On a soundstage in Hollywood, Sarah Silverman is between takes. She is delivering a thoughtful monologue on the nonpartisan power of fear for the opening of a recent episode of her Hulu series, “I Love You, America,” which airs its season finale this Thursday.
On a set adorned with Americana kitsch reminiscent of a homey roadside diner, Silverman overhears that some offstage chatter is being picked up in the audio as the cameras reset. “Quiet in VIP, you executive [jerks],” she shouts in mock rage as the studio audience laughs. After a beat she drops her voice and flashes her familiar broad, mischievous grin. “Just kidding, Hulu. And thanks for the pickup.”
Though, at press time, the show was still awaiting word of renewal, the moment represented the gamut of the experience of “I Love You, America.” While making room for Silverman’s usual brand of silly, fearlessly vulgar humor — a later segment featured a short-tempered, possibly defecating bald eagle puppet (voiced by “Mr. Show’s” Jill Talley) — it is also an earnest, empathetic exploration of what divides and unites America in 2017.
For those who feel they know Silverman from her early stand-up material that relished pushing buttons, “I Love You, America” reveals a comic whose curiosity runs far deeper.
“To me the show is based on the tenets of Mr. Rogers,” Silverman says later, perched on a small, overstuffed bean bag chair in her show’s sparsely appointed writers room, which includes the occasional toy for her little black dog, Mary. “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story. And there is no one in the world that is qualified to be you but you,” she says, paraphrasing some of the famed children’s television star’s concepts. “These are things that America, and really most of the Western world, need to remember.”
We chatted with Silverman about how the show has taken her outside of what’s often called the “liberal bubble” of Hollywood and what she’s found there.
“I Love You, America” is a comedy show, but it has this humanist tone of empathy and understanding. Is that hard to maintain or is that your natural point of view?
It’s the accumulation of everything I’ve learned up to this point and then juxtaposed with this moment in time. Right now, we’re working on a monologue for next week and the theme is nationalism, and that’s something I’m really feeling more than ever.
You’re feeling nationalism more than ever?
Not personally. ... Nationalism inherently to me is kind of anti-American because it’s very “We’re No. 1,” which is also such an American trait. It’s a dichotomy. But also it’s like e pluribus unum is “[out of many] we are one,” which is almost the opposite of “We’re No. 1” but practically the same words. I do think we’re getting confused between those.
If we all realized we were connected and saw ourselves in each other, I think that’s how a country thrives. That nationalism, “We’re No. 1” ... besides being tacky as [hell] seems to be the thing that comes right before the downfall of society. [Laughs]
On your show, particularly in the early going, you were doing a lot of field pieces and meeting people with very different viewpoints from yours. Did going out there confirm your expectations or surprise you?
There were some things that were surprising and big lessons that I learned. People’s minds aren’t changed with facts or figures or polls, which is a big surprise, right? But they are changed with feelings. I think the biggest help of [understanding] this divided country is we’re all in defensive mode, kind of like drowning. And when you’re in survival mode you can’t really thrive. So it’s like everyone’s porcupine needles are up and it’s just impossible to be open in that state.
But really I found our defenses go down with the first hug hello, and all of a sudden you’re, like, “Ooh, you’re just a person.” There are disheartening things, like incredible amounts of apathy. But ultimately the conclusion is we really are the same. I met people who couldn’t be more different than me politically, and it was not hard to love them.
People don’t like feeling judged; they don’t like feeling talked down to. They like feeling seen — these are the things everyone has in common.
But there are people that need us to be divided. And those people are the most powerful people in the world ...that are behooved by the division of a country. And if we can remember that and try and see ourselves in each other — this is not a very funny interview.
Well, it’s not a very funny time.
This is just what I’m thinking about! The show is funny, though. I never want it to feel preachy. That’s why I try to sandwich anything heady in a big dumb, super silly, aggressively stupid sandwich.
Some kind of poop joke.
Because you’re addressing these topics on the show, you get to touch on timely things. Is that helpful for you, or is it difficult to stay immersed in current events?
No, because I’ve always wanted this show to be of this moment in time and not of the second, but also we’re tweaking it up until we shoot on Tuesday.
Day to day it’s going to be scandal after scandal after scandal. I feel like we’re being rope-a-doped by all this. A new person is sexually assaulting someone. It’s so much I’m feeling numbed by it. So to me, talking about the broad strokes, the micro and the macro versions of these [events] are just more important to me.
Going back to your experiences on Twitter, especially the bad ones, and your reaching out to people who disagree with you, is that where the idea for the show came from?
Yeah. I just have been having experiences where I just saw the difference between negative and positive energy. And I learn so much with every guest. I’m changed every week.
With Megan Phelps-Roper who grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church, she says these aren’t bad people, they’re just human beings who, in a time of being vulnerable, are being swayed by bad ideas. When Father Greg Boyle [of L.A.’s Homeboy Industries] said some version of “until we are friends with our wounds, we will be tempted to despise the wounded.” I can’t stop thinking about that … because it’s so relevant.
You get close to tearing up on some of these interviews.
I’m just so moved — I love being changed. I think that when you’re a religion or a party or any kind of sect of people where part of being in that sect is shielding yourself from new information ...there’s no growth in that, that’s not living an examined life, and it’s certainly not your potential best life.
I don’t have it all figured out, and obviously I’m wildly opinionated. I’m not always who I am on this show [or] who I am on Twitter. I’m trying to be mindful, and it’s a practice.
Given all these divisions and frustrations — your show is called “I Love You, America,” how easy is it to do that?
I mean, who do you love that’s perfect?
What are you watching right now?
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is, like, the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. I feel like people aren’t watching it because they feel like it’s work that they have to do, like it’s really good and they “should” see it. It is crazy, their flashbacks to three years ago is like us now, totally. But it is fun. It’s so good and aesthetically stunning. Ann Dowd? She’s my everything.
Follow me over here @chrisbarton.