Sarah Silverman, the eponymous star of The Sarah Silverman Program—now in its third season on Comedy Central—sometimes begins the show with a brief introduction to her life. Or rather, the life of her fictional doppelgänger, also named Sarah Silverman. “I’m just like you,” she once insisted. “I live in Valley Village, I don’t have a job, and my sister pays the rent!”
The joke, of course, is that she’s nothing like us. And not just for the reasons she offers. Silverman, or at least her on-screen counterpart, is xenophobic, arrogant, selfish, and occasionally downright cruel. She’s dabbled in bestiality, tried to sue the country of Mongolia for rape, given birth to a demon baby, and walked into an African-American church wearing minstrel blackface. In this last season alone, she’s been a veritable blitzkrieg of poor taste, poking fun at everything from mental retardation to pedophilia to Auschwitz.
It should go without saying that Silverman the comedienne and Silverman the character have nothing in common but a name. But sometimes the line between the two can get a little blurry. Whether making a controversial joke about Asians on Late Night With Conan O’Brien in 2001—the punch line was “I love chinks”—or claiming in the 2005 documentary The Aristocrats that she was raped by talk show host Joe Franklin—who responded to the mock charges by threatening Silverman with a lawsuit—she rarely winks at the audience to let us know what’s real and what’s meant to be ironic. Where Sarah Silverman ends and “Sarah Silverman” begins is anybody’s guess.
Silverman—the real Silverman—grew up in Bedford, New Hampshire, the youngest of four sisters. Her parents, Donald and Beth Ann—a social worker and political campaign photographer, respectively—divorced when Sarah was six years old. She was, by all accounts, an unhappy child, having frequent panic attacks and sinking into a full-on depression at thirteen. By sixteen, she was taking over a dozen Xanax a day and struggling with a bedwetting problem, which she documents in her new memoir, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee, to be published by HarperCollins in late April.
She started young as a stand-up, performing at nightclubs and restaurants in the Boston area when she was just in her teens. She dropped out of New York University, after only a year, and lasted just as long as a writer for Saturday Night Live. For the next decade, she landed small roles in TV shows like The Larry Sanders Show, Seinfeld and Crank Yankers and movies like There’s Something About Mary and School of Rock, none of which won her much notice. It wasn’t until Jesus Is Magic, the 2005 concert film that combined Silverman’s standup act with short skits and songs—including controversial material about the Holocaust, AIDS and racism—that the world finally began to take notice of her.
But Silverman didn’t get her first taste of mainstream success until “I’m Fucking Matt Damon,” a pseudo-confessional music video that premiered on the talk show of her then-boyfriend Jimmy Kimmel in 2008. It featured Silverman singing about her infidelity with Damon “on the bed, on the floor, on a towel by the door, in the tub, in the car, up against the mini-bar.” The video went viral, getting millions of hits on YouTube and becoming an Internet sensation. And as with everything in her career, she did it as “Sarah Silverman”, who may or may not bear any relation to the actress who portrays her.
We sent writer Eric Spitznagel, who also interviewed Seth Rogen and Tina Fey for Playboy, to meet with Silverman. He filed this report: “Silverman and I spent an afternoon in her West Hollywood apartment, lounging on the couch and snuggling with Duck, her 15-year old Chihuahua-Pug mix [who has a recurring role on The Sarah Silverman Program as ‘Doug’]. She played me voicemail messages from her father, showed me photos of the penises of her Comedy Central writers [more on that later], and even shared an iPhone video of Steve Agee, her good friend and a regular cast member on The Sarah Silverman Program, dancing with his balls out as she sings ‘I Hope I Get It’ from A Chorus Line.
“I’ve known Silverman for several years, but this was the first time I’d spent any time with her in person. She is, by her own admission, extremely shy, usually preferring the anonymity of email. Based on my past experiences with her, I expected her to be guarded, deflecting any questions that got too personal with a joke. But she was surprisingly candid, talking openly about all aspects of her life, even the stuff that made her a little uncomfortable. ‘Oh my god, scrap this whole interview,’ she laughed at one point, catching herself in a particularly vulnerable moment. ‘It’s going to kill my career.’
“Silverman is exactly what you expect her to be, and exactly the opposite. One minute, she’ll be describing how she and her comic friends enjoy saying the word ‘raaaaaaaape’ while belching. And the next, she’ll grow suddenly sentimental, talking about how much she believes in love. Spend enough time with her and you’ll realize that the real Sarah Silverman exists somewhere in the middle.”
PLAYBOY: Your new memoir, The Bedwetter, is an intimate portrait of your childhood battle with bed-wetting. Why write about something so personal?
SILVERMAN: I was so tortured about it growing up. It was brutal. I had to go to sleep-away camps since I was six, and I was a bed-wetter. [Laughs.] It was something that I thought would always be the biggest secret of my life. Because when you’re a kid, that’s how hopeless everything seems. But then I remember watching Johnny Carson one night and Jane Badler was a guest. She was one of the aliens in the original V miniseries in the early 80s, and I remember my mom saying, “She was a beauty queen in New Hampshire once!” So we were watching and Jane came out and they talked about how she was a bed wetter as a kid. I couldn’t believe it. It’s not a big deal now, but for my little brain, it was mind-blowing.
PLAYBOY: It never occurred to you that other people might wet their beds too?
SILVERMAN: Not somebody like her. She was a beauty queen and an actress! She was over it, and it meant the world to me that she could talk about it and not be embarrassed. So I think about that, and I don’t know, I guess I hope maybe something good can come from writing about it and being cool and open about what happened to me.
PLAYBOY: When did you realize that you had a problem with bed-wetting?
SILVERMAN: When I realized that all my friends weren’t wetting their beds too. I remember going on a camping trip and hiding diapers in the bottom of my sleeping bag. Diapers! I was thirteen, and I slipped into them in my sleeping bag when everybody else was asleep.
PLAYBOY: Did anybody ever catch you?
SILVERMAN: No, it was genius. I don’t think it was even my idea. It was probably my mother’s.
PLAYBOY: So she knew that you were wetting the bed?
