Funny-girl Sarah waxes lyrical
Sarah Silverman, the star of Disney's new movie, sits down with Donal Lynch to chat about mental health, bad jokes, beauty catastrophes, children and her desire to be the 'fun dad'
'So… am I everything you imagined?" Sarah Silverman asks as she curls up in an oversized armchair at the Merrion Hotel. I want to say yes, but, in fact, she seems a little too much on the money of the Sarah Silverman brand to be quite real: that slightly helium-inflected voice, the whimsical woman-child musings, the winsome body language - it's all so perfectly observed you half-wonder if she's an impersonator. Yes! My God, you are onto me, the real her is much surlier," she laughs. "Don't tell anyone: I'm her body double, I do all her interviews, while she sleeps."
Which might work, except, of course, probably no stand-in could be as effortlessly funny as she is. Silverman is, of course, a comedy icon in America, a stalwart of Saturday Night Live, a Simpsons cameo and a stand-up legend, but somehow it's in interviews - unscripted and improvised - where her instinctive, playful wit shines the brightest. You can see why she hit it off with a talk show host like Jimmy Kimmel, whom she dated for years. Today she's on a hardcore publicity treadmill, but still seems effervescently enthusiastic in tiny slices of access.
She's in town to promote her new film - Ralph Breaks The Internet - a cleverly written animated feature about the limits of friendship and the neuroses the internet infects us with. It centres around Wreck It Ralph and Vannellope - impish renegades from 1990s-era arcade games - who venture out into the information superhighway in search of the same things we all want: cash and affirmation. The animation - at once highly realistic and fantastical - is eye-popping and the mischievous humour in Silverman's girlish voice was aided, she says, by the freedom the directors gave her and co-star John C Reilly (who voices Ralph) to improvise when the urge took them. "The directors let us be so loose together. We could really play the scene and react to each other. There are bits that may go above the kids' heads. The internet kind of happened to us and it brought out things in us that were always there, but maybe it made them even worse than they were. Just take, for example, the fact that the 'bad guy' in the film is really Ralph's own insecurities; that's the story of the internet - it's us versus ourselves."
One of the central messages of the film is that seeking fulfilment in another person - even a platonic friend - is not the way to go. Silverman tells me that her mother taught her early on that she had to be, first and foremost, her own best friend. It was something that sustained her through a sometimes difficult childhood in New Hampshire, where hers was the only Jewish family for miles. As a child, she was a chronic bed wetter - she made it the title of her autobiography - and would have to carry the shameful secret of a spare pampers in her bag to sleepover camps. In her teens, she would suffer from crippling depression - by the age of 14 she was taking 16 Xanax a day. When her stepfather asked what it was like to be depressed, she replied: "I feel homesick."
The silver lining to all this was that coming out of the depression, which she finally did in her late teens, gave her a new-found appreciation of the little things in life. "I remember driving in a cab and just feeling appreciative, for instance, of the wind on my face," she recalls. "I was in Los Angeles and I was on my way to get my eyebrows waxed. My roommate had said, hey, why don't we get your brows done, so there are, you know, two: one for each eye. And I was like "mmm, I guess, OK" and we went to the place in the cab and there was this lady in the waiting room and she said "Sarah?" and I was following her into the waxing room and she turns around and goes "what are we doing today? Just the moustache?" And I was like "What?! No! My eyebrows!" And inside I was thinking, "what is she talking about? I bleach my moustache, that means it's completely invisible". And it was, as in 'bright yellow invisible'. And she did the wax and when I came out of the salon, I could feel this strange new sensation; the wind on my upper lip. So yeah, maybe it was coming out of depression that made me appreciate it, or maybe it was just not being as hairy any more."
After school, she enrolled in the drama course at New York University and started doing open-mic nights all over the city. At 22, she got hired as a writer-performer for Saturday Night Live, where she lasted only a season (Bob Odenkirk - Saul from Breaking Bad and a writer on SNL - once said that her voice was too idiosyncratically her own to last at the show). The mental health difficulties would continue to stalk her - she began suffering from panic attacks. She was prescribed medication which helped, she says, and she made her mental health issues a staple of her stand-up. During these years, she says, she spent "many years bombing in clubs and staying in terrifying motels", but in 2005, her one-woman show, Jesus Is Magic, was made into a film, which won her national attention. On the stand-up tour in support of the film, she uttered the immortal line: "I was raped by a doctor. Which is, you know, so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.
"There are so many jokes I make that I cringe at, that I would never make today," she says,ruefully shaking her head. "Comedy ages like nothing else. I see things now I said and I think, yeah, that's real problematic, but that is the nature of life, and it's worth it for me if I reflect on it and I acknowledge it and am forever changed by it, which I can say was the case with some of the things I said."
