This article originally appeared in the April 2002 issue of playboy magazine.
Sarah Silverman always knew she wanted to be a lady of the evening. “Comedians work nights,” she says. And she’s never had a day job. As a 17-year-old high school student, the New Hampshire native traveled south to regular stand-up dates in Boston. A year of college followed, but at an age when most young people are settling into entry-level jobs, Silverman landed a position at the top of the business, as a writer on Saturday Night Live.
The job lasted one season. Was her mouth the reason her contract wasn’t renewed?
Silverman hazards unconventional opinions on issues such as abortion, and she’s not always politically correct. She is vocal about her fascination with erogenous zones (she says her vagina is a favorite one). Did she expose herself or masturbate onstage at a Montreal comedy festival? The consensus is that she did neither, though she left that impression.
Silverman’s television appearances include Star Trek: Voyager, The Larry Sanders Show (where she drew on her SNL experience to play a writer) and Seinfeld. On the big screen she opened Way of the Gun with a memorable foul-mouthed sequence. She currently plays a network executive (she describes her character as “neurotic”) on the new Fox show Greg the Bunny, which depicts a workplace–a television show–where people and the puppets who supposedly work for them engage in bare-knuckle office politics. And Silverman insists she remains true to her stand-up roots by mouthing off regularly at the Los Angeles Improv.
Contributing Editor Warren Kalbacker caught up with Silverman in New England. Kalbacker recalls, “Before we met she warned me she’d probably say vagina often during our conversation. And she did. But at one point she became quite sentimental. She confided how much she missed her dog, and then she brought out snapshots of him.”
Have you ever had your mouth washed out with soap?
No. I didn’t get punished because my dad thought it was funny to teach us to swear. Some of the first things he taught me were bitch, bastard, damn and shit. I was probably four or five and I’d scream them in the local market. He thought it was hilarious. I was the innocent vessel through which he was able to say anything. My dad says fuck, like, every other word, but my mom swears once in a blue moon. She’ll not swear for years and then one day go, “Come on, fucker!” and everyone is slack-jawed.
We can’t resist borrowing from the Playmate Data Sheet. Please tell us about your ambitions, turn-ons and turnoffs.
I want to have a million kids and be happy but also be a model. My turn-ons are my boyfriend, teddy bears and fast cars. I like chubby guys–smart and funny chubby nerds–because I feel I can rock their world. I don’t like liars or closed-minded people, nor those who judge others, racism and pink with red. There is one thing more. I’m one of the rare women who’s attracted to men who adore me. And it always impresses me when a man believes he deserves love. It’s a total turn-on. So many women and men I know are turned off by anyone who truly adores them. I’m surrounded by self-loathing comics. You can’t appreciate being loved when you’re that way.
Do you and your sister, the one who is a rabbi, discuss the fact that in many religious traditions old men tell the rest of us when–and mostly when not–to have sex?
I associate that kind of sex-hang-up stuff with Catholicism. My last boyfriend–whom I love–is Catholic. We’d have sex and then afterward I’d say, “What we did was a good thing, right?” I’d try to get to him before he quailed into himself in shame. I talk about sex with my sister the rabbi. She’s super-duper crazy Reform. All my sisters kibitz about sex. We tell each other everything. If any guy has an affair with a Silverman sister, the three others know everything that goes on, beat by beat. We can tell each other any intimate, graphic detail about what’s going on sexually.
Not long ago you were cited for an infraction of the political correctness code. Is it the duty of comics to irritate politically correct types?
I think so. I got nailed last summer for saying Chink on Conan O'Brien’s show. I have two feelings on political correctness, which are opposite of each other. Political correctness is good on the one hand because it’s an attempt at awareness and racial fairness. It’s not just that people badmouth a group, it’s the ideas behind it that propel hurtfulness. On the other hand, political correctness can end up being closed-mindedness. Sometimes the reason people are uptight or self-conscious about political correctness is not others’ skin color–we’re all the same underneath–but because they ask, “What are people going to think of me?” Or, more important, “I’m going to get letters!” The fact that NBC immediately apologized after I said the word Chink on Conan was not because they stand on a high moral ground, but because they were responding to letters and advertisers. That kind of political correctness is sickening. It’s founded on nothing but money and superficiality.
