Sarah Silverman loves therapists. So much that sometimes, she convinces herself she is one.
“If you don’t deal with your shit your shit deals with you,” she says, kicking off a string of unsolicited advice in her new comedy special We Are Miracles, which debuts on HBO November 23. “If you quit being cunty, the whole world will stop being against you.” Years of psychotherapy—which she still attends to this day (“I LOVE my therapist”)—have given Silverman a “wealth of information” about everything from sexism to religion, all of which she uses for material. “If you have terrible luck with roommates, you’re the terrible roommate,” she continues in Miracles. “Hasidic Jews, I promise you, God will not mind if you wear a nice cotton blend in the summer. You’re being fucking ridiculous.”
At the mention of therapy, a conversation with Silverman can—and in this instance, does— evolve into a therapy session itself. Lucky for the comedy world, Silverman opted out of joining the psychology profession. Making people laugh, she realized at an early age, was her specialty.
The youngest of four girls born in Manchester, New Hampshire, Silverman dreamed of playing Eponine (the hopeless romantic teen at the center of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables) before venturing to NYU to pursue comedy. In her early standup at Greenwich Village comedy clubs, Silverman eased into the part of the raunchy guy’s girl—a role that to this day, as the most recognizable female in the stand-up comedy world, she still owns. “I like sex. It gives you the feeling that you’re working together towards a common goal (pause). His orgasm,” a blue-jean donning Silverman joked during a 1992 show.
More than twenty years later, Silverman is still the guy’s girl. Still raunchy. Still joking about sex. But beneath her tomboy style, “smelly vagina” shtick, and princess punchlines, she’s trying to say something to the girls of the world: You can be funny, too.
“People may label me as offensive and that's their right, but I think what I say gives women and girls power,” Silverman says. The things she “says” on Twitter, late night, and in her own specials, range from offensive to demented, with a twist of tough love. “Mother Teresa didn't walk around complaining about her thighs—she had shit to do,” she says, criticizing girls who mistake self-deprecation for modesty. “You. don’t. need. vaginal. deodorant,” she continues. “It’s a made-up need made by greedy money-addicted corporations preying on a woman’s greatest insecurity: smelly vagina.”
Many will be offended by jokes like these. Silverman knows this. It was her dad teaching a young Sarah to say dirty words out loud—a trick that made people laugh—which cemented her love for provocation. Now, that shock factor, the free reign to say anything, is something she holds sacred. Yet it does come with a price. At a recent James Franco roast on Comedy Central, 42-year-old Silverman faked a few laughs while Jonah Hill poked fun at her age: “Um, seriously Sarah, you were my favorite comic as a kid.” The comments, she said later, ”cut her” to the core. “It’s just so woman-based,” she said a few days later on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. “[When a] woman gets to an age where she has opinions and she's vital and she's strong, she's systematically shamed into hiding under a rock.” Silverman, who seems to be every bit the woman she’s just described, then says she would willingly sit through it again if she had to. “I’m hurt all the time,” she admits to Bell. “But I would die defending people’s rights to say anything.”
Right to say anything, or in the case of Miley Cyrus, sing anything (and twerk anywhere). Like anyone, Silverman says, Miley has the right to express herself “however she sees fit.” After all, she’s only 19. “Most people don’t have the world watching them when they figure their shit out.” Silverman knows what it’s like when they do. After just two years on the standup scene, a 23-year-old Silverman was hired as a writer and performer on the 1993-94 season of Saturday Night Live. When not a single one of her sketches made it to the live show, she was fired—a blow she blames on not being “ready” for such a big role.
It’s not shocking then, that Silverman falls on the defensive side of the what’s-the-deal-with-Miley debate, jumping at the chance to validate the 19-year-old's fuzzy antics. “Miley is an artist, and an individual. I think anything that's provocative in some way at least starts conversations, and conversations are always good. Better than letting things just be a gas in the air.”
That “gas in the air” she’s referring to is the superficiality promoted in the seven cities that make up The Real Housewives series. “Dear women of a certain age, your heartbreaking and drastic attempts to look younger are the reason your daughter doesn’t dream about her future,” she quips in Miracles. Much worse than the message given off by Miley’s twerking and tongue thrusting, says Silverman, is the message sent by the grown women dripping in diamonds and slapping each other in drunken stupors on Housewives. Ranked 29th on Maxim’s Hot 100 list in 2007, an issue for which she was featured on the cover, Silverman doesn’t pretend to be naive about the lure of sex appeal. “I can't base my happiness on it,” she says. “But fuck ya, I let it make me feel nice, sure.”
InWe Are Miracles—a special that is, in many ways, much more mature than her previous work—Silverman devotes a bit of time to her then-elderly rescue dog Duck—who has since passed away. When I bring up the loss, she turns from silly to serious. “It felt like I lost a part of my family,” she says. In a heartbreaking obituary for Duck, Silverman called the relationship her “only experience with maternal love.” We don’t have the time to get too serious though. As with the best therapists, Silverman ends on a happy note. “See you at our next session,” she jokes. “You can leave your check at the door.”