Sarah Silverman on Empathizing With Trump Trolls and Louis C.K.’s ‘Comeback’
The host of Hulu’s ‘I Love You, America’ opens up about connecting with conservatives and shares what Louis C.K. told her after she said she ‘still loved’ him.
BEVERLY HILLS, California—Sarah Silverman is back, and not a moment too soon.
This week, her Emmy-nominated show I Love You, America returned to Hulu with an episode that tackled everything from the GOP’s blatant attempts to distort NFL players’ kneeling protests to an anti-choice group that actually calls itself Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust.
In her opening monologue from the premiere, Silverman, a proud Bernie Sanders supporter who happily embraced Hillary Clinton after she won the 2016 nomination, joked that her writers run the gamut from progressive Democrats to progressive Democratic socialists. But unlike Sacha Baron Cohen, who spent the summer publicly embarrassing members of the far right, Silverman, has always strived to find common ground with her ideological opponents.
On Friday night in Los Angeles, I sat down with Silverman in front of an audience as part of the Paley Center for Media’s fall TV preview series. We discussed how this open-minded outlook has influenced not only her work on I Love You, America, but also her own political positions and personal beliefs. Below is a lightly edited version of that conversation.
So the first episode of the new season started streaming on Hulu a little over 24 hours ago. Have you had any unexpected reactions to it?
Yeah, I had a little time today to go online and saw somebody, who is not a fan—I’m not everybody’s cup of tea—was like, “She called Colin Kaepernick a hero. Can you believe that? And he said that this country was founded on racism and the genocide of Native Americans.” The responses were amazing, because it was like, “Should we tell him?”
Yeah, I think he found it ironic that your show is called I Love You, America and yet you like Colin Kaepernick. That’s crazy! But you can love America and be critical of it at the same time, right?
Does your mother love you? Does she ever criticize you? Maybe she’s just trying to help.
One big difference this season is the very casual cold open that starts the show and I believe is written as close to taping time as possible. Why was that something you wanted to add to the mix?
We work on the monologue up until I go out, but the bones of the monologues are really about the symptoms of where we are or how we got here. And they’re a little bit evergreen in that way. I mean, the first ten [from last season] are really just as relevant today. And I like that. Because for me, I love Rachel Maddow, but if I have five episodes stacked up I delete them because it’s over. That said, old Maddows still hold up, because it’s really like a history lesson. Before I even get to work they’ll send me the three biggest stories. And then I just jam on my phone, my knee-jerk reactions, and the one that seems the longest and the most full of stuff we usually pick. We have to keep refreshing the news just in case. But it’s impossible—by the time we shot [this week’s] there was that New York Times op-ed by anonymous. It’s huge news and yet I could barely get through it. I found it boring for some reason. Because it’s like, whoever it is, I kind of agree with Melania in a fucked up way. Put your name to it, be brave. You’ve got a plan? You’re letting all this stuff happen.
It was also written like this big bombshell but we kind of already knew everything in there, right?
It certainly wasn’t written by a Wilstein. [Laughs] I mean, there was no art to it. It looked like an essay where you have to count the words to make sure it’s OK to pass in. I was waiting for it to say, like, “Webster’s Dictionary defines treason as… ” It felt very rudimentary. We all know that Republicans are talking shit about the president. They’re toeing the company line even if they don’t believe in it.
In your monologue, you’re talking to the “lied to” as opposed to the “liars.” They’re with Trump but they’re maybe persuadable. Do you have hope that those people are watching your show and that you can reach them with a message like that?
I have no illusions—I’d like to think so, but I don’t know. I do know that a lot of times the outlets like NewsBusters or Twitchy, The Blaze or Breitbart, they pick this stuff up like crazy and I don’t think they realize they’re giving me an incredible amount of publicity. I don’t know what threat I am to them. Is it just easy to pick on a comic? It’s a disingenuous outrage, which is actually what next week’s monologue is going to be about. This disingenuous outrage, I don’t like it. It’s fraudulent. There’s no heart in it.
I want to ask you about this article that Hillary Clinton just tweeted and maybe you can tell the story of what happened, but there’s a guy who was a self-described “Trump troll” who you engaged with on Twitter and he seems to have changed his outlook?
