On July 11, the comedian Sarah Silverman made a typically kittenish appearance on the couch of NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien : She nibbled fruit, briefly clasped her breasts and performed a pre-scripted joke in which she uttered the word "Chinks," a slur for Chinese-Americans. It got a medium laugh.
A week later, Ms. Silverman woke up to a jangling phone in the airy lower-Broadway sublet she shares with her Chihuahua-pug mix, Duck. It was her mother calling. "She said, ‘They were just talking about you on The View !’" said the sooty-lashed Ms. Silverman, at 30 still the gamine darling of the mostly male alternative-comedy world, but now the sworn enemy of Guy Aoki, president of the Media Action Network for Asian-Americans.
By the end of the next day, Mr. Aoki’s demand that she apologize had spread to the national press. "When it was just The View , I was like, ‘Oh, I better write this guy a letter,’" said Ms. Silverman. "And then by the end of the day I was like, ‘This guy’s a fucking idiot ,’ you know?" NBC quickly issued an official apology and vowed to expunge the joke from reruns. "The truth of the matter is, it’s not a moral issue in terms of the network," said Ms. Silverman. "They may put this façade on that it is, but it’s about advertisers and the F.C.C. and pleasing them. It has nothing to do with morals; they are void of morals. It’s all about money. It’s all about money ."
Meanwhile, the male comedy organ leaped to the defense of its young female apparatchik. "The reason I was O.K. with the joke was because it’s a really smart joke!" Conan O’Brien told The Observer . "I would think that the guy with the Asian-American action committee, or whatever it is, would applaud a joke like that …. What’s ironic about this whole thing is that Sarah is just the kind of person who should be on shows like mine. She’s what everyone says they want: ‘Where’s the really smart young women comics who are saying edgy stuff that’s really intelligent?’ And it’s like: ‘Uh, she’s right here. Here she is!’ We would have her back anytime ."
A week after her Conan appearance, Ms. Silverman flew to Los Angeles to do damage control on Politically Incorrect , a show produced by the Brillstein-Grey production juggernaut, which also happens to employ her manager, Geoff Cheddy. Host Bill Maher introduced her as a "very funny comedian" and smooched her avuncularly on the cheek. "You made quite a controversy of yourself last week, young lady," he said. She seemed subdued, but not penitent. Viewing the Politically Incorrect tape later, she said, "I was like, ‘Oh my God, I look like Hitler.’ It’s so funny because I should be considering the whole controversy that’s going on, but all I could think about was how shitty my hair looked and how I needed lipstick."
On Sunday afternoon, she was back in New York, in a windowless rehearsal space in Chelsea, rehearsing her one-woman show, Jesus Is Magic , which she’ll perform at Joe’s Pub on Lafayette Street on Aug. 6. The show’s director, a burly fellow named Tom Gianas (who is also her boyfriend), and an assistant director, a skinny hipster named Jake Fogelnest, were looking on and taking notes. Ms. Silverman, her long, dark hair pulled back by a scrunchy into a straggly ponytail, said she hoped the show would strike an effect somewhere between Chris Rock and Sandra Bernhard. (When asked for her comedic idols, she said "oy" and named Steve Martin, Garry Shandling, Woody Allen and Albert Brooks.)She was wearing New Balance sneakers on her tiny feet, olive frayed jeans about five sizes too big with a hole in the knees, a white ribbed tank top and the same silver pendant that had dangled above her cleavage on the Conan appearance.
And the dirty jokes flowed …. "I don’t like doctors. I’ve never liked doctors. This is since birth. I mean, I understand why the doctor had to spank me, but I don’t know why he had to call me a whore ." "One time I was having sex with … let’s say a boyfriend …. So he dismounted, but the condom was still inside me, so he had to quickly pull it out, like a deli number. And he’s No. 57–that’s like three away from slutty!" "My grandmother died recently. She was 97, so obviously I suspected foul play. I am paying for a full autopsy and full rape exam. My parents think I’m crazy. I’m not crazy. Oh please, God, I hope they find semen in my dead grandmother’s vagina!" "Is it molestation if the baby makes the first move?"
"I don’t know if I should do that one," she said. "Is it too sick?" "Try it, try it," said Tom and Jake, sniggering like Beavis and Butt-head. Ms. Silverman took a pull on a Diet Pepsi. Her hands flitted across her perfectly flat stomach and her mouth twisted up in a half-smile. "It may seem like I’m pausing between jokes … but I’m actually doing Kegel exercises. We’re all doing them, ladies. But it’s not a competition. It’s not a competish. " The men chortled approvingly.
It is a sound Ms. Silverman is used to. She has a lot in common with the main character of There’s Something About Mary , in which she had a small part as one of Cameron Diaz’s sassy girlfriends: Men develop crushes on her because she is pretty but not unapproachably so; and she seems like one of them, sporty and foul-mouthed. She is … game.
"I think she’s an attractive, sexy woman," said the recently betrothed Conan O’Brien. "Her style isn’t, ‘Screw this, man, the system sucks and I’m going to tell you how it is.’ It’s like you’re talking to a very attractive woman at a party, and then she’s catching you off-guard with this stuff. It’s like she’s really sweet and she’s got this sex appeal, so she can lure you in, she can lull me."