As someone who has voiced admiration for sex workers, do you view the recent publication of several call girl and stripper memoirs as evidence of a new respect for these women’s choice of occupation?
I’ve wanted to be a stripper ever since I was molested. There isn’t anything I don’t love about strippers–except that their butts have a metal pole smell. There is a lot of power in stripping. The cliché about strippers being molested is true, and stripping gives them their one chance to have control over men. Women really run the porn industry. They make the most money. It’s the opposite in the rest of the world. Prostitution and stripping are direct forms of whoring, while almost every other job is an indirect form. I have to believe that it’s the same in any kind of business–in offices and certainly in show business. There’s the ass-kissing and the lack of individual opinions out of fear. You know the way fear motivates people who have higher-ups. That kind of stuff is a lot grosser than stripping.
Count any strippers among your friends?
Yeah. Comics and strippers have a close bond that I would guess goes back to burlesque. Most of my friends are comics, and guy comics are always going out with strippers. I don’t think it’s just because strippers are hot–there’s other common ground. They’re both night jobs. The kinds of people you’re entertaining are similar. I’ve been a comic since I was 19 and I’ve also been exposed to a lot of porn. Lots of my guy friends have porn stacked to the ceiling, and it’s hard to not indulge in that every once in a while. I have a friend who has so much porn he’s had to go to Brazilian gay porn just to keep up the intrigue. And he’s straight. He made me promise that if he dies I will break into his house and take out all the porn so his mom won’t find it. I also have a friend who wrote some porn scripts, and he took me to a porn set in LA. It’s funny how quickly it seems just like any other set. You can watch actual sex happening 10 feet in front of you, but you end up loitering around the craft service table, the treat table. That’s where you get the doughnuts, and on this particular set, there was also a bowl of condoms.
I’m totally a girl. I just don’t wear it as a badge.
You were hired several years ago as a writer for Saturday Night Live. Tell us a true tale of the writers’ room.
I was there in 1993 and 1994. I still watch SNL and root for it. Monday we would pitch to the host. Usually you’d just pitch a one-line thing that would get a laugh in the room and then write something else. What’s funny as a one-sentence pitch is not necessarily funny as a full-length sketch, and you’ve probably seen evidence of that on many SNL shows. Then you write all day Tuesday and through the night. I just loved staying overnight, that feeling of being in the building with people in the hours when you’re usually sleeping. My office was right next door to a writer named Ian Maxtone-Graham. Ian went to Brown, so he got teased by the Harvard guys, but he was still a big university snob to the comics. He had a drawer full of fresh boxer shorts and rolled-up socks. I was such a bully. Halfway through Tuesday nights I’d break into his office and take fresh shorts and socks and change into them because they were more comfortable. And never did we exchange acknowledgment of that between us. I would walk down the hall and he would see me in his big boxer shorts and tube socks and I would look at him like, Say something! And he never did. I think I secretly liked him.
You’ve appeared on Conan O'Brien’s show a number of times over the past few years. He doesn’t seem to mind when you put your feet on the furniture. Is there something that we should know about you and Conan?
This is what a cocky motherfucker I am. I love Conan and we’re friends and I love all the writers there. He’s special and really cool, but I always had a boyfriend. My boyfriend and I were taking a step back the last time I did the show. My girlfriend Heidi, who I always take to Conan’s show, called and said she was going with me. And I told her, “Heidi, you can come along, but after the show we may go to dinner and I think I might make out with Conan, so you may want to make yourself scarce.” So I’m in my dressing room and I’m trying to look hot, and Conan comes in and I’m, like, totally flirting. You can take some of these totallys out, by the way. And he says, “Guess what? I got engaged.” And I immediately say, “That’s great.” It wasn’t sincere. And Heidi was sitting right there, her body shaking with happiness over how humiliated she knew I was. But I really am happy for him. Totally.
If you suddenly decided to switch careers from comedy to serious TV journalism, would you be worried that someone might uncover embarrassing Sarah Silverman photographs?