I certainly never expected this. He has a White House press pass, he lives in Israel, he’s an American. He’s very pro-Israel, whatever that means. It’s different for different people, but it’s that one. And #MAGA, #Trump, the whole thing. And I only happened to see in my mentions, he started this campaign to get Stephen Colbert and myself kicked off of Twitter because of Hitler jokes. I dressed up as Hitler and went on Conan and said that I was embarrassed by the comparisons with Trump. And I engaged with him kindly. I engaged with him respectfully and he took to that. I learned so much last year from people like Christian Picciolini, who was a skinhead Nazi and Megan Phelps-Roper, who grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. A lot of these people, in a vulnerable time in their lives, are swayed by bad ideas. And they find home in it. They find family in it, camaraderie, a place where they belong. Even Trump went to where the love was. So I think that he was disarmed by kindness, which is super easy. I give him the credit—he wanted information. And I think so many of us shield ourselves from new information because God forbid it will change our values. So I’ve gotten to a place in my life that’s exciting, because I feel like I don’t care left, right, any of that—I mean, I’m very left—but I want to be open to change if that were to happen.
But all I really, really care about is what’s true. And we’re living in a time where it’s so hard to know what is true. There was a time where what we fought about was at least based on the same notion of what the facts were. We don’t have that anymore so it can be frustrating and make you just want to give up and watch a Law & Order marathon, which I do to keep myself sane. I need to just have a puff and melt into a marathon of softcore murder. The internet is great and in a lot of ways it brings us closer together and makes us see that police brutality is a thing that’s always been. But it also separates us so much. We don’t see each other’s eyes, we don’t see that I’ve hurt you or that you’re human. Every time I do these field pieces I know that I have these preconceived notions and they have preconceived notions. And listen, I think these Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust are, well I don’t want to say bananas, but we completely disagree. But I left loving them. And it means a lot that they’re even willing to talk.
Did you think differently about anything after that experience?
I was not changed by that experience. I’ve always felt a kinship with anti-choice or as they like to say “pro-life” advocates, kids like this who went to “Holocaust camp” where they had so much fun. But they believe what they believe completely. When they protest, they’re not getting anything from it. It’s what they truly believe with their whole heart. I understand that because I have the opposite opinion, but I also believe it with my whole heart. I understand wanting other people to believe what you believe because you believe it completely. So in that sense, I can say I understand that. Just like survivalists, who during Obama’s eight years built bunkers and stockpiled guns and canned goods, I understood that for the first time when Trump was elected. I went, I need to learn how to shoot a gun, I need stockpile canned goods and water. I understand that emotional feeling. It’s fear.
Yeah, I remember you saying last year on the show how Trump has made you see yourself in Obama’s fiercest critics in a way. But I’m curious if you worry that creates a false equivalence between these two sides?
I try to do something that I find people on the right can’t do. I go, how would I feel if it was the other way around? Because I don’t want to just feel some way because I’m partisan. That said, I’ll slip some things in there where I see both sides, but then I go, sure I get my facts from The New York Times and they might get them from the bathroom stall at the Golden Corral. This isn’t a show where I’ve mastered what I’m trying to say. It’s like Garry Shandling was a Zen Buddhist. It wasn’t because he had everything figured out, it was because he needed that. That’s what this show is for me. I need to learn how to understand people who think differently. I need to be able to find a way to see myself in them.
One thing that happened since your show was on is this whole national conversation about “civility” with Sarah Huckabee Sanders getting kicked out of the restaurant and everything else. Given that your show is so dedicated to this idea of listening to people and engaging with them in a constructive way, what did you make of that whole thing?
I waffle. I’m sure if I met Sarah Huckabee Sanders, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story. But I don’t respect someone who lies for a living. It’s hard, because what I’m trying to do and then what my impulses are, it’s hard to sometimes decide which is right. Roseanne got fired, right? And the right’s answer to that was Sam Bee called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” and now she must be fired. I find a false equivalency in that. Look, there are people on 4chan who plot, very openly if you were to go on 4chan—and I suggest you don’t because I think it sticks to your phone in some way—who decide these outspoken people, and comedians especially, we’re going to say that they’re pedophiles. Because we feel like they just call us racists! Because they don’t see their own inherent racism, because it’s part of just the fabric of this country. When [Mike] Cernovich found a tweet where I said, “Quick question, is it molestation if the child makes the first move?” that was to him evidence that I was a pedophile. But of course it isn’t. The people who perpetuate this, none of them think I’m a pedophile. But the people who see this and go, “Did you hear Sarah Silverman’s a pedophile?” it spreads by innocent people who are just believing what they read. But the people starting the lies, it’s very sinister. And I don’t remember my point, what was the question?
