Sarah Silverman lives in a very small apartment—possibly the smallest of anyone who has ever had her name in the title of a TV show. Her compact one-bedroom is halfway up a high-rise building in West Hollywood. The living room has a dandy view of the Sunset Strip, a big TV, and a couch. That’s it. Her bathroom has wires hanging from the ceiling. Décor consists of family photos taped to the wall. There are tiny dog hairs everywhere. (Her elderly Chihuahua, Duck, plays himself on Comedy Central’s The Sarah Silverman Program.) “I almost own the apartment,” she says cheerfully. “I have no plans to move. This is perfect for me. I own my Saab. I don’t have big dreams of anything or want for anything. Money to me has never been a reason to compromise. You’re very free if you don’t love money.”
Silverman gets compared a lot to Lenny Bruce because she talks dirty and makes jokes that are provocative, or offensive, depending on whether you find her funny or not. But in her new book, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee, she writes that her greatest influence was not Bruce but Garry Shandling, who cast her on The Larry Sanders Show when she was 27. And she is more like Shandling—absurdist rather than confrontational, and only accidentally political. She also shares an interest in meta-comedy, creating a persona version of herself. It’s the reason she now refuses roles that she can’t control, like the one she played in the film School of Rock—what she calls the “Suze”: a female whose only purpose is to serve as the straight man to her male counterpart. She’s happiest working on The Sarah Silverman Program, where she always gets her way, for better or, debatably, worse. In a recent episode, a supporting character attempts to exact revenge on a pigeon by excreting on it. “The writer’s room is just so animalistic,” says Silverman. “It’s like there’s this safe haven with only six of us being animals, and I get joy from it. It’s absolute, total freedom.”
I mention to Silverman that, anecdotally, I find her fans to be mostly male. (That she’s a vocal pothead might be one reason; she proudly points out to me that her book’s release date, April 20, is Stoner Day.) She tells me that she has zero interest in a conversation that might turn into a Woman in a Man’s World discussion. “A lot of women comics got all upset by Christopher Hitchens’s [Vanity Fair, January 2007] article about why women aren’t funny. Or like when Jerry Lewis says women aren’t funny,” she says. “If you are truly offended by an 80-year-old man saying you’re not funny, then you’re probably not funny.”
She doesn’t say this with any attitude. Silverman is unfailingly sweet in person—like her stand-up act, minus the off-color jokes. The only time she slips into character is when I say, in an awkwardly phrased reference to recent backlash, “There’s been a concentration of attention on you.” “A concentration camp,” she responds, almost Tourettically.
I ask her how she thinks people perceive her and she explains her Vanna Theory. “Vanna White became a huge star because no one knew anything about her, other than that she was the pretty lady who turned letters. People took everything they wanted her to be and put it on her.” In Silverman’s case, the pretty lady is dressed like a little girl, with pigtails, or in an adolescent getup of jeans and a T-shirt. From the mouth of this construct come jokes like “I saw my father’s penis once. But it was okay because I was so young … and so drunk.” Or: “I don’t care if you think I’m a racist. I just want you to think I’m thin.” Audiences see Sarah Silverman and assume she’s a nice Jewish girl, but oy! The trash she talks! She is the joke. The confusion over whether she’s exploiting stereotypes or puncturing them is what gets her into trouble.
Silverman grew up in Bedford, New Hampshire, a state with the oddly appropriate motto Live Free or Die. Her father owned a discount-clothing store and her mother raised four girls (her parents are now divorced). Sarah, the youngest, seems to have sprung from the womb doing shtick. According to The Bedwetter, as early as the age of 2 she was making her affable father laugh by saying “fuck.” No one was ever offended by Silverman’s provocative humor, says eldest sister Susan, now a rabbi in Israel. “Sarah was always, and is still, adorable and adored.” Her sister Laura, who co-stars on The Sarah Silverman Program, says, “She always had this beautiful quality of seeing what she has and not brooding over what she doesn’t.”