She learned to curse on her father’s knee in Bedford, N.H., the youngest of four sisters who nicknamed her "Skunk" and "Panda" because of her dark hair and pale skin. Stepsister Jody, 30, is a screenwriter in Los Angeles; Laura, 35, voiced the receptionist on the animated Comedy Central series Dr. Katz ; and Susan, 38, is a rabbi. Their parents divorced when Sarah was 7, but the family remained close. "She was very outgoing and funny and, oh, just so yummy," said Susan Silverman, the rabbi, of her baby sister. "She was 3, sitting on her little tush, coloring, and my grandmother walked into the room and said, ‘Sarah, I have brownies for you’–and without even looking up from her drawing, she said, ‘Shove them up your ass, Nana.’"
After establishing herself as the class clown early on, Ms. Silverman suffered anxiety attacks in early high school–"I just went into a really dark place," she said–and was installed in the Derryfield School, a prep school in Manchester, N.H. Her first stand-up gig was in Boston before her senior year. She headed to New York University to major in drama, but dropped out her freshman year to enter the sticky-floored, male-dominated stand-up comedy circuit. With her easygoing manner and unthreatening, child-woman good looks, she quickly became the naughty tomboy in an unshaven community that Mr. O’Brien describes as "a cruddier version of expatriate 1920′s modernist poets."
The panic attacks returned during a brief stint on Saturday Night Live , during its 1993-94 season horribilus . "Just to not be a mess, a soup on the floor, it was like everything I had," she said. "Finally someone put me on Klonopin, and in a day I think I got the whole cast on it." Among Ms. Silverman’s ex-boyfriends is fellow SNL alumnus Colin Quinn. "We dated and then we were friends," said Mr. Quinn. "She was always funny, always smart, always nice. She’s got a little nice fearless quality." Asked about her "Chinks" comment he sprang gallantly to her defense. "She nails other ethnic groups," he said. "If it were just ‘Chinks,’ I would wonder, but …. It’s the fucking New McCarthyism! There’s no irony in anybody when it comes to these things!"
Ms. Silverman’s collaboration with her current paramour, Mr. Gianas, is not her first. In 1999, independent filmmaker Sam Seder directed her and himself in Who’s the Caboose , a "mockumentary" based on their relationship. Mr. Seder plays a guy named Max who reluctantly follows his girlfriend out to Los Angeles and finds himself making more headway professionally than she does. "When I conceived of the idea, we were going out; then during pre-pro, we were not," said Mr. Seder. "We started going out again during filming, and we broke up on the 12th day. And then we shot the beginning in New York four months later, and then I think we started going out again, and then we broke up again." Analyzing their relationship’s demise, he said: "Someone’s gotta be the garden, and someone’s gotta be the gardener."
Mr. Seder recently directed Ms. Silverman in his new movie, A Bad Situationist , in which she plays a sex columnist. "Let me tell you this: She’s got to be in the top three female comedians around today," said Mr. Seder. "I don’t know who’s a funnier female stand-up working today. I don’t know if she’s even peaked yet. And if she had gone to Yale Drama and been plugged into the system that way, she’d be a big film actress right now."
"In terms of acting," said Ms. Silverman, "I always get, ‘We love her, she had the best read for the female lead, she was the only one who got it, she had the funniest take, we’re gonna go with whatever name is famous or semi-famous or even the tiniest bit more famous but we’re gonna find a place for her!’ …. I’m kind of the king of one day of work, and I love those parts–you can just go in and out, it’s really easy work and it’s all fun–but at the same time, it’s just like, ‘ Fucking give me the fucking part ,’ you know?"
Asked if she thought that her unabashed Jewish identity had prevented her from breaking into the big time, Ms. Silverman said, "I’m not bitter about it and I don’t think twice about it, except that I think whenever I talk to a suit, or if I am on a friendly level with someone networky, I always ask them the same question, which is: ‘If Winona Ryder kept her name Winona Horowitz, would she have all these leading-actress roles under her belt?’ And 100 percent of them said, ‘No.’ I couldn’t believe they would be that honest! Isn’t that weird? You know, I mean, it’s not because there are non-Jews running Hollywood!"
In Greg the Bunny , a midseason replacement for Fox that will air in January and stars Eugene Levy (the SCTV alumnus who played the dad in American Pie ), Ms. Silverman will play a network executive. The show, based on a cable-access show that migrated to the Independent Film Channel in 1998, co-stars several puppets. "I don’t know that it will ever be as great and funny and cool as the show that it’s based on, because it was on cable and they can do anything," she said. "Things with no money tend to just be better. And then you put all this money in it and there are too many people to please."
Then there are the Internet rumors, stirred up by Ms. Silverman’s occasionally heavy-breathing male fan base, that she might be Conan O’Brien’s next sidekick, the new Andy Richter. "I’ve had a lot of people mention bad ideas, and that’s one of the better ideas I’ve heard," said Mr. O’Brien. "But I don’t know–Sarah’s got a pretty good career! I would look at that more in the context, of, Does Sarah Silverman want to be sitting next to me going, ‘Ha ha, good one, Conan!’? I don’t know if that’s the best move for Sarah ."
Follow Alexandra Jacobs via RSS.