There’s a Whole Lot More to Sarah Silverman Than You Think
When I Smile Back premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this January, we asked whether Sarah Silverman—”a woman who once sang “I’m F*@#ing Matt Damon” on her real boyfriend’s late-night talk show”—could summon the subtlety to act in serious drama about self-destruction. “Apparently,” was our response then. Absolutely is the answer now.
Watching Smile, which which hits select theaters next month and played last week at the Toronto International Film Festival, it’s clear Silverman’s gifts extend beyond cracking wise in front of an audience of strangers. As wife and mother Laney Brooks, the lauded comic is far more tragic than funny (although she does manage to squeeze in some great one-liners). Laney is an addict. She does lines of coke on the kitchen table, drinks vodka until dizziness nestles in, and repeatedly cheats on her husband, played by Josh Charles.
Adapted from Amy Koppelman’s 2008 novel, director Adam Salky’s film allows Silverman the space to work out this unnerving material. The movie demands a lot from the stand-up and actress, and she delivers. Under the direction of a different performer, Laney would be unwatchable and her inability to break away from bad behavior uninteresting. But by some stroke of magic, Silverman elicits an unusual mixture of empathy, admiration, disgust, and frustration. And what better sign of a quality actress than someone producing a flurry of conflicting emotions?
WIRED sat down with Silverman, who you can also currently see in another great turn as Helen on Masters of Sex, during TIFF to talk about her dark turn in Smile, the myth of “depressed” comics, and the boys club of comedy.
Silverman the Actress
As a stand-up comic, Silverman’s material is often rife with dark, sardonic humor that makes the audience simultaneously shudder and laugh. It seems, then, that her performance in I Smile Back is merely a natural offshoot of her comedic sensibilities. Wrong. “It couldn’t be more different, but there are these odd parallels,” she says. Watching our protagonist remain mired in her degenerative patterns is an infuriating experience, and one that Silverman creatively believes in. “That’s what’s interesting about her,” she says. “I think people are gonna walk away from it and have very different views of the movie and who she is, if she’s sympathetic or she’s a fucking asshole.” It’s a credit to Silverman’s abilities as an actress that Laney ends up being both.
Debunking the “Depression” Myth of Stand-Ups
Much has been written and said characterizing comedians as melancholic types. Silverman admits that she’s “experienced with depression, and I’m a comedian, so I’m surrounded by addiction.” She can relate with Laney, but she believes it’s “partly romantic the idea that comedians are these depressed, dark creatures, but it’s a stereotype because there’s some truth in it.” She pauses for a moment. “I mean, look, we drop like flies.”
On Staying Alive
Since the inception of career—which began in 1992—she has yet to fall like one of those flies. “Some people live to be Don Rickles and Joan Rivers, and some people have way-too-early terrible ends that are are frustratingly whimsical,” she explains. She elaborates: “Suicide and overdose are things that if they waited 20 minutes before they made that final decision, maybe they’d have changed their mind, but maybe that’s just me being…” Silverman doesn’t finish that sentence. Instead, she simply looks me in the eye and concedes she’s “spiraled and seen no hope”—even recently.
Researching and Relating to Her Characters
Silverman says she “liked the grey matter” of the character. The goodness and badness of this person is what most attracted Silverman to this role, and she identifies. “I know that kind of medication that makes you want to go off of it and self-medicate,” she says. But what she dove into was “that process of detoxing.” She continues, “sometimes I see people doing stuff on screen and I say, ‘You only know of that from television and movies.’ And we’ve all seen that detoxing scene, and I wanted it to be as real as possible.”
On the ‘Boy’s Club’ of Comedy
In a recent Vanity Fair spread Trevor Noah—the incoming replacement for Jon Stewart at The Daily Show—said that “women are more powerful in comedy than men.” While we can hope that’s true, comedy has been dominated by males since forever. So much so that many have derided it as a “boy’s club.” Silverman has a different spin on this. “When I first started out, it was still pretty much a boy’s club,” she says. “Now, if you’re a white guy standup, things aren’t so easy. Women run comedy.” We both laugh in agreement that this is more than OK. It’s about damn time. She continues, “The only remnant of comedy being a boy’s club is that question.” The people dominating comedy today, as she sees it, are “Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler, and Tig, and Natasha Ligero, and Jen Kirkman, and Chelsea Handler, and Chelsea Peretti.”
In contemplating why it is that men have controlled comedy for so long, she opines: “The reason for that historically is because men get girls for being funny if they’re not an Adonis.” Conversely, “to get a boy, you don’t have to be funny.” Wait, does she truly buy that rationale? She does. “I still think that women who became comics do so in very organic ways,” she says. “It’s a survival skill, it’s a defense mechanism, it’s a way to survive childhood.”
The Origins of Silverman’s Funny
Silverman was born funny. At a young age—”two or three”—she remembers her father teaching her profanity. “I would yell out swears, and all these adults would give me this wild approval despite themselves, and it felt like drugs.” She begins to laugh. “My arms inched, I was just addicted,” she says. “That shock I was addicted to when I was a toddler.” And that addiction to invoking shock persists in her work today.
Her Greatest Fear: Drunk People
When Silverman ambles around town, fans tend to yell her name. “People feel they grew up with me,” she says. “It’s nice, but it can also be overwhelming, and it’s probably fed my absolute phobia of drunk people.” Wait, what? “I don’t drink, I don’t have a palette for it, so it makes me nauseous before I get any of the fun stuff.” She confesses that “drunk people are terrifying” to her. “They’re very grabby, all their insecurities are put on you; if you look at them the wrong way, they’re like, ‘What?!’” she says. “It’s just the biggest bummer of an energy for me. If I’m at a party, as soon as that wave of everybody being drunk starts, I’m [snaps].”
The PC Culture in Comedy May Be Tough…
Whether comedy has become too politically correct is a topic that has financed the careers of many journalists. Publishing think pieces that often manage to be devoid of any thinking, it seems everyone has weighed in on the matter. Here’s Silverman: “I’m considered an ‘edgy comedian,’ but there are racial things in Jesus Is Magic, my special from 11 years ago, that I would absolutely not do today.” She goes on, “I don’t want to erase it from its history, having done it, but times change, and you have to change with the times, and it may seem like a burden, but you’ll get used to it quickly. For instance, I used to say, That’s so gay. Well, that is so gay.” A popular saying about five years ago, but as a retort to homophobic accusations she would say, “I don’t mean that, I love gay people! I’m from Boston.”
Silverman has taken the pragmatic approach many seem unwilling to take. Unprompted, she expressed her feelings with even more lucidity and poignancy. “It’s not hard to stop saying ‘gay,’ it took me two seconds,” she says. “You have to change with new information, straight up. On one hand, you’re always going to offend someone with material and you have to go with your own personal compass, but you also have to live in the world. You know, there are racial, black racial jokes that I did in Jesus Is Magic that today I would feel nauseous saying because back then we weren’t living in a time where we were hearing about white cops murdering black teenagers every day. It was happening, but I wasn’t aware of it. So at least I was ignorant, but I can’t be ignorant of that.”
…But Cellphones Might Be Worse
So, Silverman is more than willing to update her material for this “new time in history” but she sees something else as being more detrimental to the comedy experience than being culturally sensitive: smartphones. “Comics or people go, ‘Ugh, you’re so PC, I can’t even go to colleges!’” she says. “For me, my only problem with colleges is that they’re just a sea of cellphones. Comedy is such a group experience that it’s a bummer to be talking to a bunch of empty vessels through which Facebook expresses itself. But in terms of PC stuff, I do think it is important to change with the times, and it’s not so fucking hard and inconvenient as you think.”
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