SILVERMAN: Both of my parents knew. It was a family tradition. My dad was a bed wetter, his dad was a bed wetter. It’s like how in some families everybody is a cop or a fireman? Wetting the bed is the Silverman way.
PLAYBOY: How long did it take before you finally stopped?
SILVERMAN: I was around sixteen. I think I just had to grow out of it. I was small. I didn’t get my period until I was seventeen and a half. So I think wetting the bed was just a part of my adolescence. I went to hypnotherapy for awhile, but it never worked.
PLAYBOY: Why not?
SILVERMAN: I wrote about it a lot in my diary. I just never felt like I was hypnotized. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine all the things he was telling me. “You’re in a meadow, you’re in the forest.” But it just felt stupid. There was this second voice in my head going, “Oh my god, this is crazy! He has balls and a penis!” I just wanted to make it look like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.
PLAYBOY: You wrote about this in your diary?
SILVERMAN: Yeah. My mom found it and sent it to me. She thought it might help me with the book.
PLAYBOY: Was there anything in your diary that surprised you?
SILVERMAN: I didn’t realize how neurotic I was as a teenager. Every entry was like: “Today was okay. I was depressed between 4:30 and 7:20. But I felt okay after that. I had a discussion with Mom and that went well.”
PLAYBOY: Were there any hints of the fledgling comic?
SILVERMAN: Oh, yeah. There’s one part, I guess I must’ve been in chorus or something, and I wrote: “I was practicing my song for Saturday, and Mom told me to do arm movements, like with my hands, and I thought that was really odd and told her so. And she said, with all seriousness, ‘You don’t know your ass from your elbow.’ I didn’t know what to do, so I put my hand over my elbow and said I had to go to the bathroom. So at least I got a laugh out of her.”
PLAYBOY: Has your mom read your diary?
SILVERMAN: She read it all. I think she loved it. It’s all about her, it’s weird. It’s like I was obsessed with my mother. We were always fighting, and then I would miss her when she wasn’t home.
PLAYBOY: Your parents got divorced when you were six. Did you take sides with one over the other?
SILVERMAN: I kinda sided with my dad but I couldn’t leave my mom’s side. My sisters went with my dad but I was afraid to. I don’t know why. My dad would come over and take walks with me, and that was the best. But I could never fall asleep at his house.
PLAYBOY: Any idea why?
SILVERMAN: I think it’s because my mom would stay up really late. She still does. She’ll be up till three or four in the morning and then sleep till eleven. But my dad is like, “No, you go to sleep at nine and wake up at six.” I just felt lonely there, I think.
PLAYBOY: Do you have a good relationship with your parents?
SILVERMAN: Oh yeah, definitely. And my dad and mom are really close, too. They hated each other when they were married, but they’re like war buddies now. They’re like brother and sister. My mom goes in and out of being really sick, and my dad and my step-mother take care of her.
PLAYBOY: Are they fans of your comedy?
SILVERMAN: Absolutely. My father especially. All he cares about is having a hat or a t-shirt from some TV show that [sister] Laura or I or Jimmy [Kimmel] were in. You know what he does? My step-mother keeps him from wearing all the swag we send him, because it’s obnoxious, but sometimes he’ll sneak it into the car and change when she isn’t paying attention. Laura had a boyfriend once who had the best joke. He said that if Dad was ever a fugitive, he’d be easy to track down. The cops would be like, “We’re looking for a male, 70s, wearing a Man Show hat, Crank Yankers t-shirt, Sarah Silverman Program satchel, Jesus Is Magic water bottle.”
PLAYBOY: Did you get your sense of humor from your dad or your mom?
SILVERMAN: I think it’s a combination. My dad is definitely funny, but in a different sort of way from my mom. My dad likes to say “fucking” every other word. But he says it with joy. It’s not like “fuck you, you motherfucker” but “I’m so fucking lucky!” But with my mom, I remember when Jimmy had Kelsey Grammer on his show, and she thinks he’s Frasier, literally Frasier. So she was like, [sits upright, in a genteel tone] “I would love to meet Kelsey Grammer. We both share a passion for diction.”
PLAYBOY: Didn’t your dad introduce you to dirty jokes?
SILVERMAN: He did, yeah. Whenever we went to restaurants, he’d take a napkin and… hold on. [She finds a napkin, begins folding it.] Wait a minute, I can’t believe I’m not remembering this. It’s got to be like muscle memory.
PLAYBOY: Are you trying to make-?
SILVERMAN: Tits? Were you going to say tits?
PLAYBOY: No. It looks like one of those origami fortune teller things.
SILVERMAN: No, no, no. It’s supposed to be tits. My dad would fold a napkin so it looked like tits. [Laughs.] He always did it at dinner. It’s funny when you’re a kid. How the fuck did he-? I can’t even remember it now! It’s bothering me! Oh yeah, wait, hold on. [Tries again, finally creates something that vaguely resembles boobs.]
PLAYBOY: Is there a punchline that goes with it?
SILVERMAN: No, it’s all visual. It’s cerebral. It’s like, “Hey look, tits.” [Laughs.] When I was twelve, my dad gave me these books, Truly Tasteless Jokes and Truly Tasteless Jokes Part 2. I remember reading them and thinking, “I’m too young for this.” They were so dirty.
PLAYBOY: Do you remember any of them?
SILVERMAN: I remember the very first joke. It was about Little Red Riding Hood. She’s in the forest and the Wolf says to her, “I’m going to eat you” and Red Riding Hood says, “Eat, eat, eat. Doesn’t anybody fuck anymore?” I don’t know why I remember it. At the time, I had no idea why it was funny. But I knew it was dirty because it had the word fuck in it.
PLAYBOY: Were you a funny kid?
SILVERMAN: I killed from a very early age. I was the youngest, so I was positioned to be the entertainer. I used to do impressions of all the characters on General Hospital, because that’s what everybody in my family watched. And they would die. I remember, and it still happens, when I get a really big laugh, my arms itch. [She itches her arms.] I know that makes me sound like a crazy person.
PLAYBOY: You’ve claimed that you started swearing as a child to please your father. Is that true?