The question was if you had a restaurant, would you serve Sarah Huckabee Sanders?
Probably. But I wouldn’t like what she’s doing. Like I did come in one day angry and said, when Sarah Huckabee Sanders leaves this job and writes a book, I don’t want people to buy it. I don’t want her to get some big book deal where she takes everything back. She’s causing damage. She’s hurting people. And she’s got to knowingly lie and I just can’t respect that. I feel like maybe if we saw only the best in her she would rise up to that.
You can always hope.
But she sold her soul. She should take comedy classes with her dad. See, I don’t read his tweets and say, “Stick to your job!”
So I do want to ask you about another big moment from last year, which was when you decided to speak out about your friend Louis C.K. Since he’s back in the news a little bit, why did you decide that was something you wanted to talk about on this platform? And what do make of him dipping his toe back in the water?
You know, I very much didn’t want to talk about it. And one of the writers, a woman, Glenn Boozan, on her own, wrote a version. I went, yeah, I get it, OK, and I just worked off of that and wrote it. Things are very black and white if it isn’t someone you love, on either side. Louis is my brother, we grew up together, I’ve known him since I was 19. But he did do these things. And we’ve talked about it—before any of this happened I’d talked about it with him. And then with this latest [return to stand-up and the backlash that followed], my heart goes out to him and then I have to stop and go, you know what? I think I’m too close to this to be objective. When you know someone, you don’t always know more. Sometimes you know less. Because I’m close to him and I just see the dots, I’m not seeing the whole Seurat. And so I don’t think it’s for me to make some statement about or to say my opinion. I think he wronged people and my guess is he thought he could sneak on stage and try a few minutes. I have no idea, I haven’t talked to him. I understand the backlash of it. I suppose he would know that this would get out. And I agree, if he’s going to go on stage he should address [what he did] but also you can’t practice stand-up in front of a mirror. You have to have an audience. I suppose he could have gone to a little open mic but it probably would have still gotten picked up in the news. But I can’t be objective. I can’t give you a good answer on this that you’ll be happy with or that I’ll be happy with because the whole thing makes me sad.
But I will say—and I hope this is OK to say—that after I did that [monologue], he called me. And he said it really helped one of his daughters to understand. She showed it to him and she said, I can love you even though you did bad things. And we cried. It was a small silver lining in a very bleak story.
Well, on a lighter note, you’re nominated for an Emmy.
You’re nominated in the Variety Sketch category, which I thought was interesting because there’s a divide now between sketch shows like SNL and the late-night talk shows. And you kind of bridge the gap between the two. Do you feel like you’re part of that late-night crowd or do feel like you’re doing something different from Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel and those guys?
Well, I was with Jimmy those first few years of his show and I never had any desire to do that. It is putting your heart and soul into something and then it’s over and you’re onto the next one. It’s not that I’m not prolific, but I’ve done three specials in 20 years. It will be six months from starting to write to shooting all the pieces and then finishing each week’s show of 11 episodes that are a half-hour each. And it’s my whole waking life. I love it and it’s consuming me. And I’m so glad because I don’t want to think about other things so much. But I don’t how they make 300 a year, that doesn’t appeal to me at all. And I don’t think it’s fair to put it in the same category.
We have to wrap it up, but since you mentioned Kimmel, you were on his show this week and you joked that his wife Molly gets the “new woke” Jimmy while you had “Man Show” Jimmy. And it made me think, compared to those early days when he was doing The Man Show and you were doing The Sarah Silverman Program, you’re both doing these much more emotional and political shows now. Do you chalk that up to experience or is it because of this time that we’re living in?
Jimmy never wanted to be political. But you know what the truth is? There isn’t anything you can make art-wise or put out there that isn’t political, just by virtue of it being made now in this time. We may look back at things and see them in new ways. I’m sure we’ll be stunned at how problematic we are right now. But life isn’t evergreen. You have to change with the times or you get old—especially with comedy, but just in humanity. If you’re not growing and changing, then you’re like an old person complaining about how things were in your day.