There are some naked pictures of me and a roommate in a bathtub. Our third roommate took them. I think we were on acid. We believe she has them, but we’re pretty sure she’s dead. She was a crack whore. She went from this preppy, Midwestern Asian girl who used a curling iron in the morning to a total coke-whore horror. She was still Asian, though. She had boyfriends who were coke guys, and we’d come home and she’d be passed out naked in the bathroom, or the cops would carry her home after she passed out in the street.
We’ve heard you described as the kind of woman who acts like “one of the guys.” Are you fed up with that phrase?
Yeah. It feels cheeseball. I do play basketball, and I like sports. My last couple of boyfriends have described me this way: as dykey as you can get without being a lesbian. But I’m totally a girl. I just don’t wear it as a badge. I love fashion and outfits and go through the magazines. I read In Style.
You’ve played poker for years. Are you ahead or behind?
I’m probably even. I have played my entire adult life. My dad has played every Tuesday since before I was born, so I picked it up through osmosis. It’s a bunch of guys and me, and there are a couple of women who also play. One time I was playing poker in New York and it was all old boyfriends and my current boyfriend around the table. I’m the best host because I have the best treats. I tend to lose when I host, because I’m so scattered and focused on hosting. I deal pretty well. I know how to call the cards. I set up the table with chips in $40 amounts, because people usually buy in 40. And I have a separate table where there are always red vines–licorice–and green spearmint leaf candy, Jelly Bellys, Hot Tamales and Good & Plentys. I always have popcorn, and we order a couple of pizzas. Dealer calls the game. I tend toward three, two, one, which is a form of Anaconda where you get seven cards and you pass three to your left and then two to the next person and then one to the third person over–all the time receiving the ones passed from the other side. It’s a high-low game. Joints go around. I usually get really stoned. You have to keep yourself in check when you’re high, because you tend to stay in way too long.
Was high schooler Sarah Silverman a prom date from hell?
My sophomore year I went with some poor guy. I had no interest. Cerry and I were best friends, and we were way too cool for the prom by senior year. Besides, I was in love with my history teacher. I wasn’t interested in anybody else. He got married early on in my love for him, which was devastating. It was a joke at school that I was in love with him. Everybody knew, and I played it up, but the truth was that I would cry myself to sleep over him. I had missed three months of my freshman year. I had no illness, but I went into a deep depression. Once I met him I never missed a day of school again. I would go to school and say, “Hey, Mr. Berk, how’s Mrs. Berk’s health?” I was so impressed that he was Jewish and Russian and Polish, just like me. I just couldn’t believe it. He was just totally cool.
Ex-boyfriends seem to stay in your life. Should we read something into this?
They’re probably my best friends. The fact that we’re still good friends is proof that I really loved them. I was 19 when I lost my virginity, and I went crazy with sex because that’s what you do when you first start having sex. All the sex was with people I still know. Luckily they’re wonderful people. Women comics tend to go out with guy comics because they’re peers and they’re funny and they can relate. The first time I had sex I was a professional comic having sex with a professional comic. All my sexual experiences were with comics or comedy writers. For comics their whole life is about finding what’s funny and laughing. It’s a common dysfunction that bonds you in that world. I’d like to go out with a teacher or someone else, but they’d have to be funny.
Do you share your bed with your dog?
I sleep with him. His name is Duck. He’s like a hot-water bottle. Going to bed and waking up in the morning are my favorite times of day because of him. I speculate he’s half pug, half Chihuahua. I got him from a shelter. He’s a perfect pet. I didn’t want to become a dog person. My sister had a dog first, and I’d watch her pick up his shit and found it fucking disgusting. But I’m aware of my partner’s comfort. Duck is either between us or I can put him on my side of the bed or by my feet. He stays anywhere you put him. He will also not sleep on the bed if I want. He has a little basket.
Americans are great consumers of antidepressants. As one who’s taken a prescription drug or two over the years, do you see implications for comedy in psychopharmacology?
