Q·Q with Tom Power

'Comedy is not evergreen': Why Sarah Silverman says her old work makes her cringe

Sarah Silverman is a two-time Emmy-winning comedian, actor, writer and producer. She also hosts The Sarah Silverman Podcast. She joined Tom Power for a conversation about her early standup career and why she believes comedy has to change with the times.

In a Q interview, Silverman spoke about comedy, cancel culture and compassion

Head shot of comedian Sarah Silverman.
Sarah Silverman is a two-time Emmy-winning comedian, actor, writer and producer. She also hosts The Sarah Silverman Podcast. She joined Tom Power for a conversation about her early standup career and why she believes comedy has to change with the times. (Robyn Von Swank)

Sarah Silverman has never been the type to shy away from pushing boundaries in her comedy, but when she looks back at her old material, she cringes.

"Comedy is not evergreen," she said in an interview on Q with Tom Power. "If you're not looking back at what you did 10 years ago and cringing, you're probably doing something wrong, in my view.… I mean, look, my first special is problematic in 18 different ways."

Silverman's 2005 standup special, Jesus Is Magic, uses shock humour to squeeze jokes out of social taboos, but the comedian said it "doesn't hold up" today.

"There's, like, N-word, hard R, you know, the R-word, the M-word for little person," she said. "I'm not saying this out of fear, but just out of being mindful because once you learn something, you can't unring that bell unless you decide you're going to just know something cuts people and say it anyway."

In 2007, an episode of her Comedy Central series, The Sarah Silverman Program, included a sketch in which her character (a fictionalized version of herself) wears blackface to see whether it's more difficult to be Black or Jewish. When a picture of it resurfaced in 2019, Silverman was fired from an acting role.

"There's a picture of me in blackface that exists with no context," she told Power. "Would I do it today? Obviously not, you know. But it is frustrating to see something that was done with intentions, you know, with a lot of intentions … and then all that's left is a screenshot that is horrifying.

"The consequences that come from it I accept wholeheartedly because that's what art is.… You know, everyone wants to be this risky, edgy comic, but 'risky' means there's risk and consequence. And you have to suck it up and take it."

WATCH | Sarah Silverman's interview with Tom Power:

Silverman said her particular brand of shock humour took hold when she was just three. Being funny helped her survive her childhood, and making people laugh with her outrageous comments became addictive.

"I had one of those dads who taught his three-year-old swears because he thought it was hilarious," she said. "I remember grown-ups all around me giving me this kind of wild approval despite themselves.… That became the drug where I found that I could say shocking things and get many fruits from it."

While shocking her audience was Silverman's "bread and butter" initially, she believes comedy has to change with the times. "I'm into growing, changing — all that shit," she said. "I'm into it, you know, but it is a human instinct to be very afraid of change."

In an age of political unrest and cancel culture, Silverman has made efforts to bridge the divide between people of differing beliefs. In her variety show I Love You, America, which premiered in 2017, she offers understanding and compassion to those she doesn't agree with politically.

"I think that's a skill that comedians have, and it's a real gift … that we're able to connect with anyone," said Silverman. "We can find some way to connect with anyone. I think anyone could do that, but it's definitely something we practise a lot because it's our job."

It's a rage machine.… All of us need to be aware of it.- Sarah Silverman

Even when neither side came away from the show with a changed opinion, they did form a genuine connection. "A hundred per cent of the time, I walked away loving them," she said. "I wasn't changed politically, but I loved them, you know? And they loved me, I believe."

Last month, the comedian guest-hosted The Daily Show and did a piece on understanding the "economy of anger" — how the content we consume is designed to make us feel rageful because that's what generates clicks and makes money.

"It's a rage machine," Silverman told Power. "All of us need to be aware of it and learn how to decipher what is true."

As for her standup, while she thinks that taking accountability for her mistakes is important, she said comedy isn't black and white, and there's value in exploring the nuance.

"Comedy dies in the second-guessing of what the audience wants from you," she said. "You have to be willing to eat shit all over again, you know — bomb and start over and really just stick to who you are now and what's funny to you and what's amusing to you. And if you lose fans, fine; you might gain fans. But it just can't be part of the creative plan."

Silverman is on her Grow Some Lips comedy tour right now, which stops in Toronto on March 12. She's also part of the ensemble cast of Mel Brooks's new series, History of the World: Part II, available on Disney+. 

The full interview with Sarah Silverman is available on our podcast, Q with Tom Power. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Kaitlyn Swan.


Vivian Rashotte is a digital producer, writer and photographer for Q with Tom Power. She's also a visual artist. You can reach her at vivian.rashotte@cbc.ca.