Sarah Silverman and Joel McHale Talk Politics, Standup and Adapting to the Binge-Watching Model

They may be the hosts of variety series on streaming services — his looks at popular clips from the world of pop culture under a humorous lens, while hers travels the country to interview those with different backgrounds and points of views than her own — but Joel McHale and Sarah Silverman are still stand-up comedians at heart.

That’s why, when they sat down with Variety, their conversation quickly diverged into tangents about shared collaborators (they both had projects with Dan Harmon), why after-parties are better when they’re in diners than loud, dark spaces, and why Silverman can’t watch McHale’s show with her dog (“She freaks out when she hears the bleeped noise”).

Here, McHale and Silverman talk about shaping the first seasons of “The Joel McHale Show With Joel McHale” and “I Love You, America With Sarah Silverman,” respectively, what freedoms streaming services gave them, and how their standup influenced their shows.

Do you feel like you have to make your content more evergreen to accommodate binge watchers?

McHale: We are switching to an all at once [release] because they learned that even though it was coming out every week, people were watching it all at once — which was really easy to do when the first one came out, because there was only one. So we’re just going to make the shows as if we’re just gathering things every week and hopefully the jokes will be funny.

Silverman: For my show, we have both components because the monologue that I do is a little more evergreen, even though it’s of this very moment [because] it’s really about the symptoms of how we got to this moment in time. And then there will be a cold open [in second season] of that day that we shoot — just me processing new information in real time. It will be just sloppy and dirty. But in terms of how people watch TV … I think there is no appointment TV — across the board. I may watch “This Is Us,” but I watch it whenever I’m in the mood to watch “This Is Us” at any given time.

McHale: Whenever you need a good cry.

Silverman: I’m not going, “Oh it’s Tuesday!”

McHale: Yeah, I have a 10- and 13-year-old. They don’t know —

Silverman: You don’t know what channels they are [on].

McHale: They don’t know any of it.

Silverman: So there is a little bit of “this is of right now,” but for us, the 10 episodes we did last fall and winter are just as relevant — and in some cases even more relevant — right now. But the truth is, in general — in a sweeping statement — comedy is not evergreen. This is the situation we’re all in — for every channel, every network, every streamer. There is no appointment television. As a matter of fact, it is my opinion that network television … those main networks, they spend so much money, they have so much on the line, and there is no appointment television, so if I were them I would just have live sports

McHale: Live musicals.

Silverman: Live musicals, live shows where you vote in real time for your singer. And everything else, just curate from the other places and get the kick-a– shows that are working other places and rerun them. Because it’s just too expensive to exist, I think. I don’t know the business side so much, but I think that was smart, what I just said.

McHale: I agree!

What kind of freedom do you feel you have to talk about the things you want to, the way you want to?

Silverman: Have you ever been to Europe and you’re on the beach and the girls all have their tits out? I went once with my boyfriend’s family, and after a couple of days, I did, too. Seeing his dad — seeing men — you don’t feel weird at all there. You feel weird with something on because nobody does. But then the pictures came back when I was home, and he sent me one two years ago from 20 years ago, and it was really weird.

McHale: I think what you’re saying about the topless thing is if you make it taboo it becomes a thing.

Silverman: Right. I grew up in a house where anyone can say anything, so then with TV, we were used to — in America — that you can’t swear. But now we’re both in formats where you can say whatever you want, and it’s odd. I keep thinking about the word “s—.” It’s just s— — it only means crap, doody, poop. And all of those words are fine? What makes “s—” taboo? I dare you to have an answer.

Sarah Silverman and Joel McHale Variety Actors on Actors Conversation
CREDIT: Shayan Asgharnia for Variety

McHale: There’s a great joke in “Infinity War.” I am not kidding you. Thor is talking to Star-Lord, and he was like, “We’re going to this place,” and I can’t remember where, so let’s just call it Nevado. And he was like, “It’s just a made-up word.” And Thor was like, “Aren’t all words made up?” And I was like, “Holy s—! That was a great joke! And incredibly insightful.”

Silverman: Joke? It’s blowing my mind!

What is the balance you want to strike with how much of yourselves to put in your shows?

