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to get a great opener.
Do you ever find that people are intimidated by you because of your comic persona?
Yeah, I guess. It’s all in people’s heads, so I can’t control that, you know what I mean? [Laughs] But it’s funny – because one, I’m surprised by people, but two, I’m surprised by me, because when people say my own jokes back to me or something that they would deem akin to my kind of humor, I get squeamish. Like, I’m a lady! It’s weird – it’s separate to me, it’s different.
It’s funny, because I happened to see you on the Bravo reality talk show “Watch What Happens Live,” and you looked like you were having a blast with host Andy Cohen and were sweet and kind. Why did you agree to do that show?
Well, I watch everything, and I love TV, and I do watch a bunch of those “Housewives” shows, for better or worse. Actually, I don’t talk about the “Real Housewives” shows a lot necessarily, but I think a lot about humanity from watching that show for some reason. The downfall of it, you know? Like, it’s deep to me – it’s heartbreaking stuff.
So Andy’s asked me to be on that show for a while now, and I always do wanna go on – it just seems so fun, and it’s live. And he happened to be at South By Southwest when I was there, and I said I’d do it. And I had a good time – not a calculated move, just fun.
They’re actually drinking alcohol on that show, right? That’s kind of a new thing.
Yeah. I don’t drink, but I had water or Diet Coke or something. But I love that. I wish I drank – it just gives me a stomach-ache.
What inspired you to go vegetarian as a child?
I grew up in New Hampshire, and we lived next to a big farm, you know, vegetables and meat and everything. And my dad walked me over there to pick out our Thanksgiving turkey when I was 6, and I pointed to a turkey and the next thing I knew, the farmer was chopping its head off. And it was just like a very hard lesson in that’s what meat is, and it just was not for me. I realized I’m an herbivore.
It was a while after that – I still had Happy Meals and stuff, and then I put that together, and by the time I was 9, I remember I was at Kentucky Fried Chicken and my dad asked me what I wanted to order, and I said, “I’ll just have biscuits!” And then he sat me down and said, “OK, let’s just face the fact that you’re vegetarian and figure out what you can eat.”
Why did you feel compelled to write about bedwetting?
Well, it wasn’t that I wanted to write about bedwetting – I started out just wanting to write personal essays. And it kind of chronologically turned into a memoir, I guess, And that was a big part of my life, you know? A lot of the book is my childhood and failures, and a lot of that was the shame and embarrassment and humiliation of being a bedwetter, you know?
Did it feel cathartic, or did you feel like it would help other people, or what?
It just is the truth – I don’t know. It just seemed to inform so much of who I became as an adult that it kind of rose to the top in terms of what I was writing about. It seemed like a simple, obvious title.
Was it difficult to go full-frontal in the film “Take This Waltz”?
Not really. I mean, I had never thought about doing something like that before, but when [director] Sarah Polley told me it was important to her and explained what she was doing there, I didn’t want to say no to her. I felt like I was lucky that she saw me as someone who can play something real.
It’s funny – I had a show called “The Sarah Silverman Program,” and Sarah watched that, and it’s funny that people go, “Well, no one knows that you can do drama,” and I’m like, “Well, to me it’s the same.” You’re just saying things honestly. It’s a much more natural transition than going the other way – I think a lot of people who do drama and try to do comedy are either amazing at it, like Matt Damon or Alec Baldwin, but a lot of times dramatic actors doing comedy think there’s some kind of comedy socks to put on or something.
Who’s funnier than you are?
[Laughs incredulously] So many people, oh my God.
Rolling Stone called you “the most outrageously funny woman alive.” Does that freak you out a little bit?
No, that was a few years ago, and I was in the middle of a moment, and it was great. For me, I’m always me, just plugging away and stuff. We all get moments in the sun, and it’s great, and that was mine. It was awesome. There are lots of peaks and valleys in any comedian’s career, but what’s great is that you can keep going as long as you keep writing and changing and growing, and not stay in one thing.
How do you look back at your experience on “Saturday Night Live”?
I look back on it as a great experience. I was just there for one season, and I was around great people. It was interesting to see such a scene, so stimulating, and such hard work and long hours. It was the best kind of boot camp for comedy that anybody could hope for. And even though people can think, “Oh, you were fired after only one year,” I really didn’t find myself until well after leaving there. I’m so grateful that Lorne Michaels saw something in me – I mean, I look back at the sketches I wrote, and they were terrible! [laughs]
You mentioned you had family in Florida – are you talking about Miami?
No, but close by. My dad and stepmother go there in the winter like so many good Jews. And they’re very excited [about the show] – they’re bringing like 20 people.
Are you going to be on your best behavior then?
I can’t! I mean, I just do what I do and I’m lucky I have parents that totally support it and disassociate when they need to at certain points [laughs]. My dad – I don’t think he can repeat any of my jokes, but I think he’s so excited watching other people in the audience. He just can’t believe they’re watching me and laughing. That’s what’s exciting for him.
What do you think of Miami?
You know, I haven’t spent a lot of time in Miami, and I won’t even get to spend too much time there on this trip – I guess about a full day. I love the sun, and I’m excited to maybe go in the ocean if it’s hot, and I do love to dance, but I’m not really like a club person. I’m more apt to stay in my hotel room and watch TV all day [laughs], but I hope I’m kind of pushed to go out and see stuff, because I know it’s a spectacular city. I know it more from “Dexter.” Hopefully there aren’t quite as many serial killers in Miami as you would think by watching that show.