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Sarah Silverman on the Importance of Being ‘Influenced by the World’

As a comedian, Sarah Silverman says the type of humor she personally gravitates toward is the really “aggressively dumb, silly humor,” such as fart jokes. But lately, she has become much more known for her political commentary on her Emmy-nominated Hulu show, “I Love You, America With Sarah Silverman,” as well as on her Twitter account.

“I never made a plan of who I wanted to be or what I wanted to talk about,” Silverman says. “The world around me is just my ‘General Hospital’.… Eventually the world around me became more interesting to me.”

Silverman, set to receive her star Nov. 9 on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, says she can’t pinpoint a specific moment that made her want to incorporate more of what was going on around her in the world into her work. But, she says, she has “come to a place in my life where I’m trying to figure out the ways in which I’ve been set in my ways and the ways in which that’s been historically set from my childhood.”

She also may not have intentionally set out to evolve her style into one that became increasingly topical — in fact, she feels her material is strongest when it is a blend of the news of the day and more universally silly jokes. “Otherwise I feel like you just watch someone preaching, and that’s not comedy,” she notes. “I like to allow myself to be influenced by the world around me — how it’s changing, why it’s changing, and what part of that I want to be.”

This is why Silverman has no qualms about revisiting some of her earlier work and holding herself accountable for elements she now deems problematic, such as a 2007 sketch in which she donned blackface to examine whether being Jewish was harder than being African-American.

“Shaka Senghor, whom I interviewed [on ‘I Love You, America’], said we don’t have to be defined by our worst moments, but we do have to acknowledge them,” she says. “I feel like unless you can admit to those things you can’t be changed by them and you can’t even forgive yourself for them.”

Silverman got her start in standup in the early-1990s and very quickly joined sketch comedy juggernaut “Saturday Night Live” as a writer and featured player. After a year on the show, she continued down the sketch road with stints on “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Mr. Show” before bringing to life “The Sarah Silverman Program,” her own sitcom featuring a fictional version of herself.

As an actress, Silverman also appeared in films including “School of Rock” and “I Smile Back,” as well as television series ranging from “Louie” to “Masters of Sex,” and she has lent her voice to animation projects including “Futurama,” “The Simpsons,” “Bob’s Burgers” and the “Wreck-It Ralph” franchise. The latter bows Nov. 21, just 11 days after her Walk of Fame ceremony.

“I have no problem speaking out towards people in power who are lying.”
Sarah Silverman

“‘Ralph Breaks the Internet’ is pure joy,” Silverman says. “The movie’s so good, and this character was kind of based on me in some ways — just turning your glitch into your superpower was influenced by my bedwetting as a kid. That sounds really cocky, but that’s what Rich [Moore, the writer-director] said when we were promoting the first one, and it moved me so much. It’s so cathartic to get to play this little you.”

But Silverman has been mostly focused on her latest sketch show, “I Love You, America.” In it she delivers two monologues — one that reacts directly to a piece of news and another that is a little broader, longer-form and more akin to her standup sets. She also sits down with a wide range of personalities — from Will Ferrell playing Socrates out to lunch with Silverman, to Christian Picciolini, who was recruited into the white power movement as a teenager but later left to work with peace advocacy groups — to discuss everything from abortion to racial injustice to experiences in prison.

“Mr. Rogers” is a big influence on Silverman when she talks about how to look at one’s self or another person with compassion and understanding, elements that are imperative to the interviews she conducts.

“It’s just thrilling for me, talking to so many different minds and points of view,” she says. “I see that it’s possible to love them. I left every single one of them caring about them as people and hugging them goodbye and in some cases staying in touch. … For me there is a difference between the liars and the lied to. I have a compassion for the lied to — the people who are just believing what is being said to them. But I have no problem speaking out towards people in power who are lying because of agendas or money. I will always have a disdain for that.”

Sarah Silverman has hearty political discussions on “I Love You, America” and lends her voice to the “Wreck-It Ralph” franchise.
Courtesy of Hulu/Disney

Silverman admits she doesn’t think every comedian should be doing what she is doing. “Some people just want to be the one who everyone turns to to laugh [and] that’s just as important because if you can make a divided country laugh, that’s something that brings people together, and that’s huge — that’s a wildly important thing, too,” she says. She sees parallels between all kinds of comedy because “what they all have in common is getting at some kind of truth. Even if what we’re saying is jokes, it reflects a truth of our time.”

Silverman defines the success of her projects not by how many people agree with her truth or how hard they laugh at her jokes but instead by how much she enjoys the experience.

“There’s nothing more soul-killing than working on something you don’t believe in,” she says.

And out of all of her success thus far in her career, it is “I Love You, America” that she says, “fills my heart and soul” the most.

“I go by the country of Bhutan’s definition of success, which is gross national happiness. And making this show has been the happiest experience of my life,” she says. “It’s all I think about, it’s all I work on, and even when I’m so tired and want to just rest, I dream about it. It consumes me, and who knows if it’s healthy, but it’s all I want to be doing. And it’s fundamentally changed me — with every person I talk to, every experience I have.”

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