SILVERMAN: It is. When I was three years old, he taught me how to say bitch, bastard, damn and shit. Looking back on it now, it’s pretty obvious why I do the sort of comedy I do. As a kid, I said swears to adults and they laughed wildly. Is it really such a surprise that I’m a shock comedian today? It makes total sense.
PLAYBOY: You consider what you do “shock comedy”?
SILVERMAN: Well, no, it’s not really that black and white. I don’t write something and think, “How can I be shocking?” I think that would be a big mistake. Especially when an audience comes specifically to see me, and they have certain expectations of what it is that I do. It’s this weird dichotomy. They’re expecting to be shocked, and you want to give them what they expect, but doing shock comedy, real shock comedy, is giving them what they don’t expect. You know what I mean?
PLAYBOY: It’s not shocking if they already know what you’re going to say?
SILVERMAN: Yeah, exactly. I think to be a true shock comic, I have to totally disregard their expectations. If you try to second-guess an audience, you’ll just make yourself fucking crazy. You’ll just go onstage and hate yourself.
PLAYBOY: Do you ever worry about how your jokes could be misinterpreted?
SILVERMAN: How do you mean?
PLAYBOY: When you make a joke about race, for instance, or AIDS or the Holocaust, it’s not always obvious that you’re being tongue-in-cheek.
SILVERMAN: But I have no control over that. Once it’s out there, it’s theirs to have. These jokes are going to be whatever they see in the context of their own lives.
PLAYBOY: So you don’t care if people show up for your standup and think, “I hope she does the one about the chinks?”
SILVERMAN: [Groans.] Oh god, that’s the worst. I had a boyfriend who called it “mouth-full-of-blood laughs.” It’s when people are laughing at the wrong thing. One time, there was this lead singer of a very popular band from the 80s—I can’t give you his real name—and he came up to me after a show, and I swear to god, he goes, “You’re my favorite comedian! I love Jesus is Magic!” I was so flattered at first. And then he said, “You have the best nigger jokes!” I was like, “I… I… didn’t mean…” And he turns to his friends and says, “She’s got the best nigger jokes!”
PLAYBOY: Would you give us a hint who it was?
SILVERMAN: I’ll just say this. After that, I stopped believin’.
PLAYBOY: Are you still doing standup?
SILVERMAN: Not as much as I should be. I’m at a total crossroads in terms of my act. Anything from Jesus Is Magic is done. I can’t do anything from that movie anymore. It’s over. But I haven’t been able to come up with anything new. I’ve been working on the Comedy Central show, and when I write all day, I’m exhausted. I wasn’t gifted with boundless energy. I work for fifteen hours a day and it’s a race to get home and wash my face and get some sleep for the next day. So there’s been a five month period where I haven’t done any standup at all. I’m at a point where I’m just trying to find myself again. I’m lost. But I’m not like [fake crying] “Oh my god, I’m lost!” I’m forcing myself to go out and do spots [at comedy clubs] when I’d rather be at the movies.
PLAYBOY: Are you starting to get back some of your confidence?
SILVERMAN: Not yet. It’s a process. When you have an act that’s polished and you’re in the zone, you can’t wait to get out there. But I’m in a place where I’m backstage going, “I have fucking nothing!” I just feel like a loser. But I’ve also realized that I can’t go out and keep doing the same fake racist meta jokes anymore. Because otherwise, thirty years will go by and I’ll be the guy onstage going [Andrew Dice Clay impression], “Hickory-dickory dock!”
PLAYBOY: So you’re thinking about a complete image overhaul?
SILVERMAN: I don’t know. It’s scary to try something new. I just have to get out there again and be willing to bomb and let people blog about how much I suck and not care. I have to remember not to apologize for myself. I’m just trying to accept myself and forgive myself and give myself permission to fail and maybe even fail miserably.
PLAYBOY: You sound awfully emotionally mature.
SILVERMAN: [Laughs.] It’s really kinda disgusting. Have I become New Agey? Should I be out here with crystals? I’m reading this book that my therapist gave me, and it’s hilarious because it has the saddest title ever but it’s really super-hopeful. It’s called When Things Fall Apart. [Laughs.] It’s really made me think about happiness, and how sometimes it just depends on moving your perspective a few degrees to the right or left. When you have feelings of fear or anxiety, our first instinct is to make it go away. But what happens if you just exist through it? I used to suffer from panic attacks, and then I read about what they are. After your first panic attack, every subsequent panic attack is just the fear of having another panic attack.
PLAYBOY: You went through a pretty severe depression as a teenager.
SILVERMAN: I did. I remember when it first happened. I came back from this camping trip, the one where I hid diapers in my sleeping bag, and it just washed over me like a cloud. It was like a cloud covering the sun. I remember the horror story that I told myself over and over again. I’m totally alone in my body. I’m totally alone in my head and nobody will ever see through my eyes. I’m just completely alone.
PLAYBOY: Were you always a little melancholy, or was the depression a complete surprise?
SILVERMAN: I never saw it coming. I was a super social person. I had these three best friends—Laurie and Amy, who were twins, and Julie—and I didn’t want to hang out with them anymore. Ever. I was afraid to lose them, but I didn’t know how to be myself. I remember my stepfather asking me what it felt like, and I said, “It feels just like I’m homesick but I’m home, so there’s no way to fix it.” And that’s honestly how it felt. Some of my friends threw a surprise party for me, because they thought it might help to cheer me up. But it was just a burden. I felt guilty because I knew it wouldn’t change anything. [Laughs.] A cake and some friends wasn’t going to make me myself again.
PLAYBOY: Is that when you started going to therapy?
SILVERMAN: Yeah. My therapist wrote me a prescription for Xanax. And he told me whenever I felt sad, I should take one. And then I came back the following week and I was in the waiting room. It was this Victorian House in New Hampshire, the same place where I came to see a hypnotist for bed-wetting. It was 4pm and the middle of a snowstorm and it was just pitch black outside. My mom dropped me off, and I’m waiting and waiting and waiting. I remember I read an entire People magazine and I thought, “What’s going on?” And then Dr. Graham the hypnotist came down and his eyes were all red and teary. And he was like—I’ll use a different name—”Doctor Riley hung himself!”
