SPECK OF DUST
Sarah Silverman Might Just Save Us All
After nearly dying, filming a Netflix special, and announcing a new talk show, Silverman is on a mission to get un-likeminded people to like each other. And it just might work.
“First of all, it’s like the best thing I’ve ever seen,” she raves. “But it’s such a horror movie.” The dystopian series chronicles what happens when a regressive patriarchy comes into power and strips away women’s reproductive rights. “It’s just terrifying that the flashbacks in the show is what we’re going through right now.”
Even crazier, I suggest, is that the Margaret Atwood book the series is based on was written in 1985.
“Listen,” Silverman says, reaching for a backpack she’s kept tucked under her seat. She points to a button pinned on it which reads “Keep Your Laws Off My Body.”
“This is my mom’s button from 1972,” she says. “It couldn’t be more appropriate today. My mom’s jewelry box was just all political pins. I have them all.”
She then does that Sarah Silverman thing where her lips purse and curl up slightly into a smirk and she shrugs her shoulders—but in a way that’s not dismissive and indicates that she thinks something is meaningful. “Everything circles back, you know?” she says. “The pendulum swings both ways, and that’s also a hopeful thing to know.”
Right now, Silverman is also kind of obsessed with being hopeful.
It’s not that she’s not furious. The comedian is famously political and was an outspoken supporter of Bernie Sanders and then Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, and has spent her career supporting and fighting for women’s reproductive rights.
Over the course of our conversation, in a Manhattan hotel room which happens to overlook construction on the Trump Parc building, she refers to Donald Trump and his “cronies” as oligarchs, power addicts, racists, and, with a gesture out the window to the Trump Parc sign, “that asshole.”
So she’s angry, sure, but she’s also on a more enlightened mission. Ambitiously, it’s to unite us. More practically, it’s to get us to understand each other.
As she says in her new Netflix comedy special Speck of Dust, “We’re breathing egos acting like we aren’t a speck of dust on a speck of dust on a speck of dust hurling through space.”
It connects with the still-germinating philosophy behind her recently announced Hulu series I Love You, America, in which she will discuss the current political and emotional landscape of the country.
“There are a lot of brilliant shows out there that are my favorite shows, but they connect with likeminded people,” she says. “My hope is to connect with un-likeminded people and expose to them, and to us, that we’re the same.”
To that end, Speck of Dust doesn’t mention the president at all. “It’s very affected by these times, but it’s not a bunch of Trump jokes,” she says.
Key segments of the special instead focus on issue-based comedy, like the preposterousness of state laws mandating that aborted fetuses have funerals, or one she’s been honing for years about the hypocrisy of laws governing the female body but not sperm—imagining what would happen if men had to have ultrasounds done to see the life in their testicles before jerking off.
She also talks about performing at a benefit for Lady Parts Justice and deciding to walk outside and talk to the protestors. Not to yell back at them. Just to talk.
It was an act that caught the attention of Megan Phelps-Roper, the granddaughter of Fred Phelps, the founder of the famed hate-speech-spewing Westboro Baptist Church. “She’s held signs that says ‘God Hates Fags,’” Silverman says. “She cheered at 9/11. Through social media her mind was completely opened and changed. She left. She escaped. And she’s amazing.”
Phelps-Roper read that Silverman had been talking to people who were protesting her. “She was so grateful,” Silverman says. “She hadn’t heard someone just not talk about black and white sides: ‘They’re awful, we’re great.’ You know?” She takes a beat and that smirk returns: “What I’m trying to say is I’m great.”
It’s not that reaching out to un-likeminded people—or a group of screaming protestors holding picket signs and shouting about how you’re an abomination into your face—is easy.
She’s the first to admit that she’s guilty of being the person boasting about how she’s right and you’re wrong and probably also an asshole. But remembering that issues aren’t always black and white, that people are often a byproduct of how they are raised, and, most importantly, that your opinions are not necessarily facts goes a long way.
She even has the perfect metaphor for describing it.
“When our defenses are up, our porcupine needles are up,” she says. “We’re not open. We’re in survival mode. I think that when you’re one-on-one with that first hug or hello with someone who may not like you—the first gesture of love, to be very hippy dippy—if you can get their porcupine needles down and yours too, you realize you’re not so different.”
Coming from, as her mother’s button certainly attests, a politically charged “bunch of liberal Democrat Jews” might in part explain how Silverman arrived at this mission. But it’s grown out of a bit of trauma-induced existentialism as well.
Last summer Sarah Silverman almost died.
“In fact,” she says, “it’s crazy that I didn’t die.”
She developed what she called a “freak case of epiglottitis,” which occurs when an abscess on your windpipe threatens to block airflow into your lungs.
It was a terrifying experience. She couldn’t be fully put to sleep because of her low blood pressure, but was drugged enough that she had no idea what was going on. Her hands had to be restrained so that she couldn’t pull out her breathing tube each time she came out of drug-induced sleep in a panic.
More, her near-death experience came after the deaths of her friends Harris Wittels and Garry Shandling, as well as her mom’s.
“I think also because I lost three really close people to me and almost died myself in the span of two years, what I learned more than anything is we’re ticking time bombs,” she says. “It’s not, ‘Look at the sunset! Can you believe it? Let’s enjoy every moment!’ Maybe there’s a part of me that has that. I think I’m maybe more grateful or happier or not sweating the small stuff as much.”
There’s a hilarious video of Silverman receiving anesthesia right before she has surgery that her “close friend and manager Amy had the total distaste to record” that plays at the end of Speck of Dust.
In it, Silverman is complaining that she’s not high enough, and proves it by literally explaining Brexit. Then, as she’s wheeled into the operating room, she jokingly shouts to boyfriend Michael Sheen, “I want to see other people!” And as the gurney rounds the corner: “Play this in slow motion on my death reel!”
But there’s another video shot during that time that isn’t part of the special.
Unbeknownst to Silverman, her sister took a video of her recovering with the breathing tube, writing and trying to communicate. “That was the most jarring,” Silverman says. “You wouldn’t believe I’m alive today, watching it.”
Her arms are tied down, but they gave her a pencil to write with. Her sister and her friend Stephanie try to figure out what she’s struggling to write, and she gets frustrated. Her eyes are open and she’s awake in the video, but Silverman has no recollection of it—nor almost anything that happened at that time because she was so drugged out.
“I cried when I saw it,” she says. “It took them about 12 minutes to realize that I was asking if Michael was scared.”
She does that thing again, where she sort of tilts her head and shrugs her shoulders, a tick that presents itself each time she says something especially poignant during our conversation.
There’s a line in Speck of Dust, I tell her after this, that I take issue with: “People put more depth on me than I have.”
It’s funny in the context of the bit, which is about tweeting about dog poop. But so much of the comedy in the special—the legislating the male body bit, especially—not to mention our conversation and her brazen experiment to unite un-likeminded people seem to altogether refute that notion.
“No, I know I’m no dummy,” she says. “But I also don’t know what it feels like to be a deep person. I love the aggressively stupid stuff as equally as anything deep I have to say. And I give them equal importance. Equal parts artsy and fartsy.”