What about the things that were said to her? One of the more interesting moments in her career came five years ago at the Roast of James Franco, where she and Jonah Hill sparred viciously with each other from the stage. He and Seth Rogen portrayed Silverman as some kind of Hollywood crone. "Sarah [Silverman] is a role model for every little girl who's ever dreamed of being a 58-year-old, single, stand-up comedian with no romantic prospects on the horizon. They all dream of it, but Sarah did it," said Hill. "No, but listen, I was brutal to Jonah," she says, when I remind her. "I defend to the death all those jokes they made about me."
But surely he was genuinely fat, whereas you weren't genuinely old, I venture. "Yeah, but really he was bracing himself for fat jokes, whereas I wasn't bracing myself for old jokes, because I didn't know I was old. I wasn't even the oldest one on the raised platform. I think everyone has to go to bed for a few days after a roast and lick their wounds."
And to say she had no romantic prospects was, itself, so laughably far off the mark, it could hardly have necessitated too long recovering in bed. From 2002 she dated chat show host Jimmy Kimmel, famously poking fun at him in a video she made with Matt Damon, called "I'm f**king Matt Damon" - a reference to a mock feud the two men were carrying on. For the last few years, she had been dating Welsh actor Michael Sheen (he of the almost supernatural ability to channel Tony Blair) but they split earlier this year. She says she has pretty much resigned herself to not having children. "I do love kids but then I never had them because I chose… me," she explains winsomely. "If I had had a partner who wanted to be the primary caretaker, I think that would have been the best of both worlds. More often than not, it's men who get to experience that. I'd love to be, like, the 'fun Dad', that would be amazing. As much as I really love kids, the only thing I love more is doing anything I want at all times."
She explains that she got adoption advice from one of the elder stateswomen of Hollywood. "When I first met Diane Keaton, whom I worship, obviously, who doesn't, I had heard that she adopted at 50 and I said to her "you know, I always based my plan around you, to adopt when I'm 50" and she said, "don't do it! It's exhausting!" Now I think she wouldn't take it back for a second and she worships and adores her child, but she was also being hilariously honest. I do get to be an auntie now and I'm at the point in my career where there are a number of young comics who call me Ma, so that's nice too."
She is unusually politically active for a comic; during the 2008 presidential election, she helped mobilise young Jewish people to prevail on their Florida-resident elder family members to vote for Obama, in what was described as The Great Schlep. She's spoken out against Trump and been vocal on the MeToo movement, although some criticised her for saying she wasn't bothered by Louis CK masturbating in front of her (she said that, since there was no power differential between them and he was a friend, she didn't consider it abuse). At times, the criticism of her various stances has curdled into something more malevolent. "I do get death threats - because of my persona, my comedy, my politics," she says. "But also just because there are a lot of nasty people on the internet. The Russians infiltrated our election, we know this as truth. Their goal was to create chaos. And to turn ourselves against each other and they succeeded. We live in real contentious times. I also live in a country where we didn't teach mental health, or empathy to our kids, and all these things have combined to create a lot of misplaced rage and anger. But I'm fine. I mean, I might get murdered soon, but right now I feel fine."
She will be 48 a few days after we meet, but like a Jewish Benjamin Button, appears to be ageing backwards; in the gauzy, early afternoon light she could be in her 20s. "I'm going to have a handful of my closest friends, we'll have a little pufferoni (she is an unashamed weed aficionado) and then we'll walk to a restaurant and celebrate. It'll be cool. I'm just amazed I made it this far."
'Ralph Breaks The Internet' is in cinemas nationwide now
Three other women who changed modern comedy
Quentin Crisp once said of Kathy Griffin's heroine, Joan Rivers, "we laugh at what she does, we weep for what she is". Anyone who beheld Griffin's enormous Bel Air mansion (Kim and Kanye are neighbours) during the long-running reality show My Life On The D-List won't have wept too hard for her, but still the sight of this comedy legend constantly presenting herself as a victim - of the tabloid media, the patriarchy, or Donald Trump - may have caused us to wince slightly. Perhaps they can cast their minds back to a time when Griffin was a genuine comedy innovator and one of the biggest stand-up acts of the Noughties.
With her cute, "cabbage patch doll" face and sweet manner, people never really saw Amy Schumer coming, as far as black humour was concerned. But those who heard her stone-cold takedowns during the Roast of Mike Tyson knew this was a comedy legend in the making. A comedy central show, worldwide fame and friendship with Madonna followed, and now she makes more money per comedy special than any comedienne in history.
Like Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho made her mother a long-running joke in her act, to hilarious effect. This sardonic San Franciscan also became the first Asian-American with a prime time sitcom (All-American Girl) and, again, like Griffin, unashamedly embraced her 'fag hag' status. She is a true comedy icon.
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