PLAYBOY: How old were you?
SILVERMAN: Thirteen. My fucking shrink hung himself at my second appointment!
PLAYBOY: That’s horrible. How did you make sense of what happened?
SILVERMAN: I have no idea. I remember that he had braces. And I was thinking, “Wow, he didn’t even wait to get his braces off.” Braces are a sign of hope. You know what I mean? Braces mean that someday you’re gonna have new teeth. Braces are a symbol that tomorrow will be better.
PLAYBOY: Did you continue going to therapy after that?
SILVERMAN: My parents found this registered nurse in Andover, which is just outside of Boston, that they’d take me to before school. It was an hour away, so I’d have to get up at like six in the morning. She would talk to me and then her husband, who was a doctor, would write prescriptions for me. She just upped my dose every time. You’re not going to believe this, but she eventually had me taking four Xanax, four times a day. Sixteen Xanax a day, for a fourteen year old girl. She should be in prison!
PLAYBOY: Did you at least feel better?
SILVERMAN: I just felt like a zombie. Finally, somehow, I went to this Mexican psychiatrist in Manchester. I think he was the only Mexican in New Hampshire. His name was Dr. Santiago. I don’t know where he came from, but he literally saved my life. He found out that I was on this medication, and he couldn’t believe it. He brought my mother in and said, “This is a life and death situation. You can’t just go off of this. You have to go one half a pill less a week until you’re at zero.” So it took like six months. I remember that last half a pill so clearly. It was the sophomore year of high school, and I was at the bubbler [a drinking fountain] in the hallway of my high school. I was myself again. It was just like that. The cloud lifted and I was my old silly self again.
PLAYBOY: Do you ever worry that the cloud might come back?
SILVERMAN: All the time. It came back six years later, when I was twenty-two. And that’s when I started taking Zoloft. I’ve been on it ever since. I’ve taken half a Zoloft every day since 1994.
PLAYBOY: At twenty-two, weren’t you writing for Saturday Night Live?
SILVERMAN: I was, yeah.
PLAYBOY: Do you think the stress of writing for that show had anything to do with your depression returning?
SILVERMAN: I’m sure it was psychological, but it felt mostly chemical. It just came on all in one moment. You know how you get the flu in a second, where you just go, “Fuck, I have the flu!” It’s that fast. I recognized the feeling right away, and it sent me into a huge panic attack. My friend Mark Cohen, who plays my dad on The Sarah Silverman Program, he saved me. He took care of me, and found an emergency therapist at one in the morning, and he stayed with me while I got better.
PLAYBOY: Were you surprised when you got fired by Saturday Night Live after just a year?
SILVERMAN: I was. I didn’t get anything on the show in my first year, but it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be asked back. All the way up to August I was writing sketches, making plans. I was so excited, I couldn’t wait to go back. My manager and agent called me together from Los Angeles, and when they told me I’ve been fired, I didn’t believe it. I was like, “Awww, come on, guys! That’s not funny!” I thought they were kidding. I was devastated and I thought I’d never work again.
PLAYBOY: But you continued to do standup?
SILVERMAN: I did, but I wasn’t sure if I could still call myself a comedian. I had a full year of just “What the fuck am I doing?” I moved out here [to Los Angeles], and then I got fired from the next job I had. It was a TV pilot, for a show called Pride & Joy. It was a Disney sitcom, and they hired me to play a wife and mother who’s an architect in New York City. I was replaced by Julie Warner before they even shot the pilot. After that, every job I got for a couple years, I would check the door of the dressing room to make sure my name was still on it. I would wait till the last minute to go to rehearsal in case my manager would call me and say I was fired. I was a little gun shy.
PLAYBOY: Do you feel like being a comedian is in your DNA?
SILVERMAN: I do. I’m lucky, I’ve always known. My mom found something I’d filled out in third grade. It was a workbook or something, and on one of the pages it said, “When I grow up, I want to be…” and then I wrote “An actress, a comedian or a masseuse.”
PLAYBOY: You seriously wanted to be a masseuse?
SILVERMAN: That was because of my family. They would get me to rub their backs by saying, “You’re so good at this! Your hands are so strong!” So I’d massage everybody, just to practice. And the more I did it, the more compliments I’d get. It’s kinda genius how they manipulated me.
PLAYBOY: Your first big comedy inspiration was Steve Martin?
SILVERMAN: I loved him. I didn’t just love him, I was in love with him. On the ceiling in my bedroom where I grew up, where my mom still lives, I wrote “I Love Steve Martin” in pencil. It’s still there.
PLAYBOY: Did you want to be with him, or did you want to be him?
SILVERMAN: Probably a little of both. I can remember reading this magazine article about him; I can still picture everything about it. He’s from Waco, Texas, and he does magic and he loves some artist named David Hockney, so I convinced my mom to get me a calendar of David Hockney photographs from a museum. All of a sudden, I loved David Hockney, which was an artist I had no reason to relate to at all. I had never been to California or the West Coast, but my walls were covered with all these photos of gay men in swimming pools. I loved it because I knew that he loved it.
PLAYBOY: What was it about his comedy that appealed to you?
SILVERMAN: I don’t know. I could venture a guess. [Long pause.] I guess it was the mixture of silliness without mindlessness. But I assure you that I couldn’t have articulated that when I was a teenager. I just loved him because he was funny and beautiful.
PLAYBOY: Silly is definitely a word that could be used to describe your sense of humor.
SILVERMAN: Oh yeah, absolutely.
PLAYBOY: Another word is scatological.
SILVERMAN: [A huge smile overtakes her face.] I do love poop. I can’t help it. The heart wants what it wants. I enjoy being clever and pithy and political, but nothing’s going to get me like dumb stuff. It’s not exclusively poop jokes. I find lots of things funny that aren’t about shit. And I won’t laugh at all poop jokes. It has to be something special.
PLAYBOY: Can you give us an example of a really sublime shit joke?
