Silverman won the Emmy for best writing for a variety special for her HBO special We Are Miracles. In 2005, she spoke with Fresh Air about her movie based on her acts in New York and Los Angeles.
Originally broadcast Nov. 09, 2005.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross continuing our miniseries of interviews with some of this week's Emmy Award winners.
(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SHOW, "EMMY AWARDS")
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And the Emmy goes to Sarah Silverman, "We Are Miracles."
SARAH SILVERMAN: (Laughter) This didn't even occur to me. Thank you to my Jews at CAA - Larry, Moe, Curly and Nick Nuciforo.
GROSS: Sarah Silverman won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing For a Variety Special for her HBO comedy special. Her acceptance speech was typical of her humor, making you cringe and laugh at the same time. Her territory is subjects that are sensitive, controversial or taboo, like religion, race, sex and abortion.
I first spoke with her in 2005, when her comedy performance film "Jesus Is Magic" was released. Here's a song from it; a good example of where her comedy was at the time. The song is called "I Love You More."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE YOU MORE")
SILVERMAN: (Singing) I love you more than bears love honey. I love more than Jews love money. I love you more than Asians are good at math. I love you even if it's not hip. I love you more than black people don't tip. I love you more than Puerto Ricans need baths.
GROSS: When I spoke with Sarah Silverman 2005, she had also become known for her appearance in the film "The Aristocrats," in which she was one of many comics doing their version of a famous obscene shaggy dog joke. I asked her if she was always comfortable using obscene language in front of people.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SILVERMAN: Yeah. Yeah because I'm one of those kids that, you know, my dad thought it was like, really hilarious to teach me swear words as a toddler. And it's funny, you know, I think that I would say them and the reaction I would get would be so fantastic that I think, it - I searched for more, and more and more, you know? And I was kind of farmed that way, you know? My parents - you know, my dad swears. He's the sweetest man but he - it's just a part of his language. It's like, like, you know? Or, totally. But, it's the F word.
GROSS: So is it supposed to be really cute for a little toddler, or a kid, to be using words that we can't say on the radio?
SILVERMAN: Apparently in the '70s, it was adorable - adorable.
SILVERMAN: So because of that, I think I've had this kind of kind of comfort with - at least with language. I don't even think of myself that - I don't swear particularly a lot, but just raised in a family that was - didn't have maybe the same spectrum of boundaries - that it was bigger - you know, wider. I'm not a oddball in my family. We're all freaks in that way, you know? So I think that I was always kind of comfortable saying that.
I think the race stuff was stuff I was not comfortable with until my 20s, you know, because - you know, for all the right reasons. You know, if someone said something racial, even in a joking way, it upset me. I remember a friend of mine who was a comic put a nickel on his forehead and said hey, look - Jewish Ash Wednesday. He's Jewish, you know. He said Jewish Ash Wednesday. And, of course, today I would - you know, it's hilarious. But I was like 19. You know, I had just started doing stand up - maybe even 20, and I would get so upset. And it's funny how I've changed, you know? And maybe because of that - you know, I was so affected by race and stereotypes that I kind of - even though it was never mine to begin with, I think I kind of took it back, you know what I mean? Like a take back the night, but the night was never mine.
GROSS: Were you exposed to a lot of racism or anti-Semitism as a kid?
SILVERMAN: No, no.
GROSS: In your neighborhood?
SILVERMAN: I have no license to be doing what I'm doing. You know, I didn't grow up in an all-black neighborhood or something. I'm not black myself. I grew up a Jew where there were no other Jews. But that's the only thing I can remember from my life is, like, in third grade a kid on the bus threw, like, pennies at my feet and said, you know, like, pick them up Jew. Like you're a cheap Jew or something like that. But it was so innocent, you know? I mean, it's a kid doing it. Of course I didn't have that perspective then, but at the same token, he became my little third grade boyfriend probably a month later.
GROSS: Really? Did you even get it then?
SILVERMAN: Yeah I did. I was like yeah, Jews are cheap - ha, ha, ha. You know, I was raised in a place where there wasn't - you know, people weren't racist. I mean it was a time in, you know, the '80s or whatever where - in a world that was very white and there were no Jews, but I didn't feel threatened at all. So even when that happened I was just kind of like, that's weird, you know? I don't know. But you know, my dad grew up in a very different world, you know? He was beaten up and abused brutally, you know, for being Jewish.
GROSS: One question about your father - your father used to own the Junior Deb Varsity shops. Does he just own a couple of - like in a franchise of them?
SILVERMAN: Yet it was a small chain of boys and girls clothing that his father owned. And then he sold them and kind of retired so that he could write because his real passion is writing - and wrote some novels and then ran out of money, had to open the store again and opened a store called Crazy Sophie's Factory Outlet, a discount women's clothing store. And he did his own ads on the radio. And they're hilarious.
GROSS: Oh, really?
SILVERMAN: Well he's got this really thick Boston accent. I mean, you can really hardly understand a word he's saying. And he'd be like, (imitating father) this is crazy Donald, crazy Sophie's husband. That was a made up name, though. He'd say (imitating father) when I see the prices at the mall, I just want to vomit. Come to crazy Sophie's. We got Unicorn, Wrangler, this, that - all these, like, kinds of jeans you've never heard of. And then at the end he says (imitating father) so if you care enough to buy the very best, but you're too cheap, come to Crazy Sophie's.
GROSS: (Laughter). That's really funny.
