She's a riot

An e-mail interview with shock comic Sarah Silverman.

An e-mail interview with shock comic Sarah Silverman

Comedian Sarah Silverman headlines this year's Just for Laughs festival in Toronto. ((GAT Media))

The date: Sept. 9, 2007. The scene: the MTV Video Music Awards in Las Vegas. After an embarrassing "comeback" performance by Britney Spears, Sarah Silverman steps to the mike and comments on the fallen idol: "Wow, she is amazing. I mean, she is 25 years old, and she has already accomplished everything she’s going to accomplish in her life. It’s mind-blowing."

'You want to stay honest on stage and be in the moment, and there have been times or moods when I’m just not seeing anything funny.'— Sarah Silverman

Of course, that’s what everyone was thinking, but jaws dropped at Silverman’s brutal honesty, her dripping sarcasm. There’s always been a "Did she just say that?" element to Silverman’s humour, which tackles religion, sex and bigotry with breathtaking bluntness. (Her most famous joke: "I was raped by a doctor. Which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.")

Silverman spent the 1990s trying to break into comedy’s top ranks. After her frustrating season on Saturday Night Live, she parodied the experience by playing an unhappy writer on The Larry Sanders Show. A brief appearance in the 2005 documentary The Aristocrats — about the world’s dirtiest joke— took her to the next level; she stole the film with a fictional monologue about being sexually abused by an elderly talk show host.

Since 2007, she’s starred on Comedy Central’s The Sarah Silverman Program and last year, delivered two viral internet sensations. The first, I’m F---ing Matt Damon, is a joyous musical romp about her faux affair with the Hollywood actor. The other, The Great Schlep, had a more serious intent: to get Jewish grandparents in Florida to vote for Barack Obama.

Silverman comes to Toronto on July 17 to host a Just for Laughs gala. In an email interview, CBC News asked her about comedy’s relationship with the internet, what role stand-up plays in her career now and whether any topics are off limits.

Q: Are you still in touch with Matt Damon?

A: Only telekinetically.

Q: With the Matt Damon video and The Great Schlep, you’ve had two massive viral hits. What impact have they had on your career?

A: They have made me known by more people, but I think it has made people think of me as a personality, and it makes it harder to be seen as an actor. I like to audition so I can prove I’m not limited to being me. I can be you. But it’s a small price to pay to be able to express myself so totally freely. Is that answer gay?

Q: What feedback did you get about U.S. election day in Florida? Were there sightings of Gen Y types actually taking their grandparents to the polls?

A: Yeah, people really did it. It was nuts! I was kidding! No, I think it may have actually helped in some small way. I’m proud to have been a part of it. We are living in exciting and inspiring times in all sorts of ways. Should I be giving you funny answers? I’m listening to sad music right now – it makes me sappy. Come on, Silverman, man up!

Q: You recently won a Webby for The Great Schlep. How would you compare the Webbys, the Emmys and the MTV Awards?

A: Much more p---y at the Webbys. Oh, snap! I’m back!

Sarah Silverman performs at the Gibson Amphitheatre Los Angeles. ((Charley Gallay/Getty Images))

Q: Is the internet the future of comedy? How web-savvy will comedians have to be?

A: I think it’s informing a whole new level of comedy, yeah. Anyone has access; anyone with a laptop can put something out there. I think it’s cool.

Q: What are your own internet viewing habits?

A: I just watched a bunch of Jon Glaser’s Delocated shows online, though it’s a Cartoon Network show. It’s so amazing. Sometimes I’ll get lost looking up random things on YouTube like, "woman falls" or I’ll look up live music performances by great bands.

Q: You were recently quoted in a New York Times magazine article about Zach Galifianakis, a fellow traveler in the indie comedy movement. What advice do you have for comedians about to break through and have their moment?

A: Hmmm... I don’t know. Do it because you love it. Because it makes you laugh and it makes you happy. Any other reason isn’t worth it.

Q: You grew up in New Hampshire, which doesn’t seem like a comedy hotbed. What made you want to go into comedy?

A: Shockingly, it is a comedy hotbed. I’m from the same town as Adam Sandler and Seth and Josh Meyers!

Q: Were there any comedians who inspired you as a kid?

A: Yeah! Steve Martin, Ruth Gordon, Woody Allen, Eddie Murphy, Albert Brooks, David Letterman, Carol Leifer.

Q: What contemporary comedians do you like?

A: I love this question. Tig Notaro is brilliant – she gets the most laughs with the least amount of words. Louis CK, Chelsea Peretti, Heather Lawless,Todd Glass – I could go on and on!

Q: Where does stand-up fit into your career now?

A: It’s hard keeping up with stand-up when I’m working on The Sarah Silverman Program and going straight home to sleep at night instead of going to the clubs. Stand-up is something you need to do all the time or you fall out of practice, so it’s frustrating not being in the zone when gigs are only just sporadic between shooting weeks. But I have some songs from the new season of the show I’ll probably try out.

Q: What was the worst night of your stand-up career?

A: There are so many... the worst times have been when something bad or sad in my life is going on, and I still have to go up. You want to stay honest on stage and be in the moment, and there have been times or moods when I’m just not seeing anything funny. That’s the only time it feels like work. But sometimes, for reasons I do not understand, SOMETIMES those are the best shows.

Q: You often court controversy in your comedy. What are your boundaries? Is there anything you won’t say?

A: I don’t like fat jokes about women. Men can take it because we live in a society where fat men still deserve love, still can be respected. Fat women are treated (in the white culture, anyway) like s--t, and it bums me out.

Sarah Silverman appears at the Friday night festival gala of Toronto’s Just for Laughs festival (www.hahaha.com) on July 17 with David Cross, Louis CK, Arj Barker and Todd Glass.

Greig Dymond writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.