SILVERMAN: When we were working on the show, we noticed that [Sarah Silverman Program co-creator] Rob Schrab would always get really cranky towards the end of the day. We found out it was because he had to take a shit and needed to do it in the privacy of his home. Then we moved into office space and there was one office that had a private bathroom, so we gave it to Rob. On the first morning… [Laughs.] comedy writers can be so lazy, but when they’re motivated by something, they can do amazing things. [Writers] Chris Romano and Eric Falconer came in extra early and took a huge shit in Rob’s toilet, and then Chris put a toothpick with a homemade flag in the shit, and wrote on the flag, “I know what you did last summer.” [Laughs to the point of tears.] It’s just so absurd and stupid. Why would you put “I know what you did last summer” on the flag? What does that horror movie from eight years ago have to do with their shit? [Laughs.]
PLAYBOY: The work environment for your writing staff sounds like a fraternity party.
SILVERMAN: It can be, yeah. It’s six of us, and we always spend the first couple of weeks working out of my apartment, because we never have office space by the time we’re picked up. Even when we do, we’re still just on couches or whatever. [Co-creator and producer] Dan [Harmon] keeps us pretty focused. He made a rule that nobody can take out their dick until five o’clock.
PLAYBOY: Why did he do that?
SILVERMAN: He had no choice.
PLAYBOY: Your writers have to be told not to expose themselves?
SILVERMAN: They do. Because otherwise it happens all the time. And the guys interpreted Dan’s rule as “take your dick out at five.” It would be like [glances at watch] “Forty-five more minutes.”
PLAYBOY: What’s the context in which somebody might take out their penis?
SILVERMAN: Oh, there are so many! [Writer] Chris Romano started it. He takes his dick out all the time. And then Harris [Wittels], the young one who is normally a very shy and nervous guy, started taking his dick out. It usually happens when we’re stuck on an outline or something. One of them will just stand up and pull down their pants and underwear and sit back down. [Laughs.] It gets us out of the moment. It’s a safe room where you can just do anything. One time Chris came out of the bathroom and his dick was sticking through a napkin, out of his fly. I told him, “Chris, it isn’t five yet!” And he said, “I can’t help it, my dick just ate lobster.” [Laughs.] I know that these are not clever jokes, but I love them.
PLAYBOY: With all the guys flashing, do you ever feel tempted to do the same?
SILVERMAN: I’ve never done that. I think I showed them the very top of my pubes once, but that was it. A vagina is just not as silly as a penis. It’s not silly at all. You don’t want to bomb with a vagina.
PLAYBOY: Did you grow up in a sexually open family?
SILVERMAN: Yeah, we were very open. I grew up with no Jews except for my family, but I think there’s something about Jewish culture that says sex is okay, sex is good. There isn’t a stigma attached to it. I remember watching [Woody Allen’s comedy] Sleeper when I was nine, over and over again. I didn’t understand any of it. “The Orgasmatron? What does that mean?” Nobody explained it to me. They really didn’t shield me from anything. I became sexualized at an early age, although I didn’t have sex until I was nineteen.
PLAYBOY: You were a late bloomer?
SILVERMAN: Not by choice. I literally went through puberty when I moved to New York. I remember my first standup act when I was seventeen; I did a really lame song about being flat chested. I was doing it in New York, and I remember Kevin Brennan, the guy I lost my virginity to, was like “That song doesn’t make sense, you have tits.”
PLAYBOY: Wasn’t the song called “Mammaries”?
SILVERMAN: [Long pause.] How could you possibly know that?!
PLAYBOY: We have our sources.
SILVERMAN: Have you been reading my diary? I’m so embarrassed.
PLAYBOY: Do you remember any of the lyrics?
SILVERMAN: All I remember is [sings] “Mammaries are the goyims that I need.” It was so fucking stupid.
PLAYBOY: It’s not always clear if you expect an audience to laugh with you or at you. Is that by design?
SILVERMAN: I think it is. I like the ambiguity. I used to love experimenting with that idea. I was doing a set at the Largo [nightclub in Los Angeles] one time, and I wore these pale tan khaki pants and painted period blood down the crotch. I wore it on stage and never mentioned it. But I knew the audience could see it and they just assumed I’d leaked period blood. I did like six minutes of jokes without mentioning it and acting like I had command of the room. It was interesting to watch the audience, because so many of them were dying for me. They wanted to laugh at me but they weren’t able to hear anything I was saying. The blood stain was so distracting to them. And then at the end I pretended to notice it for the first time, and I was like, “Oh my god, you guys must think this is period blood. Of course you do. No, no, I just had anal sex for the first time.”
PLAYBOY: Who’s the punchline of that joke? Is it you? Is it the audience for being embarrassed for you?
SILVERMAN: I don’t know. Who cares? If it’s funny, it’s funny. We don’t need to dissect it and ruin it, do we?
PLAYBOY: Does it mean anything that every character you play is named Sarah Silverman?
SILVERMAN: Not really. It’s just easier to remember.
PLAYBOY: But you do understand why it’s difficult for audiences to tell the difference between you, the actual Sarah Silverman, and the fictional, ironic Sarah Silverman?
SILVERMAN: Yeah, I guess. But what does it matter? Take your pick. [Laughs.] I’m whatever Sarah Silverman you want me to be, baby.
PLAYBOY: Is there at least a little of the real you in the on-screen Sarah Silverman?
SILVERMAN: Oh yeah, sure. We’re all so many different people, you know? The person you are when you’re with your mother, and the person you are when you’re with somebody who intimidates you, and the person you are when you’re with somebody you love, and the person you are when you’re shut down because you’re being left out. Whenever somebody tells me, “I’m this kind of person,” in my head I’m always thinking, “No you’re not. By virtue of what you just said, you’re not.” It’s a waste of time to be desperately defining yourself.
PLAYBOY: Do people sometimes assume they know you because of what they see on your show and in the movies?