SILVERMAN: Yeah. And then on the other side of the spectrum is my mom who's from Connecticut and speaks perfectly and says things like
(imitating mother) when and where. She went to the local movie theater complained that she could not understand what the person was saying when she called up to find out what movies were playing on the recording. And they said, you want to do it? And she was like, OK.
So I grew up with her, you know, going with her to the movie theater into the little booth where they kept all the not-fresh popcorn. And she would say (imitating mother) hi, and thank you for calling Bedford Mall Cinemas one, two, three, and four where all bargain matinees are only $2 Monday through Saturday. So it was very different.
GROSS: Well, that's great.
SILVERMAN: But yeah - showbiz family - yeah.
GROSS: (Laughter). Now, you've said that you think most comics are filled with self-loathing. Does that describe how you felt about yourself when you were young?
SILVERMAN: No. No, I didn't - I've always had a pretty healthy self-esteem, you know? I mean, I think we're - I'm sure I'm riddled with insecurity as well. But I've got a pretty - I like myself. I've got a pretty good self-esteem. I think, like, my comedy came more from humiliation and from - I was a chronic bedwetter. You know, I had this deep dark secret. You know, if I had to go to sleepover parties I would, like, just pinch myself awake all night.
You know, I was - you know, the one thing about being Jewish and the thing that made me feel the most Jewish - 'cause we weren't religious in any way - was that I was so friggin hairy compared to these, you know, Carol Reed, L.L. Bean, blonde Aryans that I lived with, you know? So there was that - that kind of, you know, you want to be funny. You want to be funny before anyone is funny on your behalf, you know?
Or, you know, one time - I have to - I have Elvis Presley's death to thank for a party in first grade - a sleepover party at Heather Paul's (ph)house. And for some reason I had no sleepover clothes. I had to borrow her pajamas. I slept, you know, in a sleeping bag, soaking wet the next morning. And just kind of paralyzed with fear - didn't say anything or do anything and changed with the other girls - you know, changed into my regular clothes and just left the clothes kind of on the floor there. And her mother came in - she was so mean. And she stepped on my pajamas and she was like, who did this? And I was just - my heart was just pounding. I was so scared. And right then, her husband came in and said Elvis Presley just died.
SILVERMAN: Thank God.
GROSS: Sarah Silverman, recorded in 2005. She won an Emmy this week. We'll hear an excerpt of our 2007 interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's continue our mini series of interviews with some of this week's Emmy winners. Sarah Silverman won the Emmy for outstanding writer for a variety special for her HBO special, "Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles." When I recorded my second interview with her in 2007, we talked about "The Sarah Silverman Program," her series which ran on Comedy Central.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Let's hear a clip from an episode from last season called "Not Without My Daughter." It's a kiddie beauty pageant episode. There's this little miss rainbow pageant, and you always wanted to win it. So even now as an adult, you're still auditioning for it even though you're totally much too old for it. And right before you are disqualified, you're doing your dramatic monologue on stage, hoping to become little miss rainbow. Let's hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SARAH SILVERMAN PROGRAM")
SILVERMAN: November 9, 1942 - Peter found some crackers. Mama says we mustn't chew too loud or the Germans may hear. To think we were once Germans ourselves. Well, Hitler's taken our nationality, and he's taken our humanity, but he's not going to take our rhythm.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Sarah, stop.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Please, stop.
GROSS: Sarah Silverman, did you write this monologue?
SILVERMAN: It's basically from the diary of Anne Frank. But...
GROSS: Wait a minute, Anne Frank didn't say, but Hitler couldn't take away our rhythm. (Laughter) That's not from the diary of Anne Frank.
SILVERMAN: Yeah. Well, let's say it's inspired from the diary of Anne Frank. And we used a little poetic license with it - creative license because then it goes into, of course, a tap routine.
GROSS: Right. (Laughter).
SILVERMAN: The least tasteful choice.
GROSS: Now, you managed to say the word vagina in just about every episode. And...
SILVERMAN: It's kind of like the mouse in "Goodnight Moon" - vagina. It's on every page somewhere.
GROSS: (Laughter). Why is that?
SILVERMAN: I don't know. I think, you know - I honestly don't consciously try to think about, like, what's going to shake things up or cause trouble, but I think that we're drawn towards - as a comedian anyway, you're kind of drawn towards what's taboo or, you know, what you're not supposed to say. It's actually one of the safer taboo words. You know what I mean? You can say it on T.V., and it's silly and embarrassing kind of and exposing and - do you know what I mean?
GROSS: Was it ever embarrassing for you to use that word on stage because - I mean, I guess, you know, in some ways, one thing you have to say about "The Vagina Monologues" is that, like, after seeing it performed on television and seeing the ads for it in every newspaper, it's become less uncomfortable to say a word we were all brought up to be uncomfortable about saying. Nevertheless, when you started using that word on stage, was it awkward for you?
SILVERMAN: No, it didn't feel awkward for me. But it's funny because there are things I stay on stage that someone may come up to me and say to me offstage on another time, and it's - I'm so much more prudish offstage. It's weird. It's like I almost barely recognize its. Someone will say something that I've said on stage before to me. And it - I'm so grossed out, you know? And then I realize it's something I've said, you know? But it just - Terry, there's a time and a place.
GROSS: Sarah Silverman, recorded in 2007 - this week she won an Emmy for outstanding writing for a variety special for her HBO special "Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles." She guest stars on the current season of Showtime's "Masters Of Sex," and she's touring with Funny or Die's Oddball Comedy Festival. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.