Silverman: This is corny as f—, but my whole heart and soul is put into this little show on Hulu. … What helps me to be open when I’m with people whose ideologies are so polar-opposite from me, what works in my favor is the thing that’s f—ed up with me, which makes me a comedienne — I want people to like me. I want them to love me, and then they do, and then I love them. And that’s what happens with them, as well, because as silly or trite as this sounds, we all just want to be loved — or feel loved or feel heard. It’s like hecklers. A long time ago I realized there’s a subtext to everything a heckler yells out, and it’s “I exist — right?” And I feel that with all of us fighting on social media or being so divided, the root of all of it, even up to the top of Donald Trump is “I exist, right?” I think we’re having an existential crisis. Boom, follow that.

McHale: We found a baby getting baptized in a Greek church, and they just kept shoving it up and down, and for me, I jumped up and down and said, “The world is a great place to be in right now. No matter what anybody says, this is a good time.” No, obviously Sarah’s show is much more bold, and [she] takes a lot more risks. Just the Westboro Baptist Church lady — that was such a good interview. And we look for silly things to make fart jokes about or to say, “Can you believe this character from ‘Love & Hip Hop’ hasn’t told his fiance about f—ing someone in the hot tub before? Why would you say it into a camera if you didn’t want her to find out?” People have asked, “So are you going to think about Trump?” And I’m like, “I don’t know if you watched ‘The Soup’ but we just look for silly things.”

Silverman: You showed an “Apprentice” clip a while ago.

McHale: Yeah, the show is not what you think it is. But the only reason we came back was because someone watched it. It’s not like at the networks where every day you go, “What were the overnights? What were the Nielsens?” Now they just go, “That was fine, thank you.” … But as a comedian I live in constant fear that people won’t find me funny, so I hire people that are funnier than me to write jokes and they make me look good, and then they get paid less.

Silverman: But I also want to say the mission statement of my show is anything heady — anything with anything to say — has to be wrapped in a big doughy, bready sandwich of aggressively dumb and silly. …That’s my favorite kind of humor. If I say something is “so dumb,” that’s like the biggest compliment.

So you don’t feel pressure to get political the way late-night hosts have?

McHale: I’m not smart enough to do the politics, that’s why I stick with reality TV.

Silverman: It’s just the soap opera I watch. It’s not any smarter than that. That’s my “GH” right now — “General Hospital.”

How do you feel like your standup careers have influenced or prepared you to be the face of these shows?

McHale: Well, Sarah has a successful standup career, and I played a Mexican restaurant that was turned into a comedy club that they didn’t bother to change from a Mexican restaurant. It’s in Indianapolis.

Silverman: Yeah, but not recently.

McHale: It was two months ago. I called it evil Buca di Beppo. But they were very nice, those people.

Silverman: For me, it does. I’m doing standup a lot right now, but I’m really developing the [material] I’m going to put into monologues [on the show]. I’m excited about it, but then they’re dead after that. I want people to watch it. You can do something that you’re passionate about, that you put your whole heart and soul into, and it will be niche and maybe people will check it out [but] it will never be what you need it to be. And then you fart in a cup and then 10 million people will watch it. You can’t control it.

What is your shoot schedule?

Silverman: We’ll write for most of the summer, and when we’re writing monologues, we kind of rant and rant and rant and then take it all and make it a kind of cohesive episode.

McHale: We have to have time to gather everything. So in six weeks we’ll tape over two weeks. We can load up with everything and kind of go, “Here’s everything that happened this summer.” So we’ll see if it works. If not, do you need people on your show?

Silverman: Oh my god, we need a research department.

McHale: Does it pay well?

Did it feel experimental when you first started the shows?

Silverman: There isn’t a comparable show.

McHale: There are no rules. I was like, “Sweaters and denim, that’s it!” So I’ve worn two denim shirts and the rest have been sweaters.

“The Joel McHale Show” kind of does follow the model of “The Soup,” though.