SILVERMAN: All the time. The one guy I’ve dated since Jimmy, it was weird how much he thought he knew me. He was like, “Well, I know that you don’t believe in god, but I blah blah blah.” And I was just like [shocked expression.] What kind of person do you think I am? And if it’s true, why would you be with me? It’s just… [Long pause, laughs.] Oh, who cares. Nobody needs to know me. It doesn’t matter to know me.
PLAYBOY: There was a great line in Jesus is Magic. “I don’t care if you think I’m racist. I just want you to think I’m thin.” Was that the character talking, or was that you?
SILVERMAN: It did come from a very real place. [Laughs.] Sadly.
PLAYBOY: You were responding to the controversy surrounding your “I love chinks” joke on Late Night. Were you surprised it caused so much outrage?
SILVERMAN: I was, yeah. I knew they weren’t crazy about the joke at Late Night, but I didn’t think it’d turn into a media shitstorm.
PLAYBOY: So the producers at Late Night knew about the joke in advance?
SILVERMAN: Oh yeah, you have to go over all of your material beforehand. Originally, the joke had the word nigger in it. The segment producer said that wouldn’t work and suggested using “dirty Jew” instead. But it wasn’t as hard because I’m Jewish and that makes it okay. So then I suggested chink, because it’s got that hard K and it’s really racist. It had to be something hard. And the producer said, “No, but you can say spic.” And I was like, “I can’t say chink but I can say spic?” I decided to go with chink, because it sounds funnier to me. It’s a joke about saying the worst, most racist word you can think of.
PLAYBOY: When did you find out that a backlash was coming?
SILVERMAN: I woke up the next day and I had a message from my mother. “They’re talking about you on The View, and how you were on Conan and said chink! They showed a picture of you and you looked gorgeous. You should wear earrings! Earrings always frame the face.” And I was like, “Wait, what happened?”
PLAYBOY: When you were accused of racism by Guy Aoki, the president of a media watchdog group, did you just hope it would go away eventually, or did you try to put out the fire?
SILVERMAN: I immediately wrote this long, thoughtful letter to Aoki, thinking we could actually have an open conversation. But he was too jazzed about having a fight with me. I made the mistake of going on Politically Incorrect with him. He had sixty people in the audience who hated me, just haaaaated me. I had two stoned comics in the green room. And they made me repeat the joke. I was like, please just replay the clip. If you have me repeat the joke, it won’t be funny. And I’m doing it to sixty people who hate me. They made me repeat it and of course it got boos. Jokes need context.
PLAYBOY: If you had it to do over again, would you never have done the joke at all, even on Conan’s show?
SILVERMAN: No. I still like the joke. What I learned from the whole experience is that I should never defend a joke. It doesn’t matter what my intention was. Once it’s out there, it’s theirs. Whatever they’re inferring is going to be their reality. If somebody’s offended, all I can do is be like [with a little girl’s voice], “I’m sorry. I didn’t want you to feel bad.”
PLAYBOY: Have you ever apologized for a joke?
SILVERMAN: I’ve apologized to people in person, but never as a public thing. I don’t really make jokes about specific people. Kathy Griffith does that brilliantly, but it’s not something I do. I’m usually the idiot in my jokes. Unless it’s a roast, and then it’s brutal but done with love. Or when I hosted the MTV thing [the 2007 Video Music Awards], but making fun of people in pop culture was just a part of the job.
PLAYBOY: That was when you did an impersonation of Britney Spear’s vagina and called her children “the cutest two mistakes.” In hindsight, did you push it too far?
SILVERMAN: I don’t think so, but they totally used me as a scapegoat. MTV just hired me to do three minutes after Britney opened the show. Like everybody else, I was sure she’d be amazing. This was supposed to be her big comeback. People thought I was lurking backstage and watching her before I went on, instead of pacing and having diarrhea.
PLAYBOY: Nothing in your act was improvised?
SILVERMAN: Not a word. These were jokes I’d been working on for two weeks. They weren’t off the top of my head after watching her bomb. I didn’t even know anything had gone wrong when I went out there. And then the next morning, her people spun it like the reason she wasn’t good was because she heard my jokes during rehearsal and it broke her heart. I didn’t do my jokes during rehearsal! MTV made me just say “joke-joke-joke, joke-joke-joke, goodnight.” They don’t want to know in advance what I was going to say because they didn’t want to take the blame. It’s a genius move on their part. But then you realize the next day, you really are on your own.
PLAYBOY: You also made a few jokes about Paris Hilton. Did you apologize to either Britney or Paris?
SILVERMAN: I wrote them both notes.
PLAYBOY: Did they get them?
SILVERMAN: I don’t know. I didn’t hear back. I think Paris forgave me, but I’m not going to die if she didn’t. I’m not in the market to make anybody feel bad. I want to do the opposite. I’m just trying to be funny. I feel bad for both of them. They’re young and they’re so surface-based. It’s that way with a lot of girls in show business. Their happiness is based on the outside world. It’s just… [softly] it’s sad.
PLAYBOY: You’ve got a surprisingly sensitive side, given your reputation.
SILVERMAN: I hear that all the time. But I’ve always wondered, where is the evidence? I mean, other than all those movies where I play the cunty girlfriend or the cunty roommate or the cunty best friend.
PLAYBOY: You feel like you’ve been unfairly typecast?
SILVERMAN: I’ve certainly done enough of those types of roles. I’m the girlfriend in a comedy who is mortified by her boyfriend’s hilarious behavior. “You need to get a job and straighten up your life!” I don’t want to be the glue for bad writing anymore. I don’t want to be a facilitator for other funny people. It doesn’t seem smart for me to be in a comedy and not be funny. My spirit can’t take it anymore.
PLAYBOY: Have you played mostly cunty girlfriend roles because that’s the only thing being offered to you, or have you just not aggressively pursued the acting jobs you really want?
