Actress and comedian
B orn December 1, 1970, in Bedford, NH; daughter of Donald (a clothing store owner) and BethAnn (a college theater director) Silverman. Education: Attended New York University, c. 1988-89.
Addresses: Agent—Creative Artists Agency, Inc., 9830 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA90212. Home— Los Angeles, CA.
B egan career as a stand-up comic in New YorkCity, late 1980s. Actress on television, including:Comic Strip Live, early 1990s; Saturday Night Live, NBC, 1993-94; Mr. Show with Bob and David, HBO, 1995-97; Star Trek: Voyager, 1996; The Larry Sanders Show, 1996; Seinfeld, 1997; Brotherly Love, 1997; JAG, 1997; The Naked Truth, 1997; Futurama, 2000; V.I.P., 2002; Greg the Bunny, FOX, 2002-04; Frasier, 2003; Monk, 2004, 2007; Entourage, 2004; American Dad, 2005; The Sarah Silverman Program, Comedy Central, 2007—. Film appearances include: Overnight Delivery, 1998; Bulworth, 1998; There’s Something About Mary, 1998; The Bachelor, 1999; The Way of the Gun, 2000; Black Days, 2001; Say It Isn’t So, 2001; Heart-breakers, 2001; Evolution, 2001; Run Ronnie Run, 2002; The School of Rock, 2003; Nobody’s Perfect, 2004; Rent, 2005; I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, 2005; Jesus is Magic (also writer) 2005; School for Scoundrels, 2006; The Aristocrats, 2006.
S arah Silverman belongs to a rarified club of female comedians who have achieved certainmilestones of success in mainstream entertainment.
In 2005, her one-woman, off-Broadway show Jesus Is Magic was turned into feature film, and in 2007 her eponymous sitcom-like series began airing on Comedy Central. A favorite among male comedians for the risqué nature of her jokes, some of which have landed her in trouble in the media, Silverman delivers her self-deprecating or cutting commentary with a straight face that belies her irreverent attitude, but much media attention has focused on her appearance. “Silverman would be a singular talent even if she wasn’t beautiful,” noted Owen Gleiber-man in Entertainment Weekly, “but it would be foolish to deny that watching a stand-up comedian who resembles the world’s sexiest art-history major” did not have its appeal. Silverman, Gleiberman continued, “makes her attractiveness relevant by delivering each scathing, oooo-did-she-really-say-that? joke as if it were a come-on.”
Born in 1970, Silverman was the last of Donald and Beth Ann Silverman’s four daughters. The family lived in Bedford, New Hampshire, an affluent suburb of Manchester, and were an exuberant, somewhat nontraditional clan. Beth Ann headed the theater department at a local college, while Silverman’s father owned a chain of local clothing stores and delighted in such pranks as teaching his youngest daughter to swear when she was still a toddler. “I was raised by parents who had no boundaries in terms of what a child should or shouldn’t hear or see,” Silverman said in an interview with New York Times writer Marcelle Clements. “I didn’t have much idea of what was not to be talked about.”
Silverman’s parents divorced around the time she entered first grade, and the resulting emotional up-heaval provoked a bed-wetting habit that endured until she was in her teens; after that, she began to suffer from occasional panic attacks. In interviews, the comedian has said that psychotherapy alleviated her clinical depression, as did anti-depressant drugs, but she has also noted that despair seems to breeds comic gold in her industry. “I had an unhappy childhood and, sadly, I think that that really helps,” she told Back Stage West journalist Jamie Painter Young. “I think a lot of humiliation and living through it and coming out the other side puts a perspective on how silly things are.”
Known as the outrageous one in a family of extro-verts, Silverman gravitated toward musical theater in her teens, playing the title role in a production of Annie at the age of 12. Her first stand-up appearance came during a summer school stint in Boston, where she visited a comedy club with friends and signed up for the open mic slot. For college, she chose New York University and its drama program, but began spending far more time hanging around comedy clubs in the city, often distributing flyers in exchange for a chance onstage at the end of the night. Exasperated by her failure to take her studies seriously, her father told her, “‘I’ll make a deal with you. If you quit college, I’ll pay your rent and utilities for what would be your sophomore, junior, and senior years,’,” she recalled in a later interview with Back Stage West, this time with Jenelle Riley. “It saved him a ton of money.”
Moving through the comedy club circuit, Silverman eventually made it onto an episode of Comic Strip Live, a late-night FOX television series that aired between 1989 and 1994. Producers for Saturday Night Live (SNL) saw the performance, and she won a highly coveted slot as a writer and performer on the legendary NBC sketch comedy series for its 1993-94 season. She appeared only briefly in a few skits, however, and much of her written material was rejected; at the end of the season, she learned that SNL’s executives had fired her when her agent called to tell her he had received a faxed letter notifying him of her dismissal. The entire experience was traumatic, to say the least, she told Riley in the Back Stage West interview. “It didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t be asked back,” she recalled, and said that being fired devastated her. Accordingly, she faltered for nearly a year in her stand-up routine, hampered by a palpable lack of confidence on stage. In the end, she realized that the worst had already happened to her, which ultimately freed her from fear. “It was like a broken bone; it just healed stronger. Nothing in terms of a downfall in my career could raze me after that,” she told Riley.
In the mid1990s, Silverman moved cross-country to Los Angeles, and began landing small parts on television, including a role as Rain Robinson in two episodes of Star Trek: Voyager. The irreverent comedy duo of Bob Odenkirk and David Cross hired her for their HBO sketch comedy series, Mr. Show with Bob and David, which achieved cult status, and she spoofed her SNL stint on another much-loved HBO series, The Larry Sanders Show, as a television writer whose jokes never make it to the air. From this point, she began to win small roles in films, beginning with the 1998 romantic comedy Overnight Delivery, which also featured two relative unknowns, Paul Rudd and Reese Witherspoon. She also had a part in one of that year’s top-grossing films, There’s Something About Mary, but soon realized that she was being typecast as the mean female character.