A lot of comics fear finding balance through therapy or antidepressants because they’re afraid their source of comedy is pain. Comics romanticize their bitterness, their unhappiness and their self-loathing. I guess some people can’t be funny if they’re happy. I understand it, but I can be happy and still find the source of humor that suits me best. And I’m happier when I’m funny. If I weren’t on antidepressants I’d probably be avidly against them. I certainly worry about the long-term effects. I don’t know if it’s appropriate for me to point out, but my entire immediate family is on antidepressants. There’s definitely a chemical imbalance that runs in our family. My father had a violent temper until he started taking Zoloft, and now he’s a different man. I’ve also had awful experiences. I had severe depression and panic attacks when I was 13 or 14, and when I did Saturday Night Live the panic came back like a dark cloud. An ex-boyfriend took good care of me, and I’ll always be grateful to him. I ultimately hooked up with someone who put me on Klonopin. It worked in a day to stop the panic attacks. I ended up getting half the cast of Saturday Night Live on Klonopin that year. It really saved us. Then I weaned myself off it. Now I’m on Zoloft. That’s my drug story. We have great insurance, thanks to the Screen Actors Guild.
Vagina is a funny word. Vagina makes me giggle. Vagina.
We have it on good authority that comics hold back some of their most outrageous material. Do you professionals have a higher laughter threshold than the rest of us?
To actually laugh we have to go so much further than anything we could ever bring into a club. It’s got to be so awful, you say, “Oh my God, you’re going to hell.” And I hope the world never gets so jaded that people would actually want to hear it. It’s stuff that’s taboo. It’s anything racist, anything about AIDS, anything gay, anything about cocksucking or about your mother being a whore. When I was a teenager if I saw the word pussy in print, I would be titillated for days. Now it takes fantasy beyond anything I would want in reality–a joke about four gay midgets and a bear–to do anything for me. With comics that’s the way it is. We sit in comedy clubs all night long, and even if someone’s funny we just go, “Oh, that’s good.” I envy uptight Catholic right wingers who are so easily turned on by any sinful thought.
You had guest roles on Larry Sanders and Seinfeld, two shows that have been acclaimed as television’s most literate. Do you secretly want to jiggle along with Pamela Anderson on VIP?
Larry Sanders was the greatest show you could ever do. But I did a VIP last summer, and I swear to God I had a blast. I love that shit. My agent wasn’t even going to call me about the offer. All my friends give me shit about it, but I find Pamela Anderson totally compelling. She’s the executive producer and she lets things be really loose. She wears nine-inch heels and I don’t know how she does it. On the show I played a prisoner and they get me out because they think I can lead them to Nero the diamond thief. But instead I take them on a wild-goose chase. I was definitely a little butch, but they made me pretty. In the prison I wore a white T-shirt with blue jump pants and I got into fights with the big sis. And, of course, outside I wore these great outfits–cute little tops and bottoms and giant chunky heels. I’m asking, “Where does my character get the outfits?” The wardrobe woman just said, “It’s VIP.”
Does size matter, really?
Yes. My rabbi sister is going to kill me about this, but even she said that if her husband didn’t have a big dick they would just be friends. Next question.
Would you honor us with a vagina monolog?
I am so obsessed with the word vagina and vaginas in general that when we were doing Greg the Bunny I would yell “Vagina!” every time we were about to shoot. I’m sure somebody could say the obsession comes from wanting to go back to the womb and the plight of the female gender, but I’m going with the fact that it’s art to be interpreted by the viewer, listener or observer. Vagina is a funny word. Vagina makes me giggle. Vagina.
Can you set the word fuck in the context of American language and culture?
Yesterday my sister Susie and I were in the car and a woman driver cut us off and I went, “Fucking cunt!” And Susie said, “Sarah, don’t say the word fucking.” Then we laughed so hard. I’m sure that 50 years ago people were thinking, If everybody says “swell,” then what are we going to say next? There might be a certain amount of vacancy in a lot of lyrics today, but at the same time you can’t have censorship. Limitations put you in a position to be more creative. But limitations that make you more creative don’t have to come from censorship. They can come from any kind of oppression in any part of your life–on a grand scale, like the great art that comes from the Holocaust, or on a personal scale, from the context of your childhood or your life.