Sarah Silverman. Photo: Robyn Von
'How's that hopey-changey stuff working out for ya?'' Sarah Palin memorably asked the audience at a Tea Party convention in Nashville in 2010. Sarah Silverman thinks: ''It's working well, thank you.''
''Maybe I'm being naive but I like the idea of healthcare being available for everyone in America,'' the comedian-actor says shortly after Barack Obama's recent re-election. ''I like the idea of being able to decide what I do with my body and not have irritable men make decisions for me.
''I like the idea of my gay friends having the same rights that I do.''
Silverman, who is happy to be known as one of the most offensive women in comedy, thinks it is riskier to talk about politics in the US than it is to talk about racism or anal sex. ''[Politics] is polarising and … touchier than dirty taboo topics,'' she says.
''At least in America, where everything is so divided, it's like the Red Sox and the Yankees. It's not about things that matter any more. It's not about issues. It's about being right and thinking the other team isn't.''
Silverman's girlish voice and what might pass for a doe-eyed, angelic face accentuate every provocative comment she's ever made. This year, she made several pro-Obama advertisements, an online public service announcement satirising Republican-driven moves to restrict voting eligibility, and offered Sheldon Adelson, billionaire donor to Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, some frottage if he switched his money to Obama.
''Do you know how many Republican billionaires are giving money to Romney?'' she asked Adelson in a video posted online. ''All of them. Do you know how many of them are getting scissored by a bikini-bottomed Jewess with big naturals? You'd be the only elderly billionaire on the block to have traditional lesbian sex through to climax with a woman who had her own show on Comedy Central. Talk about bragging rights.''
Ooh, you kiss your mother with that mouth? More pertinently for audiences of Disney's new animated family film, Wreck-It Ralph, she uses that same mouth to voice a nine-year-old character, Vanellope von Schweetz. ''I was a nine-year-old girl with this mouth,'' she laughs. ''I was brought up in a household that I didn't know was different. All the shock and craziness that people see [in me], that was in our house. My dad swore and my parents had full transparency with our lives for good or bad. Nothing was really taboo.''
Silverman, who will turn 42 in December while on her first Australian stand-up tour, grew up in liberal New Hampshire in a household she has described as Jewish culturally rather than religiously. Interestingly, though, one of her three elder sisters is a rabbi in Jerusalem.
Her two other sisters are a screenwriter and an actor.
New Hampshire had its issues, as she once told The New York Times. ''We grew up in a place with very few Jews. I didn't look like the other kids. I had hairy legs, hairy arms, hair everywhere. I looked like a little monkey.'' But then Silverman had issues of her own.
She was diagnosed as clinically depressed at 13, prescribed Xanax for three years and was a chronic bedwetter - all seriously and comically covered in her autobiography, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee.
''I was just paralysed. I don't think I really knew in the moment but it was chemical. It came over me like a flu - a cloud covering the sun,'' she says of the depression that settled on her nearly 30 years ago.
''I suddenly went from being social to not being able to handle being around my friends and being very solitary and paralysed with fear. It felt like homesickness but I was home.''
She is open about the continued role of therapy and pharmacology in her life. She has been taking Zoloft since her mid-20s.
Pop psychology would have it that comedians (and, for that matter, lead singers and certain types of actors) have a pressing need to simultaneously seek attention and to shun it; to hide away and to be in people's faces.
''I can see that. It is familiar to me,'' Silverman says.
''I have a handful of comedy friends that have blown their brains out in the past few years, too. I am a people person and I love attention but I also can easily never leave my apartment and not see a person for several days in a row.''
When she writes material, is she constantly aware of these contradictory elements of her psyche?
She says she used to resist examining her actions and motivations too closely, but once she started, she found it compelling.
''I am interested in the deconstruction of people's personalities and dynamics, and what drives people to do what they do,'' she says. ''But [only] if you can find a good therapist. And maybe 20 per cent of them are. I do want to learn more and I do want to figure out ways to be happier and at least practise contentment. Even at the risk of becoming not funny - though that would be terrifying. There are so many comics that are like, 'If I get healthy then what if I'm not funny?' … I can see that's scary but anyone who has really gone through depression, they want to be happy. Other people romanticise it.''
In fact, Silverman got healthy and she got funny. And, eventually, successful. After losing her first serious job as a writer on the male-dominated Saturday Night Live because she didn't get a single sketch produced for screening, she got some revenge by appearing on The Larry Sanders Show as a female writer unable to get her sketches shot because of a sexist writing room. She found roles in film and television, including a well-received performance in last year's comedy Take This Waltz with Michelle Williams and Seth Rogan, but broke through with her stand-up.
Her 2005 concert film, Jesus Is Magic, based on her one-woman show of the same name, provoked high levels of outrage for its ironic deconstructions of racism, religious bigotry and sexism. Or, as she likes to call it, the ''fear-based emergency war on women''. Her sitcom, The Sarah Silverman Program, earned an Emmy nomination during its three-year run.
Various online viral sensations helped boost her profile, including a film clip she made with Matt Damon for her song I'm F---ing Matt Damon, not to mention her free advice to public figures. (She advised the Pope to sell Vatican property and use the money to stop world hunger because then he ''would get crazy pussy''.)
She is active on Twitter and, not surprisingly, her tweets are pointed and funny. A recent post from her reflected that ''when a woman doesn't wanna get married she's a weirdo; when a man doesn't wanna get married he's George Clooney''. Does she pay attention to online talk and criticism about her?
''Sometimes, yeah. But not a lot. I saw one that said, 'Sarah Silverman you have mental problems', and I clicked on and looked at their profile - it was their only tweet. They signed up to tweet that. That's so funny. Another woman was like, 'You dirty Jew whore' - I get that all the time - and I looked at her profile and it was like, 'I love art and I love love.' Clearly, I bring out the worst in some people.
''I'm not without my days of being rolled up in a corner, rocking back and forth in despair. But I'd rather be figuring out how to be happy in long-term ways and also be brave enough to exist through bad days. One time my mum said, and I don't know what she meant except I love it, 'Sometimes all you have to do is be brave.' Like, sit when it's uncomfortable and live through it.''
Bravery has always been part of Silverman's comedy. With insight and skill, she goes to places few comedians dare. She also takes audiences to the edge of comfort and certainty.
''When it's going well and I feel connected to the audience, there is a kind of euphoria. It's great,'' she says. ''But I am always a work in progress. I don't think I will ever have this polished, shiny show.''
Which moment does she prefer in a show? When the audience laughs or when they gasp?
''Oh. Hmm.'' She pauses for a little longer than you'd expect before answering. ''Laugh. Laugh is always the best.
''But look, the good kid at school … gets attention from her parents by [excelling] and a bad kid gets attention from her parents by doing bad. They are both the same need; the children need attention. I know I'm a grown-up but there's something in that that is analogous.''
Sarah Silverman is at the Opera House on November 30. Wreck-It Ralph opens on December 26. Bernard Zuel is on Twitter: twitter.com/bernardzuel.