âI donât forgo any important part of my life for being on the internet,â says Sarah Silverman. We are supposed to be talking in person but sheâs stuck in traffic so weâve started the interview over the phone, which is awkward â although we are talking about how much she looks at her phone, so maybe itâs appropriate. She doesnât have any self-imposed rules about screen time, âbut Iâm pretty good at making things a treat. I donât go crazy with any one thing. Even a cigarette: Iâll just have one once in a while.â She pauses: âI guess I shouldnât say that because this is a Disney movie Iâm promoting.â Shortly after this exchange, the phone line mysteriously cuts dead. A loss of signal? Or has she gone too far off-message for her Mouse House handlers? We will never know.
No one could mistake Sarah Silverman for a childrenâs entertainer. Her Wikipedia page even has a subsection devoted to âControversiesâ. Silvermanâs brand of comedy is famously hard-edged, boundary-teasing, close to the wind-sailing, but told with a smile, a wink and a winning sense of silliness. Yet here she is in Disneyâs family-friendly sequel Ralph Breaks the Internet, reprising her perky virtual video game character Vanellope von Schweetz. As the title suggests, she and the adorable lunk of the title (voiced by John C Reilly), are whisked from their offline amusement arcade backwater to this brave new thing called âthe internetâ, which the movie depicts as a bustling, regimented, perpetually sunny metropolis dominated by corporations such as Google, eBay and, of course, Disney. So, not far removed from modern-day Los Angeles.
Understandably, Ralph Breaks the Internet does not stray into the more adult-oriented neighbourhoods of internet city, which is where you would find much of Silvermanâs own output. She has a significant online presence, including 12.5 million Twitter followers and, currently, her web TV show I Love You, America. In the opening episode of that, Silverman took the old nerve-calming adage of âimagine your audience nakedâ one step further, and had an actual naked couple in the audience, whom she interviewed with regular, gratuitous closeups of their body parts. She has appeared on a chatshow dressed as Adolf Hitler. She went viral on YouTube with a song called Iâm Fucking Matt Damon. She has regularly joked about rape, paedophilia and racism. If the internet were a city, Silvermanâs crudeness could fill a mall.
âBoundaries are the best thing for comedy in a lot of ways,â she says. âI mean, I fight them. I intrinsically donât like to be told what to do because Iâm a comic. Iâm allergic to it. But those boundaries force you to have to find a new way. I like finding hard comedy in places that donât hurt someone.â
That is why her fans love her, but you can see how it might create certain challenges when it comes to promoting a wholesome, big-budget Disney movie (they neednât worry, Ralph made more than $80m on its opening weekend in the US). When she arrives at our London rendezvous in person, she gives me a hug, apologises and sits on the floor. She is frank and engaged and exudes enough warmth to heat the freezing cold hotel room, although she keeps her coat on throughout. The coat is new: black, padded, full-length, like a wearable duvet. âI bought it for this trip. It was $200 and itâs kept me really warm, though the zipperâs not wildly strong.â Yes, she bought it online, but Silverman is no sucker for internet commerce. âI live in a small apartment and I donât have much storage and so I canât have things,â she says.
To its credit, Ralph Breaks the Internet does acknowledge that the web is not all sunshine and kitten memes. As well as a story of friendship, growth and product placement, it serves as an introduction to modern online perils: inducements to consume, irritating pop-ups, violent games, abusive trolls and hurtful comments, the latter almost shattering Ralphâs love for the internet terminally. There is even a brief trip to âthe dark webâ.
As an outspoken, liberal, female, Jewish comedian, Silverman is no stranger to these shadier back streets. She has never visited the dark web personally, she says, âbut I know other people who have, because theyâve warned me. Theyâve taken screenshots of discussions on 4chan like: âHow do we get her?â [As in kill her]. They go after comics all the time.â
Beyond that, she also tries to zone out the daily churn of celebrity gossip. Typing her name into search engines on the morning we meet, the top two news items are âSarah Silverman, 47, looks stylish in a corduroy mini skirt as she joins her co-star John C Reilly, 53, at Ralph Breaks the Internet premiere in Dublinâ (Daily Mail, via Google), and âSarah Silverman & Jon Hamm Are Boning. Somewhere, Bill Maher Seethes With Envyâ (thehollywoodgossip.com, via Bing).
