Sarah Silverman, old? That is a joke, right?
Even in jest, it was pretty strange that Silverman would get mocked for her years, as she was at September’s Comedy Central roast of James Franco, because she seems to be aging at a rate far slower than anyone else on this planet.
Two decades into her performing career, Silverman retains the same sort of youthful irreverence — naive with a wink — that is very much in evidence in her upcoming HBO comedy special, “We Are Miracles” (premiering Nov. 23).
The fact that it has already been more than six years since “The Sarah Silverman Program” debuted on Comedy Central, eight years since her last smallscreen comedy special, “Jesus Is Magic,” a decade and a half since she did “The Larry Sanders Show” and two since “Saturday Night Live” comes as slightly astonishing. But, of course, outside of the roast context, it’s a trek to be admired.
If the years are having any effect, it’s been much more evolution than devolution — a sharpening of her tools rather than wrinkled or fatigued crankiness.
“I’m older and I’m smarter and I’m different — it would be sad if I wasn’t,” Silverman says from New York, where she has been mixing standup performances with the filming of Paul Feig-directed HBO pilot “People in New Jersey” with Topher Grace and Patti LuPone. “You grow and change in life, and your comedy should reflect that. It’s not a stage play; I’m not putting on ‘Our Town’ over and over again.”
“After ‘Jesus Is Magic,’ I kept doing that material and I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ Do I have to be the ignorant, arrogant character forever? You want to give the audience what they expect, but the audience expects surprise and you’ve already done that stuff. It gets identity-crisisy.”
To that point, Silverman’s career has also taken her in directions that surprise some but she finds completely natural, such as her work in the 2011 Sarah Polley-directed drama “Take This Waltz,” for example. (Full disclosure: the response below followed a mindless question by the reporter.)
“I remember Joan Rivers saying something (along the lines of) it’s so bizarre that people don’t realize that we’re acting onstage,” during standup performances, Silverman says. “Not to be defensive. I remember when Seth Rogen and I were doing press for ‘Take This Waltz’: ‘How was it different?’ We’re just like, ‘It’s the same. You’re just saying lines like they’re real.’ … People don’t know how to digest that.”
Similarly, there’s a level of nuance that will be lost on the pigeonholers trying to understand her role in “People in New Jersey,” in which she is co-starring as what might be called a yearning optimist.
“It’s totally in my wheelhouse, but it’s not what I’ve done before,” Silverman says. “It’s not how people necessarily know me, but it was a very natural role for me to play, because I’m also a person. I’m not just a gross character.”
Silverman says because she keeps her overhead low, she doesn’t really do anything that she doesn’t want to — except be on the road, which she loves while she’s onstage but otherwise can leave her lonely and homesick. (She says she travels “less than I should, more than I want.”) But her approach is just to follow her career wherever it goes, knowing that as long she keeps writing, she’ll always have a destination.
The constant is growth, to the degree that even something as polished as “We Are Miracles” still gnaws at her.
“I could hone jokes forever,” she says. “I can’t even watch the special now, even though I just shot it. … I like to hone and hone and hone, but eventually, you have to just be done.”
In that spirit of it’s never good enough, she reflects on her days at “SNL” in sanguine fashion: “I always say I didn’t get any sketches I wrote on, and then I read them years later and realized it was because they were terrible.”
It’s tempting to sum up Silverman’s humor as equal parts pussy and politics (“We Are Miracles” highlights her obsession with both), though again, simplification sells her short. Seamlessly integrated with TV-MA-rated material are sophisticated discussions of religion, government and personal rights.
But the priority remains the comedy — if there’s a point to be made, so much the better.
“I still have pussy jokes — don’t get me wrong — but I think (‘We Are Miracles’) just reflects where I’m at right now,” she says. “That all comes from an earnest place of what I can do, as a citizen. I have (the ears of my audience) I can talk to, so I want to use that, because I’m passionate about things.”
In the aftermath of the Franco roast, which left no participant unscathed, Silverman says she would continue to defend roast jokes “to the death,” even if it meant she had to crawl into bed for two days before re-emerging with her self-esteem. But in addition to everything else, time has brought Silverman a level of resiliency and an ability to see the long view — a lesson she absorbed from Garry Shandling during her time on “Larry Sanders” and that, well, befits her age.
“He taught me so many things that I carried through life, (such as) the fact that you’re the only one who can ever say, ‘This is too much for me,’ ” Silverman says. “You have to pay attention to your own human body and what you can handle. Things never come too late, they can only come too early.”