SILVERMAN: I met with Ivan Reitman [director of Stripes and Ghostbusters] about a movie, which ended up not getting made, but it was really good and it had a beautiful female part, this hippie free-spirited woman, that I really wanted to do. But he wanted me for the cunty girlfriend who the main character dates before he realizes what love really can be. And I told him, “I can’t play those parts anymore, they’re killing my soul. But I love the hippie lady.” And he goes, “Sarah, people will never see you that way. They will always see you in the bitchy role.” I was stunned. I think I cried a little bit. And then I was embarrassed for myself. But I look back on it now and I just don’t agree with it. I was the cunty girlfriend in School of Rock and now that’s all anyone will accept me as? Surely people have bigger imaginations than that. I look up to [Reitman] so much. I’ve worked with him before, and he’s a legend. But I was just so disappointed in him for saying that.
PLAYBOY: How much longer would you like to be doing The Sarah Silverman Program?
SILVERMAN: I don’t know. I’m getting old. At Comedy Central, they wait for the ratings for every show before deciding whether to pick us up for the next season. It takes a long time to write and shoot everything, and I’m two years older every season. I’m going to be a forty year old woman with fucking pigtails. It’s not that cute.
PLAYBOY: Are you dreading your fortieth birthday?
SILVERMAN: No, I’m totally looking forward to it. What do you think? [Laughs.] Thirty-nine was the first birthday where I didn’t even want to get out of bed. It isn’t fun anymore. But I need to change my perspective. I’m not that old. I’m still excited by new comedy and I do shows as Largo and the UCB [Upright Citizen’s Brigade] and check out all the new comics. You have to do that to stay vital. But it’s hard. I feel so confident and awesome and sexy when I’m with people who are older than me, and I’ve always been surrounded by people who are older than me. But to be vital in comedy, you have to exist in a world that’s dominated by young people.
PLAYBOY: You don’t like being an elder stateswoman of comedy?
SILVERMAN: Not at all. It’s weird, I’ve never been single and had people—strangers, really—know who I am. It’s really odd. It’d probably be awesome if I was a dude.
PLAYBOY: Do you ever date non-comedians?
SILVERMAN: Rarely. I’m cursed with being attracted to really funny people, and that limits it to fucking freaks like me.
PLAYBOY: Isn’t that a good thing?
SILVERMAN: It’s a great thing. But I’d love to learn in therapy how to change my perspective so that maybe I could settle for just a good-humored person. It’s hard to date other comics, because I know everybody. Lately I’ve found myself drawn to really, really white Midwestern guys. It’s so exotic to me. I’ve dated Jewish men, but there’s something about them that makes me feel like I’m sleeping with my brother. I want somebody different from me. The last couple of people I’ve been drawn to at all are farmer boy types. Actually, no, not boys, men. I like to be the young one and I like to be the small one.
PLAYBOY: Being small and young makes you feel attractive?
SILVERMAN: It definitely does. I have a guy friend who went to Stanford on a football scholarship, and he was like, “What are you attracted to?” And I told him, I like to be the small one and I like to be the young one. And then later he went to say goodbye and he picked me up and flung me around and I just starting yelling, “I’m smaaaaaaaaaaaall!” [Laughs.] It’s so dumb.
PLAYBOY: We should probably talk about Jimmy.
SILVERMAN: Do we have to? Nobody wants to hear about that.
PLAYBOY: Quite the opposite. People seem to have a lot wrapped up in that relationship.
SILVERMAN: And my desire to please makes me wish I could say we’re still together. When we first broke up and then got back together, we were walking down a street in New York and somebody ran over and said, “You’re back together? Hooray!” It was so sweet. But you can’t stay together because people who don’t know you want you to be together.
PLAYBOY: So you’re telling us it’s over?
SILVERMAN: [Long pause.] We were together for so long and we tried our best to make it work. I can think of him now and I don’t have that edgy feeling anymore. I just love him to pieces. Once we broke that seal of “Are we going to be friends again? Yeah, okay!”, we finally got to that flood of emails of all the stuff we’d not been telling each other. I’m happy for that.
PLAYBOY: Didn’t you meet Jimmy at the Friars Club Roast for Hugh Hefner?
SILVERMAN: That’s right, I totally forgot about that. [Laughs.] The existence of Playboy is the reason why I spent the last six-plus years of my life with Jimmy Kimmel.
PLAYBOY: Was it love at first sight?
SILVERMAN: He was married, so I met him and his wife that night. But I was totally impressed. I thought he was so great. He had a show called Crank Yankers and he hired me for it. I remember in the beginning, we kept going for the same joke. His brother Jonathan was producing Crank Yankers, and for some reason we were looking on the Internet for public domain songs about a certain topic. Jonathan said, “There are three thousand results,” and Jimmy and I both said at the same time, “Just give me the first thousand.”
PLAYBOY: Before you officially started dating, didn’t you and Jimmy watch a lot of movies together?
SILVERMAN: Yeah. This was after he separated from his wife. We were just friends, and he’d come over and we’d watch DVDs together. I can still remember our first kiss. We were watching Broadway Danny Rose. We were like nose-to-nose for what felt like forty minutes. Neither of us wanted to make the first move, we were so scared. And then we just started kissing and making out and fooling around. It got all hot and heavy and I was like, “Do you want to go to the bedroom?” And he’s like [in a soft voice] “Okay.” I walked down the hallway and into my bedroom, and I turn around and he’s standing in the doorway, totally naked.
PLAYBOY: He stripped down in a matter of seconds?
SILVERMAN: I don’t know how he got his clothes off in that amount of time. I’d never seen him naked before, so it was a little bit shocking. I was like, [gasping] “Oh!” And he goes, “Well, we’re definitely going to do it, right?” [Laughs.] Standing there naked, like a bear, it was too cute. And I remember afterwards, we had bonded over loving the same movie that nobody else has ever seen called The One and Only, and he quoted a line from it as he left. He was driving away and he yelled up to my window, “Don’t worry about me, I keep my mouth shut!”
PLAYBOY: Why do you think the relationship didn’t last?
SILVERMAN: [Long pause.] Sometimes loving each other isn’t enough. You have to be responsible for your own happiness. You can’t stay in a relationship because you’re afraid of the unknown. But I will always love him. Sometimes I think maybe we’ll die together in our old age or something. I don’t know.
PLAYBOY: Are you one of those couples that made a pact to get married if they’re still single when they’re fifty?
SILVERMAN: [Scrunches up her nose.] No, I’m not going to do that.
