When it comes to communication, few do it better than Sarah Silverman. The prospect of people exchanging ideas, especially beliefs seemingly so disparate that finding middle ground seems impossible, excites the comedian. Hence her new Netflix special, A Speck of Dust, in which Silverman — inspired by her recent health scare and other life-changing events — comically advocates for conversation in a political age characterized by diatribe more than dialogue. Of course, as we found out while attempting to discuss the special, communication is impossible without sufficient means.
“Oh shit. Hello?”
I shouldn’t be laughing, since the monstrous phone delay means Silverman will eventually hear my cackling, but I can’t help myself. The irony is just too good not to acknowledge, even when our second connection attempt results largely in success. “Oh boy. I’m getting your responses four seconds after I finish talking,” she explains. “This should be fun.”
It is, even when I broach the subject of communication with a reference to her 2016 Democratic National Convention appearance in Philadelphia. While sharing the stage with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota), Silverman responded to the delegation’s enraged Bernie Sanders supporters with a now-famous admonition: “You’re being ridiculous.” At that precise moment, I tell Silverman, Uproxx was at Wells Fargo Center interviewing Sanders delegates.
“I can’t believe there was a Bernie supporter engaging with you in that moment and not screaming at Hillary people. Do you remember what their perspective was?” she asks. “Listen, I wish the nominee was Bernie, but I was there because Bernie asked me to be there. I was there for him, to make sure he had an ally in the office should Clinton get elected. So I wasn’t really sure what their perspectives were at the time, that they felt it necessary to act like that then. And later too, I guess, because there were probably people who loved Bernie but voted for Trump, since he promised jobs and all the things Bernie genuinely supports.”
After almost a year of reflection, however, Silverman relishes any and all opportunities to engage with former Sanders delegates, hardcore Trump fans, and just about anyone else whose beliefs differ significantly from hers. Such is the impetus for her upcoming Hulu series, I Love You, America, as well as many of the bits that comprise A Speck of Dust. “That’s what I believe in now, more than anything,” she tells me. “Screaming at each other has never caused change. Sure, sometimes major protests and rioting in the streets causes change, but when it’s people one-on-one? Having a screaming competition in that setting never changes minds. So we need to try and understand each other.”
Like when she attended a fundraiser for friend and The Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead’s Lady Parts Justice organization in Los Angeles. “We did this show and there were protesters outside,” Silverman prompts the audience in the special. “I’m not going to shit on them because I am them.” The comic explains this sentiment with equal parts heart and humor, but as she notes on the phone, it’s more than just a routine.
“If anything, I feel a kind of kinship with those people because we’re the same,” she says. “We’re the products of how we were raised. I just happened to be raised by a couple of bleeding heart liberal Jews. If I was raised by their parents, I’d probably be out there. And until we understand this basic truth, how are we going to understand each other? Of course if you believe that an unborn fetus is life, then you’re going to believe abortion is murder and you should want to prosecute to the fullest extent. Obviously I don’t believe that, but it sure does get muddy. Yet, I think, we’re all ultimately the same.”
To prove her point, Silverman continues the fundraiser account with her meeting the protesters. “I just wanted to say hi and show a warm, friendly face,” she says in A Speck of Dust. “Isn’t it great that we live in a country where I can put on this show because it’s something that I believe in, and you can protest this show because of what you believe in, and we can occupy the same space peacefully?” The serious moment ends, unsurprisingly, with a bit of the comedian’s characteristic dark humor. Yet it never denigrates what Silverman is trying to say, both in the special and during our conversation. After all, she thrives in situations where otherwise diametrically opposed persons, and their combative ideas, come face to face.
“I was in Oklahoma, Texas, and just about everywhere else,” Silverman recounts of the tour preceding A Speck of Dust‘s taping in California. “It’s always really interesting, and often surprising. I try to be open, and I think that helps people feel safe during the show. I’m aware of the fact that I attract a mostly godless crowd, but I feel protective of people who have religion in their lives. I don’t want to smear them for that, because then I’d feel like a bully. But I feel more comfortable when I’m in the minority, because then I don’t feel like a bully. I would never want to do that. It’s not a comfortable dynamic. I prefer the reverse.”
Not, Silverman stresses, because she wants to change people’s hearts and minds necessarily. Such is the ultimate goal, but the comic doesn’t think unbridled force is the way to go. It’s all about understanding, which is why I Love You, America hopes to “connect with people who may not agree with her personal opinions.” That’s according to the mission statement laid out in its March press release. And considering our conversation about her performance in A Speck of Dust, I get the impression Silverman is being more honest with her comedy now than she ever was in 2005’s Jesus Is Magic and 2013’s We Are Miracles. Especially when I tell her that, had her Lady Parts Justice fundraiser happened 10 years earlier, I probably would have been protesting it.
Raised in a Roman Catholic family in Texas, my politics and religion back then were quite different from the New Hampshire native’s. Yet time, travel and life experience reshaped my outlook on life before and after conception, and Silverman cannot be happier. Not because my beliefs align with hers, but because of my willingness to consider new information. “I try very hard, and in a lot of ways I’ve changed as well. It’s just so important to be open to change whenever you have new information,” she tells me. “A lot of people dig in because change is scary, so they dig their heels into what they believe even if proof is presented to them. But to be able to change, and be changed, is so important. I was reading about Megan Phelps-Roper, who grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Her story of change is just so inspiring. I mean, being me is easy — I was raised by certain people and now I’m like those people. I’ve definitely changed in many ways over the years, but to make a big change like that is different.”
The past few years have certainly bombarded Silverman with plenty of life-changing experiences. For aside from her “freak case of epiglottitis” last summer, the comedian also mourned the loss of her mother, friend Harris Wittels and mentor Garry Shandling. “I lost three huge archetypal people in my life, and then almost died myself in a span of two years,” she says. Devastating, to be sure, but not debilitating, as Silverman dedicates A Speck of Dust to all three for their lasting influence on her work. “I don’t know if I’m always thinking about them whenever I’m on stage ever, but everything is when you’re up there. At least with the shit I’m doing,” she concludes.
Just before we hang up, Silverman reflects on these serious points and quips, “I’m not being funny in this interview at all.” I disagree, hoping my opinion — and those expressed by her fans — will eventually change her mind.
Sarah Silverman: A Speck of Dust is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.