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A Minute With: Sarah Silverman on standup success, network TV failure

Comedienne Sarah Silverman performs a musical number mid-show at the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles September 22, 2013. REUTERS/M
Comedienne Sarah Silverman performs a musical number mid-show at the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles September 22, 2013. REUTERS/M

By Eric Kelsey

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - American comedian Sarah Silverman has been called profane, offensive, a provocateur and the funniest woman alive.

Silverman, 42, fond of ironic jokes that often play on race, religion and rape, will star in her own standup comedy special, "We Are Miracles," on HBO on Saturday.

Silverman, who also starred in her own cable series, "The Sarah Silverman Program" from 2007-2010 and works as a liberal political activist, spoke with Reuters about her brand of humor and why she is not cut out for network television.

Q: Why did you choose a venue that could only seat 39 people for "We Are Miracles?"

A: I thought it'd be cool to make a special that would feel like you were part of a very small, intimate crowd. I guess it's the Heisenberg principle that you can't ever purely observe something purely because ... by being there you're changing it.

Q: Can "intimate" ever be too small for standup comedy?

A: I very confidently decided to do this and then I went on tour and did a lot of big rooms and felt the laughter washing over me and went, "(Expletive!) What have I done?" But it felt like it was cool. ... You still want the crowd to be able to be a mob in that they work as one piece in lots of ways. You still hear individual laughs. You hear jokes hitting people differently.

Q: How has your standup act changed since your 2005 theatrically released special "Jesus Is Magic?"

A: I was a little more of a character than myself. I was playing this very ignorant, arrogant girl-woman who said the opposite of what I really felt in real life. There laid the kind of shock-value of it. I love that special, but it's different from who I am now. I'm years and many therapy sessions and life experiences later.

Q: There has always been a strong undercurrent in your humor that life is rather insignificant.

A: As you get older, mortality starts to creep in. You have friends that start dying, I mean, not of old age. It's like you get aches and pains and you're not invincible and you can't do acid while you have strep throat and stay out until seven in the morning like you could when you were 20. Religion is something that I'm fascinated by because grownups are involved, and it just seems so bizarre to me.

Q: Your comedy pilot "Susan 313" was recently turned down by NBC. Do you believe your humor can work on network TV?

A: No, I don't. I think they did the right thing. I saw a lot of things wrong with the pilot.

It's not that I need to be dirty. I remember talking to the head of NBC (Robert Greenblatt) and he had just come from (premium cable network) Showtime, and he was like, 'I want to make a Showtime show for NBC.' I think he really did at that time, and I told him, 'It's not like I want to say (expletive) on network TV.' I just want to be able to be far out and not have network executives worry that people in Peoria might not be interested. People in Peoria are interested in far-out (expletive).

Q: Comedy is often a pass/fail profession, either the audience laughs or they don't. How do you manage that pressure?

A: It's daunting, but I realized something that I think is really important to realize as a comedian: it's like comedy dies in the second-guessing. Even though there are stakes, and if you go into that wormhole you can terrify yourself into total paralysis. But there's no hope of succeeding if you don't throw all of that away and just do what you think is funny and don't worry about what the audience wants or doesn't want.

To me, that's the downfall of network television. It's all these old grownups trying to second-guess what a 14-year-old boy wants to watch. It's stupid. You don't want a 14-year-old to dictate what they want to see. They don't know what they want to see yet. That's your job to show them what's cool. And there's no confidence. There's so much money involved in network television and the stakes are so high compared to how irrelevant they have become because they (viewers) have 600 other channels that can do whatever the (expletive) they want. ... Network channels should basically be live sports and live call-in voting talent shows because to have real success you have to take a chance, and they don't have that kind of leeway. They have so much at stake and so little relevance compared to the stakes.

(Reporting by Eric Kelsey; Editing by Mary Milliken and Philip Barbara)

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