PLAYBOY: You have no interest in marriage?
SILVERMAN: I love going to weddings. And I love it when my friends get married. I’m not against marriage but it’s just not for me. I’m a vegetarian, but I don’t have a problem if you want a hamburger. Marriage, to me, is like eating meat. I think it’s gross and fucking crazy. It’s this super-barbaric, old-timey tradition that no one remembers that we don’t have to do anymore. First of all, why get the government involved in your love? And why would I become involved with something that doesn’t include everyone? If you’re getting married today, it’s the equivalent of joining a country club that doesn’t allow blacks or Jews.
PLAYBOY: What happens if gay marriage becomes legal? Would you reconsider marriage?
SILVERMAN: No, probably not. [Laughs.] When I fantasize about marriage or getting married, I’m really thinking about the party. I have no problem with the party aspect of a wedding.
PLAYBOY: You just don’t think love should be legally binding?
SILVERMAN: I don’t. But I believe in love! I’d like to find that person. I think Jimmy and I had every intention of spending the rest of our lives with each other. I love love. It’s my top priority. Jimmy will tell you. I’m a good girl.
PLAYBOY: You have a sentimental side?
SILVERMAN: I’m all sentimental. I’ve probably been ruined by romantic movies, but I really do believe in love. I’ve experienced it, I’ve had it, so I know it’s real.
PLAYBOY: You’re talking about your fling with Matt Damon, right?
SILVERMAN: [Laughs.] No. That was just about the sex.
PLAYBOY: The “I’m Fucking Matt Damon” video was such a monster hit for you. How did it originate?
SILVERMAN: It was supposed to be a surprise for Jimmy’s birthday. Jimmy ends all of his shows by saying “Sorry, Matt Damon, we ran out of time.” Because when he started doing his show, his first guest would literally be like the man with the longest leg hair. So he thought it’d be funny to name-drop the biggest movie star he could think of. And Matt Damon really loved it. The first time he came on the show, he told Jimmy, “I’ll come on, but I don’t want you to stop doing that bit.” So Jimmy’s cousin Sal and I and a writer named Tony Barbieri came up with the “I’m Fucking Matt Damon” idea for Jimmy’s birthday. We went to Miami, where Matt Damon lives, and spent three hours shooting at the Delano Hotel. We just shot and shot and shot and shot. It all happened that quick.
PLAYBOY: Did Jimmy have any idea what you were doing?
SILVERMAN: He knew I was in Florida, but he thought it was for a standup tour. Even though I knew it was for his sake, I felt riddled with guilt. I hated lying to him. I was so nervous about it. I don’t feel comfortable doing that at all. And then his birthday show never happened because of the writers strike, and the video was on the shelves for months. Jimmy ended up doing his show’s fifth anniversary just as the strike was coming to an end, and I was like, “Fuck this. I’ve been walking on eggshells for too long. I can’t lie to him anymore. I’m gonna show it to him tonight.”
PLAYBOY: And you managed to keep it a secret up until the video had its world premiere?
SILVERMAN: I don’t know how, but I did. Before the show we were in his dressing room, both brushing our teeth, and he was like, “I’m so excited. Everybody says this video is amazing.” And I felt bad. I just felt like his expectations were way too high. I said, “Jimmy, I don’t want to disappoint you. It’s a funny video, but that’s all it is.”
PLAYBOY: Little did you realize.
SILVERMAN: Yeah, he was blown away. He tried to act angry when the cameras were back on him, but watching him while he watched it for the first time, he had this huge grin on his face.
PLAYBOY: “I’m Fucking Matt Damon” went on to become hugely popular on the Internet. Is that something you could ever duplicate again?
SILVERMAN: It was definitely a fluke. I absolutely think it was well done and I’m very proud of it. But, when I did “The Great Schlep” [a campaign that urged young Jews to visit their grandparents in Florida and encourage them to vote for Obama], I knew that they [the Jewish Council for Education and Research] enlisted me because of the Damon thing. And I remember telling them, “I’m psyched to do this, but please lower your expectations. ‘I’m Fucking Matt Damon’ had a movie star in it. And it had a song with a catchy melody and the word ‘fuck’ in it. That’s a formula I can’t repeat every time.”
PLAYBOY: It’s been said that all musicians want to be comics…
SILVERMAN: … and all comics want to be musicians. Yeah, I think that’s true. There’s a part of me that wants to be a serious musician. I love songs about heartache and heartbreak. Do you ever listen to Patty Griffin? I just adore her. [Sighs.] I wrote this song, nothing as good as Patty Griffin would write, but it’s more heartfelt than what I usually do.
PLAYBOY: Do you have any plans to record it?
SILVERMAN: Oh god, no. I would neeeeeever do it. There’s nothing lamer than a comedian taking himself seriously.
PLAYBOY: Would you let somebody else record it?
SILVERMAN: I want to get one of those teen pop girls to sing it. If I could get Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus to do it, that would be amazing. Cause it’s about teen angst. It’s about a teen girl wanting to be an adult. If I did it, it’d just be lame. But I think it’d really be cool if people were like, “You know that new Miley Cyrus song? The comedian Sarah Silverman wrote it.” That would be awesome.
PLAYBOY: Does the song have a title yet?
SILVERMAN: Not really. I might call it… “I Could Do That Too”, maybe. [Long pause, and then breaks into an embarrassed smile.] Naw, that’s not the name.
PLAYBOY: It sounds like the song exposes a raw nerve. Do you feel uncomfortable sharing too much of yourself without the comedy detachment?
SILVERMAN: Yeah, but I also think that as much as there are no rules, there are certain rules. The second you take yourself seriously or show that you’re taking yourself seriously, it’s not funny. It’s a comedy killer.
PLAYBOY: But if you’re not trying to be funny, why does it matter?
SILVERMAN: I don’t know. [Long pause.] Some things are just for private, you know? It’s like people thinking I’m cold or this or that. It’s unfortunate, but I don’t need strangers to know that I’m warm. [Laughs.] I don’t need strangers to know the real me.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the April 2010 issue of Playboy.)