The United States of America is as deeply divided as ever. Despite––or, perhaps, because of––this, comedian Sarah Silverman recently wrapped the first season of I Love You, America, her variety show on Hulu that tackles America’s greatest challenges with an open mind and heart.
Silverman’s delivery in I Love You, America is distinct from that of other hosts. Her material is less tethered to the news, and she rarely utters Trump’s name or weighs in on specific political viewpoints, instead drawing on broad themes of the moment––patriotism, nationalism, immigration––and reaching across the divide. We spoke over the phone while she was in her LA studio, where she had recently finished taping the show’s recently-aired finale:
VICE: What’s the version of “America” you based your show on?
Sarah Silverman: The tenets of Mr. Rogers––how much I love him, and how much we need him right now. We’re so divided, and we can’t even agree on the facts of what we’re fighting over. Truth has no currency. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was a kids show, but adults are just kids plus time. I wanted to get back to the basic things without using jargon or politics.
Jargon is elitist by design. The smartest people use the simplest words—the Pope, the Dalai Lama, Ghandi. The basic truths in life are simple. We need a kids show for adults right now, to remember to see what’s important.
On your show, you say that there are “two kinds of patriotism.” What does that mean?
The right has perverted the meaning of being liberal, or being feminist. Even "social justice warrior" is an insult. We pervert language so much. Patriotism has always been a bit owned by the right. The last disillusion on all of our parts is that there are two parties, and they’re made up of two very different kinds of people. I have to think that oligarchs and billionaire wealth addicts aside, for the most part, are more alike than we think. We’re just getting our news from outlets that are telling us different types of stories.
Patriotism is perverted. We’re not on the same page of what it means. To me, being patriotic is loving your country—being a citizen, having a voice, being e pluribus unum. How perverted it is to go from “We are one” to “We are number one,” which is such a childish idea. There’s a difference between childlike and childish. The president is childish. He was stunted around eight years old––maybe something traumatic happened––but he stopped growing emotionally. And yet, he got all the way to the presidency. There are a lot of pathologies that are not healthy but can bring great success, if that’s how you measure success. The deepest people look at the world with wide-open eyes—which is childlike, not childish.
While attempting to learn from people in different parts of the country, you throw a dart at a map of the US, then you visit a family in that location. What have these visits been like?
They’ve made me both hopeful and disheartened. I went in with preconceived notions for some of them, but what I found was, in some cases, they’re not getting their news from anywhere. It’s total apathy. They’re not concerning themselves with anything outside their front door.
I’m on a journey, to use The Bachelor term. I’m very excited by being changed by new information as I get it. I went to Nashville and wrote a country song, and I fell in love with the guy who helped me. He’s running for Congress now, as a Republican, and now there’s someone who’s a Republican running for office that I love. We have to look at the hypocrisies inside ourselves. It’s important to listen to other people and find out where our disconnects are.
At one point in this season, you casted Fred Armisen as Jesus in a sketch. What does religion mean to the concept of America?
Like patriotism, religion can be sometimes used as a weapon, or to support someone’s own narrative or fears and prejudices. These Christian-fringe, Roy Moore, do-what-I-say- not-what-I-do people––they’re not very Jesus-like. I see them as fringe the way I see ISIS as fringe.
But when we look at the fringe as a whole, it’s dangerous. That’s why there’s the Muslim ban. They’re taking a tiny fraction of a people that’s loud and making it the entire people. That’s dangerous. The left often does that with the religious right. The religious right is not all of religion. The notion of religious freedom used to be this beautiful notion that all religions can come here and practice. What it’s become is legal homophobia—or racism.
The comedian Laurie Kilmartin wrote in The New York Times that “stand-up comedy is
hard on its women.” Can you talk about your experience?
I’m not going to pretend that every woman’s experience is what I’m experiencing now. I remember going somewhere years ago with someone famous, and they said “Everyone’s so nice here!” And I said, “No! They’re nice to you! That’s what you see!” I’m always cognizant of that. When I started, it was a different time––and I’m grateful that it’s changed, and is continuing to change.