Silverman’s acerbic wit landed her in some trouble in July of 2001 when she appeared on Late Night With Conan O’Brien and used a derogatory term for Asian Americans while discussing tactics for evading jury duty. The head of a watchdog group, Guy Aoki of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, mounted a campaign against Late Night’s network, NBC, and Silverman. NBC was forced to issue an apology, but Silverman refused; instead, she wrote to Aoki and suggested they meet in person to discuss what she maintained was a joke about rac-ism, not a racist joke. Aoki divulged her e-mail address in the media and she was inundated with hate mail, some of it virulently antiSemitic. Afew weeks later, she defended her joke at the invitation of talk show host Bill Maher on his show Politically Incorrect, and a month later reappeared on Maher’s chat-fest, this time with Aoki. Their verbal sparring de-volved into name-calling. “The truth of the matter is, it’s not a moral issue in terms of the network,” she reflected in the midst of the controversy when interviewed by the New York Observer’s Alexander Jacobs, noting that NBC “may put this facade on that it is, but it’s about advertisers and the F.C.C. and pleasing them. It has nothing to do with morals; they are void of morals. It’s all about money.”
That same August, Silverman began performing a one-woman show called Jesus Is Magic in New York City’s off-Broadway venues, and the routine was eventually filmed and released as the concert film Jesus Is Magic in 2005. In it, she mentions the battle with Aoki, telling her audience that the activist “put my name in the papers calling me a racist, and it hurt,” she said, according to Dana Goodyear in a lengthy New Yorker profile. “As a Jew—as a member of the Jewish community—I was really concerned that we were losing control of the media.” Silverman’s Jewish heritage has proved rich comic fodder for her over the years, with many of her quips classifying her as the stereotypical Jewish American Princess, but on a more serious note she believes it has also hampered her career. “Whenever I talk to a suit, or if I am on a friendly level with someone networky, I always ask them the same question, which is: ‘If Winona Ryder kept her name Winona Horowitz, would she have all these leading-actress roles under her belt?’,” she told Jacobs in the New York Observer interview. “And 100 percent of them said, ‘No.’ I couldn’t believe they would be that honest! Isn’t that weird? You know, I mean, it’s not because there are non-Jews running Hollywood!”
In 2005 Silverman also appeared in The Aristocrats, a documentary film about a notorious joke that for decades had been a secret career touchstone among comedians, who privately regaled one another in a retelling of a raunchy tale about a vaudeville family act, with each attempting to give it an even cruder twist. Silverman’s version included her deadpan assertion that veteran New York City talk show host Joe Franklin had sexually assaulted her, and subsequent footage of Franklin shows him fuming over the remark. Meanwhile, her feature film career was still relegated to supporting roles in such films as The School of Rock and School for Scoundrels. In 2006, however, she landed her own series on Comedy Central, and the first six episodes of The Sarah Silverman Program began airing in early 2007. Her show was a mix of reality and fiction, originally filmed right in her Los Angeles apartment and starring her sister, actress Laura Silverman, as her on-screen sister, Laura. Silverman played Sarah, a deeply self-absorbed young woman who makes near-constant offensive remarks—about African Americans, the homeless, and nearly all population groups—in what appeared to be a parody of a quirky, single-girl sitcom. “I’m just like you,” she burbles in the voice-over introduction. “I live in Valley Village, I don’t have a job, and my sister pays the rent.”
Like Silverman’s comic routine, her series was either loved or loathed by critics and audiences alike. Critiquing it for Daily Variety, Brian Lowrey described it as “a juvenile, crude, and wholly irreverent exercise that, in its energy and penchant for the absurd, resembles a latter-day version of ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse’ pitched to the college-frat set. Although Silverman’s shtick won’t be everyone’s overcaffein-ated cup of tea, the series seems destined to gain a well-deserved cult following.” The series did well enough that Comedy Central ordered 14 more episodes for 2007-08, which made Silverman one of a small but notable list of female comedians who garnered their own show on the highly watched, but male-dominated cable network.
Silverman has been romantically linked with ABC late-night television talk show host Jimmy Kimmel since 2003. The pair first crossed paths at a Friars Club roast for Hugh Hefner two years earlier which was emceed by Kimmel; Silverman was the only female to take the dais that night, and kicked off her act with a dig at Kimmel. “I introduced her,” Kim-mel told James Poniewozik in Time, “and she said, ‘Jimmy Kimmel: he’s fat and has no charisma. Watch your back, Danny Aiello.’” The pair sometimes do joint interviews, such as one that appeared in a January 2007 issue of Esquire in which they made jokes about their relationship’s most intimate aspects, and Silverman proved once again she never retreated from poking fun at everyone, including herself. “I’m always in those tabloids where they show who’s badly dressed,” she told the writer, Mike Sager. “It’s funny, because each time I’m getting my picture taken, I’m thinking, This is a nice outfit. There’s no way this will make the badly dressed list. I’m matching and everything.” Kimmel pointed out that once she sees the published result, she concurs with the assessment. “I’m like, They’re right. It’s not so good. I just look like a transvestite when I try to dress up.”
Back Stage West, October 31, 2002, p. 8; November 10, 2005, p. 1.
Daily Variety, January 31, 2007, p. 14.
Entertainment Weekly, November 18, 2005, p. 106.
Esquire, January 2007, p. 86.
New Yorker, October 24, 2005, p. 50.
New York Observer, August 6, 2001, p. 11.
New York Times, November 9, 2005; January 31, 2007; February 1, 2007.
Time, February 5, 2007, p. 64.