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Sarah Silverman: '100 percent of comedians become funny as a means of survival'

Comedian Sarah Silverman has been nominated for a SAG Award for her role in
Comedian Sarah Silverman has been nominated for a SAG Award for her role in "I Smile Back."
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It's not uncommon for comedians to hit it out of the park when they take on dramatic roles — think Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Murray — but that doesn't mean the transition isn't difficult.

When Sarah Silverman learned that she would be playing the self-destructive lead in "I Smile Back," she "collapsed on the bathroom floor" and had a "full-body panic attack."

Silverman has appeared in dramas before — she had a role in the 2011 film, "Take This Waltz" — but this movie was on another level. Adapted from the novel by Amy Koppelman, "I Smile Back" is a deeply serious story about a seemingly well-situated housewife, Laney, who cares about her family but struggles with mental illness, addiction, and self-destructive behaviors.

That is to say, Laney's drama — both internal and external — is the whole point of the movie.

So it was a challenge for Silverman, but one she lived up to. She's been nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role, and there's talk that she may be in the running for an Academy Award nomination, too.

It was, in fact, Silverman's trepidation at the role that convinced her she could understand Laney's character.

Sarah Silverman sat down with The Frame's John Horn to talk about the role, her own experiences with mental health issues, and why "keeping your overhead low" is the best path to creative freedom.


This is a movie that you agreed to do based on Amy Koppelman’s novel of the same name that was published several years before the movie was made, correct? So there was an intervening period of time between when you were interested in doing this and when the movie was actually happening. In those intervening years, did it feel like this was always going to happen?

You know, I’ve been around a while and most movies don’t get made. Especially when the attached star is me, and it’s a drama. I was pretty fearless in connecting myself to it because it didn’t occur to me that it would get made. Then a few years later I got an email that said, We got the money! We’re going to make it! And I remember replying, “Yay!” and then just collapsing on my bathroom floor in a puddle of full-body panic attack.

Because you knew what this part required?

Yeah. And the unknown, I think, was probably the basis for the panic attack. It was just all unknown area for me.

I was completely panicked that I wasn’t going to do this well, that I was going to be a disappointment, that it was going to be a disaster, that it was going to be not in any way fun. In therapy they say that if you live in the past, that’s depression, and if you live in the future, that’s anxiety. And that’s why ideally we should be in the moment. And I was living in the future. And we all do, at some point. We tell ourselves horror stories. What if I can’t do this? What if I never fall in love again? What if I never write another joke? And in this case, What if I fail? I can’t do this. And then it did occur to me that Laney, this character, completely exists in that anxiety state. It made me realize that I do understand this character. 

What did you understand about her that helped you understand how to play her?

I have my own experience and relationship with depression. And I’m also interested in it, which has been of great benefit to me. I’ve found a great therapist and I’ve learned a lot about myself and about it in general. So I felt like I had kind of the bones of that. I don’t think there is anyone who hasn’t been on one side or the other of depression, of addiction, and all these things. And I certainly have as well. I haven’t suffered from addiction but I consider myself embedded in it as a comedian.

Because people in that field tend to have higher rates of addiction, do you think?

Yeah. And also, the audience is often drunk and you deal with a lot of people who are not sober in various ways. And also, as comedians — I would venture to say that 100 percent of comedians become funny as a means of survival. And that’s kind of what makes us “Everyman” in a way, because everyone has had to survive childhood in some way.

“Survival” in terms of getting square with the world? Not survival as in putting bread on the table, but surviving as a person and understanding your relationship with the world, through comedy.

Everyone has had to figure out a way to get through childhood. Then, as adults, they still have those, quote-unquote, “skills.” And sometimes the healthiest thing is to try to unlearn those things. That’s, a lot of times, why comedians are afraid to go to therapy because what they learned to survive was to be funny. And they get afraid that they might not be funny if they investigate their own childhood and their own reasons for being certain ways.

I don’t feel that way. That said, I’ve been far from hilarious in this interview. So I could be wrong.

But there’s also part of a persona that you play as a comedian that is a little bit arrogant or self-centered.


Which is a little bit consistent, without labeling Laney, in some ways, of what she is like in the world. 

I love that. Because, on its surface you would see no similarities between this character and my comedy at all. But . . . we misunderstand self-hatred and self-loathing and self-deprecation as modesty. It’s not. It’s self-obsession. There’s no room for anything else. 

And with Laney, she does have a lot of self-hatred, and she is consumed with anxiety that she’s going to destroy her kids. She’s going to abandon them, she’s going to ruin them — and there’s no room for anything else. Even though it comes out of a desperate worry. It has to become a self-fulfilled prophecy. There’s no room, even for hope. So, there were parallels for me, you know.

You’ve said that you “don’t have a big nut.” In other words, you’re not like Robert DeNiro, who has so many different mortgages and alimony payments to make that he has to do movies. You have the flexibility to choose things that are appealing to you and don’t have to plan things out. Is that what helps you be able to do a movie like this? That you have the freedom to do whatever moves you at that moment?

Well, yeah. One, I’ve never planned any kind of trajectory, for better or for worse. I’ve never thought about my career as a whole. But I keep my overhead incredibly low. I don’t like stuff. I live in a small apartment. I’ve got my car . . . The thought of having even a whole house is overwhelming to me. And I’m not saying that’s the way to go, but when I do give advice, when young women or people ask, I always say, Keep your overhead low. You can always be free, creatively, if you don’t owe anybody.

What do you need? You need a fancy purse? It’s a bag. It carries stuff. Get a backpack. You’re being ridiculous. 

Does “I Smile Back” mean that you get different kinds of offers now? That the scripts you are sent are materially different now than they were a year ago?

Yeah. It is interesting . . . It’s so rare that anyone can imagine you as something they haven’t already seen you do. So the fact that Amy Koppelman heard me on Howard Stern and decided that I was Laney, was magic for me. And a great break, just such a lucky thing, because that’s so rare. And now that people have seen me do this, I’m getting scripts that are just this. [Laughter.]

Another person suffering from some sort of mental illness and addiction problem? You probably don’t want to go back there immediately.

Yeah, I don’t think I could do anything that bleak again . . . This was challenging for me. 

"I Smile Back" will be released on DVD on Feb. 23.

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