One morning not so long ago, Sarah Silverman needed some weed. So she drove to Santa Monica and pulled into a parking space outside a dispensary.
That's when the trouble started. A man in an Escalade got out of the car and started screaming.
"What's wrong with you? You hit my car, you b----."
Whoa. Silverman was sure that she hadn't so much as smudged his bumper. But, even if she had, did this man's response match the crime? Standing there, Silverman had a choice: shout back or try one of her social experiments. Could kindness convert this negative energy into something positive?
"I'm so sorry," Silverman said without a tinge of sarcasm. "Show me where the scratch is? I'll pay for it."
That's all it took. The man was disarmed. He told her to forget about it; life would move on.
Except that Sarah Silverman knew the story was perfect material - not necessarily comedy gold, but funny enough and with a deeper message. She told her sister, Laura, about it in a Zoom, mentioned it to her producer, Raj Desai, and then recounted it on "The Sarah Silverman Podcast" a few days later.
The interaction is about human behavior and our ability to reshape even the ugliest confrontations by trying just a bit harder. It also highlights Silverman's special superpower, the ability to use her glow and an awwcomeonbuddy nudge to convert all sorts of nasty mojo.
She would be delivering this story onstage now, except that there's a pandemic and, therefore, no gigs. Or she might be telling it on TV, except that Hulu canceled her "I Love You, America" series in 2019 and HBO passed on her latest pilot last year. Then again, it makes cosmic sense that this is being told on her podcast, because it's hard to imagine Silverman's pot-fueled parable getting space to breathe on those other platforms. The HBO bigwigs would have told her to tighten up the anecdote. The rules of standup would have required the setup to be met by a punchline.
Which is why "The Sarah Silverman Podcast," launched by the longtime comedian a few months ago with little fanfare and a sense of resignation, may be one of the sneakiest successes of the pandemic.
"I mean, yeah, I came to it because my hands were bound," Silverman says in a recent Zoom interview from her apartment in Los Angeles. "I couldn't do standup and I had no place to put stuff. But now I realize this was really what I needed to do. I just can't believe the freedom and the messiness and the looseness. It's maybe something I didn't realize I was missing."
Everybody has a podcast, she'd grumble when the subject would come up in the past. "And I get it," says director Adam McKay ("The Big Short," "Anchorman"), a longtime friend and one of those nudging her. "You want to do a TV show. It certainly seems bigger and cooler, but that's changing. I honestly don't know anyone out there right now with the reach that Joe Rogan has."
Rogan, the former "Fear Factor" host and second-tier standup before he launched "The Joe Rogan Experience" in 2009, chums around with Elon Musk and signed a $100 million deal with Spotify last year. Rogan says the podcast has 190 million downloads each month. Marc Maron reinvented himself with "WTF," with then-President Barack Obama showing up at his garage in Los Angeles. Conan O'Brien, with his ever-shrinking late-night show, expanded with "Conan Needs a Friend" and his Team Coco company producing other podcasts. (Silverman considered an offer from O'Brien's company, but chose Kast Media because she thought Team Coco wanted too big of a revenue share.)
Still, Silverman had other plans for 2020.
Her big project was "The Bedwetter," a musical adaptation of her best-selling 2010 memoir. It was set to open off-Broadway in May at the Atlantic Theater Company with a cast that included Linda Lavin and Stephanie J. Block.
In early March, Silverman was in New York with playwright Joshua Harmon, who co-wrote the book, and Adam Schlesinger, the Fountains of Wayne founder and Emmy winner, who wrote the music.
Schlesinger, years earlier, had been the one who pitched the idea of a musical after reading the memoir, a freewheeling, origin story of the anxious young girl - she struggled with enuresis, or bed-wetting, until she was 16 - who became a comic star.
In mid-March, after the NBA shutdown, the Atlantic closed its doors and postponed the show. "And two or three days later, Adam texts: 'You won't believe this, I think I have this thing. I have a super high fever and a cough,' " Silverman says. "And then, April 1, he was dead. Dead."
