Without so much as a how do you do, Sarah Silverman gets right to it in her new HBO special when she walks on stage and announces, "I occasionally watch porn on my phone." By the time she wraps up We Are Miracles (debuting November 23) with an ode to the C word, Silverman has taken her audience down a twisted path replete with musings about Scientology, men who have pierced ears, feminine hygiene products, 9/11 widows, Republicans, Kanye West and eye brow maintenance.
In short, it's business as usual for Silverman. The New Hampshire native wrote briefly for Saturday Night Live before perfecting her persona as a sweet-faced Jewish girl from whose mouth the most outrageous things fly. In 2008, for example, Silverman blew up on YouTube when she made the music video "I'm F*cking Matt Damon." And in 2010 she raised hackles during a TED Talk by riffing on the topic of terminally ill babies.
Silverman continues to stoke the viral fires via her Twitter feed and Jash network video channel. But We Are Miracles, airing November 23 on HBO, gets back to basics: Silverman cracks jokes in a tiny Los Angeles night club for an audience of 39.
In a Q & A with Co.Create, Silverman talks about what it takes to create a killer stand-up routine.
Co.Create: We Are Miracles weaves together edgy, personal storytelling with spot-on social commentary. How do you come up with this stuff?
Sarah Silverman: Ha—I don't know. I don't plan out what I want to talk about when writing material. I write whatever makes me laugh, whatever I'm spending most of my time thinking about and this special is a product of those things. Lots of inspiration from my own therapy to watching shitty TV.
Your jokes are really well constructed. How do you tighten up the material to the point where people laugh when they're supposed to laugh?
It's just lots of stand-up sets, lots of bombing and figuring out what works and what the stuff that doesn't work is missing. You gotta get in your 10,000 hours, right?
When you create a new show, what's the process? Do you physically jot down notes, type stuff up, try out ideas out with friends?
I always have a notebook with me—nothing revolutionary. It's just notes and stage time. Great comics record their sets and listen back and figure stuff out. I really try to record but have a terrible time finding the discipline to listen back. It's brutal—have you ever heard the sound of my voice?? I don't know how people put up with it.
Do you revise your bits depending on the audience feedback?
I'll stick with a bit I love for WAY too long. It will eat shit show after show. Then I'll either finally drop it or hopefully find that word or pause or big or teeny change that fixes it. It's funny how small a change can be that fixes a whole bit. It's finding it that's hard.
We Are Miracles has this unpredictable flow where we never see what's coming next. How do you fit the pieces together?
I will sometimes make an order that will appear to make sense but there's no way to really know how it works best until it's up on stage. You may think this goes with that because the topics are similar, but to me segues aren't always necessary. Our brains hop from one thought to the next with very little connective tissue. One time years ago, an ad for Mrs. Smith’s pumpkin pie filler came on TV and my mom started crying. I asked why and she said the pumpkin pie filler looked like baby diarrhea and that made her think of her daughters and how we're all grown and she'll never have her little baby girls again. So, yeah—the brain needs very little segue to segue.
Stepping back for a moment: You've managed to thrive in a tough town, but like every entertainer, you've encountered the occasional setback. For instance, you developed a network pilot for NBC that didn't pan out. Was that a frustrating experience?
No I love it all. In this work—and probably all work—the trick is to live the process and I do. That's the fun part. I rarely care about the stuff I can't control and when I do it's not at all fun.
Early in your career, who were the comedians that inspired you to say "I want to do THAT!"
Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Albert Brooks, Joan Rivers, Garry Shandling, Mr Rogers, Ruth Gordon, Phil Donahue.
Do you like what you're seeing today from female comedians compared with what it was like when you got started in show business a few years ago?
Look around you. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Chelsea Handler, Joan Rivers STILL (and better than EVER) Tig Notaro, Whitney Cummings, Amy Schumer. Women RUN comedy.