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Sarah Silverman is perfectly fine cringing at her former self. It means she's growing

Sarah Silverman speaks at the 2019 New Yorker Festival on Oct. 12, 2019 in New York City.
Brad Barket
/
Getty Images for The New Yorker
Sarah Silverman speaks at the 2019 New Yorker Festival on Oct. 12, 2019 in New York City.

Sarah Silverman is known for breaking taboos in her comedy. Her new off-Broadway musical The Bedwetter, adapted from her 2010 memoir of the same name, centers on the most humiliating part of her childhood: wetting the bed every night until she was about 16.

As a child, Silverman says, the fact that she wet the bed was her "deepest, darkest shame." But then, when she was around 10, she watched on TV as a former beauty queen spoke to Johnny Carson about her own experience as a bedwetter, and Silverman's perspective began to shift.

"It just blew out a wall in my brain a little bit, where I saw the world a little differently and I thought, 'Oh, gosh, maybe I could get past this,'" she says.

Silverman began working on the musical before the pandemic hit, collaborating with songwriter Adam Schlesinger, who co-founded the band Fountains of Wayne. The show was completed and headed into rehearsals and previews in the spring of 2020, when Schlesinger became sick with COVID-19. He died April 1, 2020.

"It was so shocking and surreal and it still doesn't really feel real other than this show is finally on. And he's everywhere in it," Silverman says.


Interview highlights

On satirizing the Left in the opening musical number in her Hulu series, I Love You, America

I have a million problems with the Right [but] on the Left here, I just get frustrated by a kind of an elitist thing where you've got to know all the language and you need to adapt immediately and your history has to reflect everything we know right now, and there is just very little grace, I see. I know that with friends that are nonbinary or their pronouns are they/them, I love embracing that and using it, but I mess up constantly ... and they always say, "Don't worry about it. You're trying." ... Instead of just this hard line of you're not getting it yet and you're bad for that. I always say to people who scoff at they/them pronouns or anything kind of new, I go, "You can fight it, but in two years you will have embraced it." That change can be something that can be supported, with the understanding that it takes a beat for people and sometimes a longer beat for other people. It doesn't make them bad. And that saying "You can't be in our club because you don't have all the language right" is so much less fruitful than, "Come join us. Sit by me!"

On apologizing in 2018 for a 2007 episode of The Sarah Silverman Program, in which she wore blackface in an effort to parody a well-meaning but ignorant liberal woman

I've also always felt like if you don't look at what you did in the past and cringe, you haven't grown much.

I was growing and changing and being privy to seeing more of the Black experience through Black voices. I hadn't gotten into trouble. Nobody had exposed [the blackface episode] at that point. I exposed it myself. And it was something that I think is important to do because I want to be able to prove to myself and show to others that you can't change your past, but you can be changed by your past. Even at that time, I thought I was being subversive and making a point.

It certainly doesn't hold up in any way. And what I was able to learn from it, I was able to use in what I was doing in that moment. Even just in comedy, you have to change with the times and grow or else you become a caricature of yourself or just a signifier of a time. And not only is that no way to create art or be a comedian, but it's no way to live. And I just think it's got to be OK to mess up in life and to acknowledge it and notice it and be changed by it. ... I've also always felt like if you don't look at what you did in the past and cringe, you haven't grown much.

On her decision not to have children

I always kind of thought, I'm going to adopt when I'm 40. And then I was 40 and I was like, I think I would like to adopt when I'm 50. I remember being in my late 30s and my gynecologist pushing me to freeze my eggs, and I said, "I don't want to have children." And he said, "Well, you might want to down the line." I said, "Well, if I do, then I'll adopt and I'd like that to be what my option is."

I love kids. I love babies. I love kids so much. And I've said this as a joke, but I really mean it, that the only thing I love more than kids is doing anything I want at all times. And that's just really been my choice. There's so much I want to do. And now there are very successful women comedians that have children and families. But it certainly was not how it used to be. And it still is something that I imagine is extremely hard to navigate. And it always was interesting to me that men comedians were often married and had kids and it did not get in the way of their careers at all.

On knowing more about herself and what she needs in a relationship

[In past relationships] I felt sometimes like I was contorting myself to be what "girlfriend" meant to them. It is important to me to be a really good partner. But I've learned what I really need in life. I didn't know that I needed to be alone for a solid amount of time every single day. So I didn't know how to protect that, and it's no bueno when I don't get it. It's important. So there are things that I can now go into a relationship knowing about myself. You should know yourself and really get to know the things you need in life before entering into a relationship. Ideally, that's a much better way to do it. It took me a long time to realize that.

On having emergency surgery in 2016 and unknowingly taken off her antidepressants

I had this abscess and I had no idea. I was moments away from it bursting without realizing it, so I had a very dangerous surgery. But it worked. It all happened so fast. [I was told] it would be about a 50% chance of survival, but I survived. ... My blood pressure was very low, so they weren't able to completely put me under. So what they did was just snow me with opioids. I have no kind of visual memory of it. I was totally out of it. I guess my eyes were open, but I have no recollection. I've been on Zoloft since 1994 and it really works very well for me. And you really can't take someone off of that cold turkey. It's dangerous. But they did. They did not give me my Zoloft. ...

So I got out of the hospital after eight days, not realizing I had not been taking my medication for a week. And I was also on a lot of medication that makes you kind of emotionally unstable and was going through withdrawals from eight days of basically having, like, all the heroin in the world in my body. It's just all morphine and Dilaudid and whatever they pumped into me to not feel anything. If it wasn't for my boyfriend at the time, I would have jumped off the top of the roof of my building. That's all I could think about doing. Everything was too heartbreaking or too beautiful for a few days there. My sister finally said, "They did not give you any of your Zoloft." ... And I took, like, three right away to start getting it into my body and it helped me get back on track.

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.