By then, HBO had already passed on "Silvershow."
Over the past decade, Silverman's penchant for shocking, potty-mouthed material has evolved to embrace more of what she calls social politics. She's still not above discussing, in detail, her internet porn search words. But she also addressed the Democratic National Convention. Her philosophy, onstage and off, is that not everybody is stupid, not only her views are right, and if we listen to those we disagree with instead of rolling our eyes, we might get somewhere. Imagine being as clever as John Oliver without the snark.
"I Love You, America," which ran from 2017 to 2019, embraced that evolution. In one early segment, Silverman traveled to Louisiana to visit a family of rabid Donald Trump supporters. During the visit, she led a discussion about health insurance, and it became clear that the family, which had been mercilessly bashing Obama, was covered by "Obamacare."
"That moment was the crystallizing moment for me," says Amy Zvi, Silverman's longtime manager and an executive producer on the show. "Rather than say, 'You realize that you're wrong and I'm right,' Sarah didn't correct them."
"I don't want to make people look dumb," Silverman says. "Those aren't the people I care to show up. I think people can be changed, but they're never going to be changed by feeling judged."
"I Love You, America" lasted two seasons, earning Emmy nominations each year and allowing Silverman to boldly confront even her most uncomfortable experiences. She scolded old friend Louis C.K., but admitted that she hadn't been traumatized when he asked if he could masturbate in front of her - and then did. She addressed her use of blackface in a 2007 episode of her Comedy Central sitcom, "The Sarah Silverman Program," even turning it into a penetrating bit.
Silverman, after telling the audience that blackface - under any circumstances - is wrong, invited actor Don Cheadle onstage to explain its history. He began to read off the teleprompter before stopping, in frustration, and turning to Silverman.
"You're doing exactly what you said not to do," Cheadle scolded. "You're asking a Black person to explain to White people why blackface is bad. It's not my job to educate ignorant White people."
"Silvershow" set a similar tone. Silverman filmed the HBO pilot early last year on a bare-bones set. It opens with a monologue and gives way to a video spoof about censorship of women's nipples set to Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire." Silverman then leads a lively discussion about the ills of social media with Sacha Baron Cohen and journalist Sheera Frenkel.
"Silvershow" was exactly what Silverman wanted: a spot for her brand of commentary and comedy in the same territory as Oliver and Bill Maher. Without explanation, HBO passed.
"I think it's madness," Baron Cohen says. "I saw that show and I thought, she's fantastic. She's incredibly outspoken, incredibly intelligent and amazingly funny. So it seems bizarre that she's not fronting a show that is primarily political."
One of Silverman's most illuminating exchanges did not take place on a TV set or a stage. In 2017, early in Trump's first term, she tweeted about her desire to connect and communicate more with the president's supporters. Jeremy Jamrozy, a San Antonio man, did not appreciate the idea. He responded with a nasty epithet that began with the letter "c." Silverman could have slammed or blocked him. Instead, she scrolled through Jamrozy's online history and contacted him.
"I believe in you," she responded on Twitter. "I read ur timeline & I see what ur doing & your rage is thinly veiled pain. But u know that. I know this feeling. Ps My back ... sux too. see what happens when u choose love. I see it in you."
Jamrozy opened up. He told her that he had been molested as a boy and felt alone. He also apologized for the hostility.
"Dood I don't care," Silverman tweeted. "I'm fine. I see something in you. My gut tells me you could have a great life. My shrink says we don't get what we want, we get what we think we deserve. I'm telling you, you deserve so much more than you know."
"It's really one of the more inspiring things I've seen, like the mouse pulling the thorn out of the tiger's paw," McKay says.
The exchange with Jamrozy may have seemed unusual, but for those closest to Silverman, it made perfect sense.
"There are times we will look at someone eating alone in a restaurant and we feel like we can't go on," says Susan Silverman, a rabbi in Israel and one of three older sisters.
