Funny-girl Sarah waxes lyrical
Sarah Silverman, the star of Disney’s new movie, sits down with Donal Lynch to chat about mental health, bad jokes, beauty catastrophes, children and her desire to be the ‘fun dad’
‘SO… am I everything you imagined?” Sarah Silverman asks as she curls up in an oversized armchair at the Merrion Hotel. I want to say yes, but, in fact, she seems a little too much on the money of the Sarah Silverman brand to be quite real: that slightly helium-inflected voice, the whimsical woman-child musings, the winsome body language — it’s all so perfectly observed you half-wonder if she’s an impersonator. Yes! My God, you are onto me, the real her is much surlier,” she laughs. “Don’t tell anyone: I’m her body double, I do all her interviews, while she sleeps.”
Which might work, except, of course, probably no stand-in could be as effortlessly funny as she is. Silverman is, of course, a comedy icon in America, a stalwart of Saturday Night Live, a Simpsons cameo and a stand-up legend, but somehow it’s in interviews — unscripted and improvised — where her instinctive, playful wit shines the brightest. You can see why she hit it off with a talk show host like Jimmy Kimmel, whom she dated for years. Today she’s on a hardcore publicity treadmill, but still seems effervescently enthusiastic in tiny slices of access.
She’s in town to promote her new film — Ralph Breaks The Internet — a cleverly written animated feature about the limits of friendship and the neuroses the internet infects us with. It centres around Wreck It Ralph and Vannellope — impish renegades from 1990s-era arcade games — who venture out into the information superhighway in search of the same things we all want: cash and affirmation. The animation — at once highly realistic and fantastical — is eye-popping and the mischievous humour in Silverman’s girlish voice was aided, she says, by the freedom the directors gave her and co-star John C Reilly (who voices Ralph) to improvise when the urge took them. “The directors let us be so loose together. We could really play the scene and react to each other. There are bits that may go above the kids’ heads. The internet kind of happened to us and it brought out things in us that were always there, but maybe it made them even worse than they were. Just take, for example, the fact that the ‘ bad guy’ in the film is really Ralph’s own insecurities; that’s the story of the internet — it’s us versus ourselves.”
One of the central messages of the film is that seeking fulfilment in another person — even a platonic friend — is not the way to go. Silverman tells me that her mother taught her early on that she had to be, first and foremost, her own best friend. It was something that sustained her through a sometimes difficult childhood in New Hampshire, where hers was the only Jewish family for miles. As a child, she was a chronic bed wetter — she made it the title of her autobiography — and would have to carry the shameful secret of a spare pampers in her bag to sleepover camps. In her teens, she would suffer from crippling depression — by the age of 14 she was taking 16 Xanax a day. When her stepfather asked what it was like to be depressed, she replied: “I feel homesick.”
The silver lining to all this was that coming out of the depression, which she finally did in her late teens, gave her a new-found appreciation of the little things in life. “I remember driving in a cab and just feeling appreciative, for instance, of the wind on my face,” she recalls. “I was in Los Angeles and I was on my way to get my eyebrows waxed. My roommate had said, hey, why don’t we get your brows done, so there are, you know, two: one for each eye. And I was like “mmm, I guess, OK” and we went to the place in the cab and there was this lady in the waiting room and she said “Sarah?” and I was following her into the waxing room and she turns around and goes “what are we doing today? Just the moustache?” And I was like “What?! No! My eyebrows!” And inside I was thinking, “what is she talking about? I bleach my moustache, that means it’s completely invisible”. And it was, as in ‘ bright yellow invisible’. And she did the wax and when I came out of the salon, I could feel this strange new sensation; the wind on my upper lip. So yeah, maybe it was coming out of depression that made me appreciate it, or maybe it was just not being as hairy any more.”
After school, she enrolled in the drama course at New York University and started doing open-mic nights all over the city. At 22, she got hired as a writer-performer for Saturday Night Live, where she lasted only a season (Bob Odenkirk — Saul from Breaking Bad and a writer on SNL — once said that her voice was too idiosyncratically her own to last at the show). The mental health difficulties would continue to stalk her — she began suffering from panic attacks. She was prescribed medication which helped, she says, and she made her mental health issues a staple of her standup. During these years, she says, she spent “many years bombing in clubs and staying in terrifying motels”, but in 2005, her one-woman show, Jesus Is Magic, was made into a film, which won her national attention. On the stand-up tour in support of the film, she uttered the immortal line: “I was raped by a doctor. Which is, you know, so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.
“There are so many jokes I make that I cringe at, that I would never
Sarah Silverman voices Vannellope in the new ‘Wreck It Ralph’ movie — which explores