When I was starting out, I was told by great male comics, “The only way you’re a great comic is if your jokes can be told by a male comic and still work.” Which is totally nuts. They’d say, “Hack female comics talk about tampons.” It took me many years to go, “Oh, so talking about our experience isn’t comedy?” That’s how it was. They’d give me the example of Paula Poundstone, and say “She’s a real comic––because a man could do her material.” There might be more women in the world, but they’d say, “Women are only going to comedy clubs on dates, and they’re only laughing at what their date is laughing at.”
I have a certain amount of shame for letting that shape me in my formative years—of taking that in as fact and not questioning it. It took me a long time to go Fuck this! I’m talking about my own experience!” Being “One of the guys” was a big compliment. They’d never put two women comics back-to-back—there would never even be two women in the show.
How did that experience shape you?
Every comic becomes funny out of survival of their childhood. I was hairy and dark, and there were no Jews where I lived—it was white, blonde, and Republican. My role was to be non-threatening. There are probably black comics who did this, too. I had an innate sense that I had to put people’s parents at ease. All of my friends parents would say, “Are you from New York?” But I was born in New Hampshire. That’s what their parents thought—that Jews were from New York.
That carried into being a woman in an industry where the men had all the power. I became non-threatening to men—I became a man. You become very malleable when you feel like your very existence is threatening to people. Women have been doing that with men for so many years. We’ve protected their feelings. Even in rejection, if a guy’s trying to fuck you, you’re terrified of hurting his feelings, or his ego. Just being a woman at all has been, for so many generations, taking care of men’s feelings. In ways that they have no idea. They are truly ignorant.
[While] holding people accountable for the way they lived their lives decades ago, it needs to be taken into consideration that we all were complicit. I’m not defending men, but as a society, we are changing. As a person, I’m constantly changing. Thank God I’m not the kid I once was, or the young woman I once was, or the comic I once was. My material that dealt with race makes me really upset today. It was totally misguided and ignorant. Well-meaning, yes—but ignorant and misguided. I can only be in charge of who I am now. I have to look at other people that way too. I don’t think compassion is a waste of time. The world is changing fast. It’s hard for some people.
What would comedy look like if more there were more women headlining?
You’re going to see. It’s constantly changing. I see comedy as led by women. There are some great male comics out there, but I think the most exciting new comics right now are women. It’s not a coincidence—it’s all about opportunity, and that has to be enforced at the early stages. Guys are good at basketball because they shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot, and miss until they’re good at it. When women play, they say, “Oh, I shot and missed,” and they think they’re not good. Men are afforded the luxury of trying and failing. We have to be afforded that luxury—we need to give ourselves that luxury.
Ever since I got my driver’s license I would go to the Y and play pickup games, and it was mostly men. Every basket I missed, I was so down on myself. I was thinking the men were angry they were on the team with me. No man has that weight on them when they’re playing a game. [Finally] I was able to throw that away, and just play hard, miss, not give a fuck, and talk shit and laugh.
You’ve been in comedy for over two decades. How have you changed?
I’m always changing. I’m curious about shit. When you learn something new, you have to be
changed by it. Change is scary to people for some reason. Just like saying sorry is impossible for some people, and for me it’s just the most freeing thing to do. I like to be changed. It does make me look at older stuff and cringe. It can make me sick to think of, in the light of everything I know now. I have to forgive myself on some level. Be hard on yourself––until you change.
I sat and read the news a couple of years ago and said, “I can’t believe there’s this epidemic of unarmed black teenagers being murdered by cops.” It took me a second to realize this isn’t an epidemic. This is how it’s always been. Under that realization, I was totally changed. I looked at stuff I’d done about race that I thought was “woke,” before that was a word, and it was so ignorant. It fucks me up thinking about it, but all I can do is make it right.