As for more garden-variety trolling, Silverman has learned how to deal with the mixed bag of online comments. Some are hateful, many are supportive, some are just plain weird (random Instagram sample: âIâm not gay, but I would deep-throat giant black cock for a chance to play basketball with Sarah Silvermanâ). âI kind of know, with my eye, how to scan through them now,â she says. âI also look at them when Iâm in a âsolid placeâ. Itâs certainly not a thing to do when youâre feeling vulnerable, and yet a lot of people are drawn to doing that when they are because they want to validate themselves; they want to read something that makes them feel worth being on this Earth. So you really shouldnât read them unless you absolutely understand that you deserve love and have a place on this Earth. Because otherwise youâre fucked.â
Nearly three decades in standup has thickened her skin, it seems: âAs a comedian, trolls to me, I see them as hecklers. And what Iâve come to learn about hecklers is, whatever theyâre yelling out, the subtext is: âI exist!â Right? And thatâs what I see on the internet. They want love. They go towards love. Thatâs why people join hate groups. They find family there. They find acceptance there. Thatâs why Trump has gone to the far right. People there go: âYouâre amazing!â They like him there. They see that they can manipulate him with love. Our governments are filled with people with daddy issues who donât look inward, who have no perspective, who donât live examined lives, and weâre all paying for it. You see that in trolls and in the rage on the internet. This is misplaced anger!â
Silverman can be crude and irreverent but she is also, increasingly, unashamedly political, and surprisingly earnest about it. âI like being silly and funny and stupid, especially on Twitter, but I do feel a little responsibility to push out what I think is important information or true information, even though itâs not very funny, at a time where truth has not much currency. I donât know if you know this, but Russia infiltrated our elections with the intention of causing chaos and turning our citizens against each other and that has exactly happened.â She is adopting an exaggeratedly serious tone now, folding the edges of her earnestness back into humour.
She strikes a similar balance between political and goofy in I Love You, America, in which â ironically for a web-based show â she seeks to bridge divides through good old-fashioned real-life encounters, rather than aggressive, anonymous online ones. In each episode, she escapes her self-described âliberal bubbleâ and visits people she disagrees with: Trump-voting crab-fishers in Louisiana, for example, or a conservative Mormon family in Wyoming.
âAnd I always walk away loving them,â she says. âIn some way or another, even people in your family who you think: âOh God, all they do is watch Fox News,â you still love them. Thereâs a woman whose name I always forget [Benedictine nun Mary Lou Kownacki] who said: âThere isnât anyone you couldnât love, once youâve heard their story,â and of course thatâs true. If you kill 6 million Jews, it makes it hard, but still, Iâm sure it is an empathetic story by itself, isolated.â She pauses. âMaybe leave out the 6 million Jews.â Another pause. âUnless it comes off as really smart.â
This is another hazard of the internet age, especially for comedians such as Silverman: it is easier than ever to both cause offence and take offence. With a live standup show, there is context and nuance and intimacy; online, anything perceived as contentious or off-colour will go straight into that âControversiesâ section on Wikipedia. And it will stay there for ever. The latest entry dates from this October, in relation to her friend and fellow comedian Louis CK, whose career was derailed by revelations he had exposed himself and masturbated in front of women. Silverman was one of those women. In her case, it was consensual and non-exploitative, she stated, although she never condoned his actions. Inevitably, her comments were repeated, amplified and condemned.
Does she ever wish she could just delete her online history? âWell no, because I think you have to learn from history, in macro ways and in micro ways, with your own history. So all I can do is learn from it, be changed for ever by it, and do what I can to make it right going forward.
âCertainly stuff that I did 10 or 15 years ago, I cringe at now,â she continues, âbut I think thatâs OK. I had really racial stuff that, in my mind, at that time, was illuminating racism and starting a conversation. Now I see it very differently, like: âOh, right. Unarmed black teenagers are getting killed by cops daily. This joke is less funny to me.â Or I used to say [adopts masculine Boston accent]: âThatâs so gay.â And then I would defend it by going: âWhat? I have gay friends! Itâs totally different. I just mean âlameâ. And as I was arguing it, I realised: âOh. Iâm the old man who says âcolouredâ â¦ âI have coloured friends!ââ
Part of that, she observes, is the internet making the world smaller. She says she likes to have her mind changed, which is something your rarely hear anyone say. âI think, as a comedian, if youâre not changing with the times â not just second-guessing what the kids want to hear but growing and changing as a human being, living an examined life â that will reflect in your comedy. Youâll lose fans and youâll gain fans. Thatâs not up to me, but I just try to stay within what I think is cool and funny and interesting. If you canât change with the times, youâre fucking old.â
Ralph Breaks the Internet is in cinemas now
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