"Donald? That's my dad's name," Sarah Silverman nearly yells. "Of course it's also the name of . . ."
We’re here already. You just can’t escape the current American president. I wrote a whole column explaining how he’d let other Donalds down throughout the world.
"It sucks. I know. There are some bad Donalds. But there's my dad, Donald Silverman. There's Donald Duck. Donald Sutherland! He's a great one."
Silverman is already on fire. Somebody must have lit the blue touchpaper before I entered the hotel room. Sleek enough to pass for a decade and a half younger than her 47 years, she fires out answers in a hoarse string of coiled gags and barbed complaints. That's her job. There are few comics more respected than Silverman. Few are more committed to telling the most unpleasant truths in the most profane language. Yet we meet as she is promoting a Disney animation. In Ralph Breaks the Internet, she repeats her voice role as Vanellope von Schweetz, explosive girl racer, from the 2012 smash Wreck-It Ralph. The press tour sounds like an accident waiting to happen.
“The first time, Disney executives were absolutely in a mess about me,” she cackles. “They said: ‘Before we start I want to remind you: this is a family movie. Please keep that in mind when you are speaking.’ I am a grown woman. I know I am a ‘dirty comedian’, but I can handle this.”
After a while she began to bristle at the assumption that she couldn’t tell the difference between a midnight gig at the Chuckle Lounge and an interview for the latest family animation. She laid it out to the minder.
It's wildly hypocritical to be so sensitive about words when we are separating children from their families at the border
“‘I am really starting to take offence at this. I know the difference between blue comedy and a Disney movie!’ She said: ‘You just said that Q*bert was doing coke.’ I said: ‘I did?’ I am getting better. But I’ve just told you that story, so maybe not. Ha ha!”
Silverman has done more controversial things than identify that 1980s videogame character as a Class A drug user. We’ll get to a few. But it would be wrong to class her as any sort of broad shockmeister. Her comedy digs away diligently at the hypocrisies that power contemporary American society. Prissiness about language is one of her beefs.
“I wouldn’t say that about Disney,” she says. “It’s a children’s franchise. But, in general, yeah. It’s wildly hypocritical to be so sensitive about words when we are separating children from their families at the border. The hypocrisy blows my mind. The word ‘shit’? What is the difference between saying ‘crap’ and ‘shit’? Yet you have to bleep ‘shit’.”
Americans are still more sensitive about these things than we are on this side of the Atlantic. All that F-bomb and C-bomb stuff?
“Words have impact. Of course,” she says. “But it’s weird to live in a country where you can’t swear in front of a child but there are school shootings on a regular basis. We are worrying about the wrong things.”
Sarah Silverman was born into a middle-class New Hampshire family in 1970. Mom had been a photographer before going on to work in theatre. Her dad was a social worker and a businessman. The family all seem to have been strivers: one sister became a rabbi; another is a screenwriter. After leaving school, Sarah studied theatre at New York University, but the comedy bug had already set in. By night she was trying out material in the surrounding downtown clubs.
“I was exhausted,” she says. “I was a drama major and the school is so expensive. My dad called me up and said: ‘If you drop out of school I will pay your rent and utilities for the next three years.’ I said: ‘I’ll take it.’”
That is not to say she took college lightly. Quite the reverse. She owns up to sneaking into lectures after she’d left the university.
“I had a small scholarship, but it was still very expensive for my dad. I couldn’t believe how many kids just didn’t want to be there.” She puts on a spoilt-rich-kid voice. “‘Oh, my parents made me go to college!’ Fuck you! It’s so odd to take that shit for granted.”
Silverman has always had a knack for combining high import with the most disreputable gags. Her style is the antithesis of a prowling ranter like Bill Hicks. She's sly, coy and occasionally surprised at her own outrageousness. An initial break came when she secured a spot as writer and performer on the 1993-1994 season of Saturday Night Live, but she wasn't a good fit for that broad show and was soon let go. Guest-starring roles on Seinfeld and The Larry Sanders Show followed. Meanwhile, her stand-up routines continued to build followers.