Sister Laura thinks Silverman's natural inclination to think of others is rooted in her childhood and, specifically, her relationship with her mother.
Silverman was 6 when her parents, Beth Ann and Donald, divorced. Instead of the four girls staying together, she, the youngest, chose to stay with Mom. Her sisters moved in with Dad.
Silverman's mother was beautiful, intelligent and artistic. She would direct more than 50 plays in their native New Hampshire and, after her divorce, at age 42, enroll in college. But she was also distracted and flaky. There would be food in the house, but Sarah would be left to make her own meals. Laundry would pile up. She would often find herself waiting at school to be picked up; Beth Ann had forgotten.
"She was alone, she was little, my mom was out a lot, absent a lot, depressed a lot," Laura says. "When my mom went back to school, Sarah would come home from school and she would hide under a blanket until someone came home."
It took years of therapy for Silverman to see how so much was wrapped up in her mother. After Beth Ann died, of a rare autoimmune disease in 2015, Laura told her of the wall display of videotapes in their mother's home, documenting each screen credit, whether in "Wreck-It Ralph" or "The Larry Sanders Show." This was stunning information.
"If I was on TV and did something, I would pray she would call me and say she saw it, but she never did," Silverman says. "I even told her, 'Mom, why do you think I'm in show business? So my mom will call me and say she saw me.' She said, 'Really?' "
Silverman has spent years justifying her mother's behavior. Even now, she worries that "The Bedwetter," rescheduled to open in early 2022, puts too much emphasis on her mother's depression. She knows so much of what made her childhood difficult is also what helped her find her voice onstage.
"Like my shrink says, if it's hysterical, it's historical," Silverman says. "My mom was kind of hard on me. And I don't know if it was frustration or jealousy. But I feel frustrated for her, because I feel like she could have been a Broadway director. She had so many dreams and they were just so crushed by every person around her."
The podcast has been more than an opportunity for self-analysis. It has become a lifeline. Silverman's last gathering with friends was in early December, a masked, socially distanced poker game to celebrate her 50th birthday. (This included scheduling multiple coronavirus tests for the participants in the lead-up.) Now her physical circle has shrunk to her boyfriend, Rory Albanese, a comedy writer and television producer who moved to L.A. from New York last year, and her dog, Mary.
Sister Jodyne listens to each episode eagerly.
"I'm amazed at how honest she's been," she says. "It's like she's discovering new parts of herself and we're listening to how it all unfolds."
"The Sarah Silverman Podcast" shies away from celebrity guests, preferring to have the host interact with the listeners who leave voice mails. Some, she simply answers. Others, she has followed up on.
There was Eric, who had robbed a bank and served jail time. He was struggling and considering another robbery. "Don't do that," she told him. "Because obviously you're not very good at it."
She recounted how, in 1986, she was a teenager acting in plays and she got a chance to go to New York, where an older member of the production booked her a hotel room. That night, Silverman, then 15, discovered that she could order pornographic movies on the hotel system. The next day, Ron Gibbs, who had booked the room, came by to check her out. Thirty-four years later, she called him to quiz him about the incident.
"You said, 'There's a $200 charge on the room for adult movies.' And I said, 'I have no idea.' Did you know I was lying?"
"I thought either you were lying or that you didn't realize you had to pay," he said.
"I watched porn all night because I couldn't believe I could see naked people having sex," Silverman said. "Only to find out that it was all on the record."
Then there was the angry Escalade man. The incident did not end when she killed him with kindness. No, Silverman insisted, "I want to make this right."
Then she asked what he smoked.
"I like a full-bodied high," he told her.
With that, Silverman, Emmy-winning standup, TV host and now podcaster, walked into the dispensary and acquired a spliff of Indica for her antagonist. He smiled at the olive branch, but they were already at peace. While she was inside, he had paid her parking meter.
"I haven't shaken someone's hand in a year, but I gave him a big handshake," Silverman says. "And I go, 'Look at us. We were arch enemies and now we're best friends.' "