The Zen Wisdom of Sarah Silverman (2024)

“WHATEVER UR WORRIED ABOUT DOESN’T MATTER” reads a prominent sign on the wall behind Sarah Silverman’s desk in her Los Angeles office. In the three-plus decades since Silverman began performing onstage, she’s become an icon of standup comedy, an accomplished film and voice actress, a writer of an Off Broadway show, a best-selling author, a sharp political pundit, an honorary late-night-television host, an executive producer, and one of the world’s finest purveyors of potty humor. More recently, she’s also become a fount of Zen-like wisdom. On “The Sarah Silverman Podcast,” she counsels callers on whatever issue might be nagging them that day, whether it’s a failed relationship or attitudes toward French kissing. Usually, the advice boils down to something like: It’s not as bad as you think. “Everything always works out,” Silverman told me calmly last week.

We’d been discussing a pilot she’d shot just before the pandemic that HBO had commissioned but ultimately declined to pursue. It was a disappointment, like all stalled projects can be, but it ultimately made its way onto the list of things not worth worrying about. “I have no frustration about it,” Silverman said with a shrug. “It’s their channel.” Her personal life, though, has recently put this c’est la vie mind-set to the test. In May, Silverman’s stepmother, Janice, died of pancreatic cancer, and, just a few days later, her father—Donald Silverman, a charismatic clothing-store owner who looms large in her work—passed away from kidney-related health issues. “My parents just died, so I’m not going to be, like, ‘You know, in the end, it was great!’” Silverman admits. But, if anyone understood the lifelong seesaw of love and grief, it was Donald Silverman. “It is the deal of life. My dad would always say, ‘It’s part of the deal,’” she told me. “But none of us can accept it.”

Silverman’s recent losses came during a period when she was readying her new standup special, “Someone You Love,” which premièred on HBO last Saturday. The fifty-two-year-old veteran comic likes to characterize herself as a gig worker—someone who enjoys collecting odd jobs in entertainment—and “Someone You Love” is just her fourth standup special. It will feel instantly familiar to anyone who’s followed her comedy, though. She’s as Sarah Silvermany as it gets, serving up her distinct flavor of mischievous, off-color humor delivered in wry, carefully measured bits. Recently, she spoke with me over Zoom. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I listened to the podcast episode where you discuss the death of your parents, and you included a snippet of a conversation between your father and your friend, the comedian Jeff Ross, recorded during the last stretch. Did you record everything at the end?

I recorded a bunch. My sister Susan and two of her daughters and her son were all there, staying there. My parents were in their condo, in bed, and then there’s a guest room. And everyone else was on couches and air mattresses. There’s stuff I recorded that I can’t even look at, because it’s, like... that’s not the stuff I want to remember now. But when Jeff came over I recorded it. They have such a special relationship, so I knew it would be nice.

Do you have a strong archival instinct in general? Are you a journal writer, or a record keeper?

I used to keep a journal. Now there are so many forms of journal in our lives. You can go through and be, like, “Oh, on this date in my phone or my calendar or Instagram page or whatever.” But lately, in the past few years, I’ve really been trying to take pictures when I’m with friends and stuff, to have. I’ve lost so many people, and I know that feeling of wishing you had something—a picture, or more tangible versions of memories. My mom always took pictures, constantly. And it was annoying, but we’re so grateful for it now. Of course, she’s in none of them. Finding a picture of my mom is like gold.

Did your dad get to see the live version of the show you recorded for the specials?

He’s seen me do standup over the years a ton of times, with a lot of this material in it. He didn’t see all of it. When I started the tour, I had thirty-six minutes. There are probably twenty new minutes that he hasn’t seen from me doing standup in town. He was exposed to lots of things. I’m not, like, “Oh, you didn’t see my last special!”

Can you talk about how and when this material took shape?

I never think about doing a special. I never write standup aiming for a special. I just never think about it. This is my fourth special, and I’ve been doing standup for thirty-three years! I did a pilot for HBO right before the pandemic, and part of that deal was a special. And then they didn’t pick up the pilot, but I still owed them a special. And then the pandemic happened, and I didn’t do standup for the longest I have ever gone without doing standup. And then standup came back. And we get a call [from HBO], like, “It’s time.” I’ve never owed a special like that. Usually, I’ll have an hour and someone says, “Can you do a special?” And I go, “Yeah, O.K.”

I had to assess what I had, take the stuff pre-pandemic and say, “Is this relevant? Is there a whole new meaning to a lot of this stuff?” I had to pick through it and build on that. I had to build it out on the road—which so many comics do, but I never did before. I had to work from show to show and figure it out. I’ll always wish I had a few more months, but even if I had a few more months I would wish I had a few more months. Having a deadline is helpful for me.

It’s interesting because I shot two nights. And the first night felt really stiff. The second night was super loose. And I got a couple heckles the second night, which were really fun, and in the moment. I thought, That’s going to be so cool in a special, to have all this unplanned audience stuff. But it really didn’t play. Even though it was totally off the cuff, it just doesn’t play that way.

But I do feel like this special feels very loose and natural, with some completely organic impromptu moments.

Definitely. I’ve always been very meticulous, but then meticulous in order to be loose. I know all the little nooks and crannies of a show, but then I can just throw it away and be loose. But it’s a controlled chaos. It’s like the Heisenberg principle. You do standup and, ironically, you do it in front of people. They’re part of it. But, as soon as the cameras are there, no matter how long you’ve been doing standup, something changes that makes it less organic. Over the years, I’ve learned to relax and let it be. I went in knowing, This will not be the best night of the tour. It just won’t be. And I have to be O.K. with that.

Nowadays, there’s a ton of stylizing that happens with standup specials. It almost seems as if there’s a race to see who can have the biggest-name director or the artsiest interludes.

I am of the belief that standup comedy needs to be the thing. And not cool shots. John Mulaney had this move in his new special, which I just watched. The camera goes through his legs, and it just starts the special. It’s really filmic, and there are some interesting choices. I know the director, Alex Timbers, who works on Broadway. It didn’t overpower it. But it was just a little neat thing. I like to have bookends—a little something at the beginning, and at the end. The standup just needs a plate to be on. It doesn’t need a million garnishes, in my opinion. I’m open to the standup-comedy-special form changing and growing, but, ultimately, you’re at a mike, and you’re just capturing it as simply as you can without getting in the way.

The Zen Wisdom of Sarah Silverman (2024)
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