In 2001, during an interview with Conan O'Brien, she used a word deemed racially offensive to Asian-Americans while joshing about jury duty. The context was clear. It was a gag about racism, but a degree of hell broke out nonetheless. During conversations that followed, Sarah acknowledged the offence without exactly apologising. She came across as impressively tough.
It's fine to have a problematic past if you acknowledge it and are changed by it
“I have thought a lot about that,” she says. “You should apologise if you are sorry. It is disingenuous to apologise if you’re not sorry. This was a joke about racism. I stood my ground with it. But as the years have gone by I have realised that even if you’re doing it for the right reasons, those words may cut. If those words do cut then I don’t have the desire to say that word.”
She goes on to concede that there are other jokes from early routines that she wouldn’t make now.
“But that’s good. I want to grow. It’s fine to have a problematic past if you acknowledge it and are changed by it.”
This takes us to another corner of the space where we came in. The religious right are prissy about blue language. Progressive voices are increasingly wary of racist or sexist usages. Sarah seems philosophical about that. She doesn’t enjoying being policed, but she acknowledges that history is usually on the side of the linguistic reformers.
“Yeah, students do tend to be on the right side of history. If you are not open to what they have to say then you are old.”
That makes sense. And yet. Think of all those groaning hordes – not all Trump supporters – who blame his advance on “PC gone mad”. It’s not really that. Is it?
"I don't know that kindness and empathy is what made us end up with Donald Trump, " she says with the wisp of a sneer. "But we certainly made this bed. Raising generation after generation of kids who worship money however it is accrued. Regarding wealth as success. I think those things got us here. 'I respect him because he's a rich businessman!' Really? He's a mob boss."
Silverman is on a roll here. She gives out about corporations such as Wal-Mart and Amazon. ("I know we're supposed to be talking about a Disney movie," she says parenthetically.) She complains about the low wages paid to ordinary workers who are then driven to welfare. She comes back to wealth addiction.
Silverman had a moment in the political spotlight at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. A committed Bernie Sanders supporter, she was greeted by hoots when she acknowledged the inevitable and asked similarly minded Democrats to vote for Hillary Clinton.
“I think that was misinterpreted,” she says. “I love Bernie, but of course I am going to vote for Hillary when it’s between her and Donald Trump.”
She remembers looking out at the crowd and seeing huddles working variations on “if it’s not going to be Bernie then fuck the world. We’ll vote chaos.”
“That’s when I said: ‘You’re being ridiculous.’ It wasn’t to Bernie supporters,” she says. “I’m a Bernie supporter. I was talking to these insane people who’d rather have Trump than Hillary. I continue to get a lot of shit from it. The Hillary people loved it. There are some ‘Bernie or Death’ people who hate me. Their anger has to go somewhere, so I’ll take it.”
Some part of me thinks she might have been a good politician. Then I consider her capacity for saying the uncomfortable thing and I think something else. Still, she must have pondered roads not taken. Most performers keep an escape route in mind during the early, tough years.
"I don't know that politicians make the most change," she says. "I like science. I like math. I am interested in politics. I am interested in social justice. I would like to work with primates like Jane Goodall did. And I enjoy working with the mentally challenged. I'd have enjoyed that, I think."
Mental health care’s loss is comedy’s considerable gain.
Ralph Breaks the Internet is released on November 30th
FIVE MOVIES ABOUT THE INTERNET
Hollywood has had great difficulty dramatising its biggest rival
You've Got Mail (1998)
A romance about email made before most people had email. Groundbreaking in its cosy way.
The Social Network (2010)
It is still bewildering to remember that David Fincher's film was made just five years after Facebook was invented. Already an institution.
A classic in a genre that included itself and maybe two other films, this terrific horror takes place entirely on a computer screen. Best watched on a laptop.
Assassination Nation (2018)
Powerful, innovative (if messy) satire set in a town where all online secrets are revealed. The town is called Salem. Get it?
Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)
The sequel to Wreck-It Ralph does a good job of poking many internet discontents. Pop-ups. Search engines. They're all here.