McHale: I did the show on E! for so long I forgot who I was. No, I loved doing it, but now with no commercials and we don’t stop — we just do the show all the way through — it’s exhilarating. And I am super dyslexic, so reading the Teleprompter is always a wonderful adventure. … When I first started taping “The Soup” it took me four hours to get through 20 minutes of jokes because I was f—ing them up so much. … You don’t get over dyslexia, you just get better at it … so I’m f—ing it up all the time, and I know I’m f—ing it up when I hear the writers laughing in all of the wrong places. It makes me very happy, and then they just start heckling me. [But] I definitely wanted to keep the commercial breaks, and I wanted to keep the revenue from them.

Silverman: I felt the same way! On Hulu, I was like, “Let’s keep the integrations” and see if they buy in or not. I’d love to be like, “Tampax, shove ’em up ya!” This is what it’s brought to you by. Or anything. I love doing ads. I do ads in my mirror all of the time.

Do you see a world in which that kind of integration becomes a reality?

Silverman: Yeah, I mean I would want to make sure I liked them, but [I’d be open to it] as long as I could make my own script and didn’t have to say a slogan.

McHale: For Netflix, they just wanted us to keep it short — because we pitched commercials, and they said, “Just keep it to 21 minutes and we’ll be happy.” And I said, “How about two minutes!?” But they wanted it to be short and sweet. And we’ve had some fake commercials throughout it, but streaming services are raking in cash so you can s— on anything.

What have you learned from your first batch of episodes that you’re taking to heart for the next?

Silverman: They always present notes that are like, “These are just suggestions, we are collaborating with you.” And I guess there have been some notes where I’ve been like, “Pass,” but most of their notes I really like and they’ve inspired me. I learned a long time ago that even the crappiest, s—tiest network note makes your stuff better because it’s just another boundary that you have to figure out.

McHale: So you’ve actually gotten good, creative network notes? Or streaming notes?

Silverman: Yeah. …The only time it’s frustrating is when you don’t understand the spirit of the note. You know that they’re onto something, and they know they’re onto something, but they can’t articulate it because they’re not just perfect, superhuman people. So you have to kind of figure out the spirit of where that’s coming from.

And in terms of what you learned personally?

Silverman: I learned so much doing my show, so I’m fundamentally changed. My life has changed doing this show, so for me, even if it’s in a vacuum in some way, it’s incredible. With every interview I’ve had I’ve felt moral change. I love Jesuits now — I think I’ve made like three Jesuit friends.

McHale: Have you read that “Tattoos on the Heart” book? By the guy that started Homeboy Industries?

Silverman: Oh that’s who we had on the show! Father Gregory Boyle. He had a new book out since then.

McHale: He’s extraordinary.

Silverman: He said, “If we don’t make peace with our wounds, we’ll be tempted to despise the wounded.” I think about it every day, and I see it in myself and so many times. Change is also just about being mindful and learning something and then putting it into use. It’s a practice, like anything is a practice. But I really was just so inspired by him — and Christian Picciolini, who was a Nazi skinhead. … For 30 years he’s gotten out and helps people leave extremist groups. And he said, “Find someone who does not deserve your compassion and give it to them because that’s what happened to me.” And really, that also happened with Megan Phelps-Roper, she was put in charge of social media because [the Westboro Baptist Church] wanted to get the word out, and people, I’m sure, were nasty to her.

McHale: When she said it was so weird to see people with different opinions, dear God.

Silverman: Because she was born into this. This was all she knew. It was everything she loved. … We are the products of how we were raised. I was luckily raised by a couple liberal, Jewish, Democrat bleeding hearts, but I don’t know if I would be who I am if I wasn’t raised that way, so I’m always blown away by people who gather new information and are changed, and I want to emulate that.

McHale: Well, when we had Father Greg Boyle on “The Joel McHale Show,” we had him with Seth Rogen — no.

Silverman: Why aren’t you addressing social change on your show about reality-show clips?

McHale: I feel like we are addressing social change because editing has gotten way better, and the internet has better kind of crazy stuff now. It used to be crazy with the Whitney Houston show with Bobby Brown — all of that stuff is pretty much gone from reality shows now because people went, “This is career-ending for people.” And so this is clearly not as important as what Sarah is saying.

Silverman: But they are two different shows that serve big, important purposes — entertainment, laughter.

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