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Almost nothing's off limits for edgy Sarah Silverman.

November 02, 2005|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

Silverman, who was raised in a liberal New Hampshire household, is Jewish. One of her three sisters is a "super-duper reform" rabbi, and is the mother of four children -- three biological daughters and an adopted son from Ethiopia. (She and her husband are about to adopt a second Ethiopian child.) Nevertheless, Silverman jokes about the Holocaust ("My grandmother was in one of the better camps.") and starving African babies ("I see these CARE commercials with these little kids with the giant bellies and the flies and these are 1- and 2-year-old babies ... nine months pregnant! And it breaks my heart in two.")

In keeping with her tomboyish demeanor, she considers herself a "fun uncle" to Kimmel's children, 12-year-old Kevin and 14-year-old Katie, who hang out with their divorced dad in a room off his office that is outfitted with computers and bunk beds.

And though she adores kids, Silverman says, she does not want any. "Maybe down the line, in my 40s, I might want to adopt, but for a few reasons I just do not care to have biological children," she says. "I feel like, other than vanity or ego, I can't justify it. There's just millions of kids that have no parents, and it seems crazy just because you want to see a little you to have a baby. And I also think that everyone has things about themselves that they don't like, and I am afraid to see that.... My parents, my sisters and I, all of us had a lot of sadness in our childhoods; it's in our genes. Depression. And I just can't bear to see it.... "

She says she avoids only one subject in her comedy. "Fat jokes about women bum me out. I never find them funny. That said? There always could be a fat joke about a woman that is so funny it's great." But she does not joke about depression either.

Occasionally, critics compare her to Lenny Bruce, whose vicious satire and foul language changed standup forever. But Silverman claims to have no greater purpose than getting a laugh. "I feel a little bit like Peter Sellers in 'Being There,' " she says, referring to the character Chauncey Gardiner, whose simplistic utterances were taken as proof of a great intellect. "I'm just going for laughs, and if people have found depth in it, I am not trying to debate that, but it's not premeditated."

Her only truly unpleasant brush with controversy happened in July 2001, after she used a racial epithet in a joke on the Conan O'Brien show. In order to get out of jury duty, she said, she wrote "I love Chinks" on the court's questionnaire. Guy Aoki of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans was not amused. NBC's West Coast president apologized (twice), and though she was stung, Silverman has incorporated the incident into her act, recounting the story in "Jesus Is Magic." Aoki, she says, "put my name in the papers calling me a racist, and it hurt. As a Jew -- as a member of the Jewish community -- I was really concerned that we were losing control of the media."

This year, there was a controversy lite, after the release of "The Aristocrats," the Penn Jillette/Paul Provenza documentary about the dirtiest joke ever told. Silverman managed to outshine most of the dozens of comics in her short improvisational moment, an almost chilling bit where she "realizes" that Joe Franklin, the old-time TV schmoozemeister whom she's never met, "raped me" as a child. Franklin, who also appeared in the movie, said he was so offended that he was contemplating a lawsuit. "I actually bet that there is not one person who thinks that I actually am accusing him of rape," Silverman says. "Is that defamation? No, 'cause it's comedy. If he sues, it will only be good for me and the movie, so I am all for it. Everybody wins!"

Upstairs at the Improv about 10 minutes before she goes on, Silverman studies her notebook and some loose scraps of paper. "Listen," she says, mock-seriously, "there will be a lot of new items tonight, but it will be supported by the classics. That's the way you do it."

Some years ago, she says, she was interviewed by a reporter from New York magazine whose take on her craft traumatized her. "He said, 'I went to see Dom Irrera headline at Caroline's and he was so funny. And then I went the next night and he did the same set!' And I was like, it's awful when someone who's writing about standup doesn't understand. Richard Pryor didn't have a new set every night! It's something you hone and change, so it's horrifying to think that someone who doesn't get that is in control of something in print about you."

Lately, though, her media exposure has been a source of delight. The New Yorker magazine just published a glowing profile, Rolling Stone sent a reporter to hang out with her for a week. She's just about to launch an East Coast publicity tour for "Jesus Is Magic," and is already booked for three solid days of interviews in New York.

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