Sarah Silverman's global offensive

Race, religion, sexuality ... no taboo is safe from the acid tongue of America's most outrageous comedian. But what will Britain make of her? Tim Walker reports
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The Independent Culture

Meet Sarah Silverman. Sarah's immature, self-absorbed and unemployed. She makes a habit of insulting her friends and family: her sweet-natured sister Laura, with whom she lives; Laura's boyfriend, a principled cop named Jay; their gruff, gay neighbours Brian and Steve. She sings songs about poo and regularly indulges in racial stereotyping. But she doesn't care if you think she's racist. She just wants you to think she's thin.

Sarah, or "Sarah", has her own TV sitcom, The Sarah Silverman Program, in which she's played by the real Sarah Silverman, a Jewish American comedian who might just be the funniest – and most offensive – person in the world right now. Her stand-up act slings side-splitting insults at everyone, Jew or Christian, black or white, gay or straight.

Silverman, 37, has been huge in the States for some time, but over here her show is buried in a late-night slot on the Paramount Comedy Channel. This weekend, however, UK audiences are getting their first substantial hit of her taboo-busting humour as her stand-up film, Jesus is Magic, is released in cinemas. She explained the title when it was released in the US three years ago: "If my boyfriend, who's Catholic, and I ever have a kid, we'll just be honest with it. We'll say that Mommy is one of God's chosen people, and Daddy believes that Jesus is magic."

There's a twist in this particular tale. In July, Silverman split from her (Catholic) boyfriend of five years, the talkshow host and comedian Jimmy Kimmel. The pair made global news earlier this year as a result of a video entitled "I'm Fucking Matt Damon". In the clip, the sweet-faced Silverman sings to her beau about how she's secretly been sleeping with Damon. The movie star turns up in the video to give graphic details of their intercourse: "On the bed, on the floor, on a towel by the door, in the tub, in the car, up against the minibar."

The clip was shown on Kimmel's show, Jimmy Kimmel Live! in January, and soon spread to YouTube, introducing a global audience of 10 million and counting to Damon's winning enthusiasm for self-mockery, and to Silverman's potty mouth. Kimmel responded with another video, about his own imagined illicit affair with Ben Affleck, for which he enlisted not only Affleck, but also Brad Pitt, Harrison Ford, Cameron Diaz and others. But it's Silverman's skit that has been nominated for an Emmy award, in the outstanding original music and lyrics category. Should she win in September (and she's the hot favourite), it will be a bittersweet victory.

Silverman gave her first stand-up performance aged 17, at the back of a restaurant in her home state of New Hampshire, singing a song she had composed called "Mammaries". After dropping out of New York University, she spent the 1993-94 season as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, before being fired via fax. Guest appearances on two of America's biggest sitcoms, Seinfeld and The Larry Sanders Show (in which she parodied her ruthless SNL sacking), followed. As an actress, she had minor roles in films such as There's Something About Mary, School of Rock and Heartbreakers, while building a formidable reputation on the stand-up circuit. "The person I am onstage is me," says Silverman of her odious alter-ego. "But there's a kind of ignorance coupled with arrogance, and I see that reflected in our country."

In 2001, she caused a stir by using a racial slur during an interview on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. As she was trying to wriggle out of jury duty, she said, her friend had suggested she "write something really inappropriate on the form, like 'I hate Chinks'. I was like 'Yeah!' But I don't want people to think that I'm racist, I just wanna get out of jury duty. So I filled out the form and I wrote: 'I love Chinks.' And who doesn't?"

O'Brien and his network, NBC, issued an apology, but Silverman stuck to her guns, even turning the controversy back on her critics, explaining to audiences that the experience had taught her racism was bad: "And I mean bad, like in that black way."

Four years later, hers was the most contentious contribution to a documentary featuring a roll call of 100 of the world's best-known comedians, trying to outdo one another in the telling of a sick joke whose punchline is the film's title: The Aristocrats. Silverman took the opportunity to claim that Joe Franklin, a much-loved TV host, had raped her as a child. Franklin didn't see the funny side, and threatened to sue.

Plenty of comedians have taken the same tack as Silverman in the past, presenting stand-up selves full of bile and bigotry as an attempt to satirise those traits in society at large. But rarely has such misanthropy lurked behind such an attractive, unthreatening exterior. "A lot of American and British comics have done similar material," said Julian Hall, author of The Rough Guide to British Cult Comedy. "But because it's coming from this pretty Jewish girl, it's all the more shocking. There's something dispassionate about her delivery that makes it really quite unnerving."

Jesus Is Magic contains many of the routines that made her famous in the US, though the three-year delay since its release there means some of her more recent material is missing. In the meantime, she has landed her own show – The Sarah Silverman Program debuted in February 2007 – appeared at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the 2006 Secret Policeman's Ball, and hosted the 2007 MTV Awards. During the ceremony, she gleefully took potshots at Britney Spears ("[Britney's kids] are the most adorable mistakes you will ever see. They are as cute as the hairless vagina they came out of") and Paris Hilton ("Paris Hilton is going to jail... She is totally going to get special treatment. I heard that to make her feel more comfortable, the guards are going to paint the bars to look like penises. I think it's wrong, too. I just worry that she's going to break her teeth on those things.")

No one is safe from Silverman. Not Paris, not Britney, not Hugh Hefner, not Pamela Anderson, not Israelis, not Palestinians, not teenage mothers, not Aids sufferers. But by taking the scattershot approach to gender, sexuality, religion or race, she is, if nothing else, democratic. Speaking of which, she says she'll be voting for "the black guy" come November.

Only joking ...

* Race

"The best time to have a baby is when you're a black teenager."

"I don't care if you think I'm racist as long as you think I'm a thin racist."

"I was raped by a doctor. Which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl."

"You have to be able to laugh at yourself. That's what I tell Asian people all the time."

[About her half-black boyfriend]

"I gave him a compliment! All right, I told him he probably would've made, like, a really expensive slave in the, like, in the olden days."

"I dated a guy who was half-black, but he totally dumped me because I'm such a loser. Wow! I just heard myself say that. I am such a pessimist... He's actually half-white."

"I love you more than bears love honey, I love you more than Jews love money, I love you more than Asians are good at math, I love you more than black guys don't tip..."

* Religion

"Everybody blames the Jews for killing Christ, and the Jews try to pass it off on the Romans. I'm one of the few people who believes it was the blacks."

"I love how Palestinians and Jews hate each other. It's so cute. Honestly, what's the difference? They're brown. They have an odour. It's like sweet potatoes hating yams."

* Gender

"Strippers should be role-models for little girls. If only for the fact that they wax their assholes"

"Little Miss Rainbow is the single highest honour any woman without boobs can ever get"

* Sexuality

"Someone told me that carrots are good for your eyes. What they failed to tell me is that you have to take them orally."

"I was licking jelly off of my boyfriend's penis and all of a sudden I'm thinking, 'Oh My God, I'm turning into my mother!'"

* Celebrity

"People say 'Pamela Anderson's nothing without her tits!' And that's not true! That is not true!... She'd be Paris Hilton."

"Have you seen Britney's kids? Oh my God, they are the most adorable mistakes you will ever see! They are as cute as the hairless vagina they came out of."

* Aids

"If we can put a man on the moon, we can put a man with Aids on the moon. And pretty soon, we'll be able to put everyone with Aids on the moon!"

* Various

"I'll tell you why we make fun of midgets: We're not afraid of them"

"I go to strip clubs, I like strip clubs... I really want to be a stripper, I'm doing comedy to get into stripping."

Collected by Rebecca Rutt