It’s only fitting that a conversation between two comedians — in this case, Sarah Silverman and Mike Birbiglia, who hit the stage together on Monday night for a Tribeca Film Festival chat — would be filled with plenty of laughs. But both Silverman and Birbiglia were also willing to delve into some tougher questions during the hour-long discussion at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, with Silverman gamely admitting that she’s got a few regrets when it comes to her earlier work.
Ever-honest, Silverman is hopeful that her continued work on growing and changing (in comedy, and in life) will help others recognize that moving beyond outdated modes of thinking shouldn’t be scary, and it is possible to rethink old mistakes in new ways. In short, no, some of the old jokes don’t work, but that doesn’t mean anyone should give up on the people who told them in the past, including Silverman herself.
When Birbiglia mentioned that he’d been thinking a lot lately about the question “does comedy hold up?,” Silverman had a quick answer: “No! It’s not evergreen! That’s the beauty and the horror of comedy, mixed with the beauty and the horror of social media.”
Pointing to her own 2005 concert film “Jesus Is Magic” as a prime example of something that likely wouldn’t fly today, she said, “Comedy is absolutely not evergreen. I don’t stand by lots of comedy I did in the beginning. I mean, boy, I haven’t see ‘Jesus Is Magic’ in a decade or more, … I would call it very problematic. But I can only accept myself and know that I grow and change. I have done things in comedy I wouldn’t do today.”
For Silverman, admitting that jokes and humor shift with the times — and that means that comedians should similarly be willing to evolve — isn’t a bad thing, it’s actually a sign of the kind of forward progress she’s constantly embracing. That does mean some tough choices, however, especially when it comes to considering other people who might have made mistakes in the past and are working to correct them.
“If we’re for progress, being ‘progressive’ means that you change with all the new information that you get,” Silverman said. “You let yourself be changed. To be progressive, and yet to still hold people accountable for something from another time that they’ve changed from, it makes me wonder. I have to ask myself, as I draw lines in the sand on social media, do I want this person to be changed? Or do I secretly want them to not be changed so I can point to them as wrong and myself as right? There’s a kind of pornography in that. I think it’s a kind of righteousness porn.”
Silverman offered up another example of the kind of humor she now regrets, thinking back to early years when she would use the word “gay” as a pejorative term. “We can be passionate and grow and change and still do hard comedy,” she said. “I used to say ‘gay,’ I’m from Boston, you know, ‘that’s so gay!,’ and I would defend it that way. ‘I have gay friends, I just mean it’s lame! It’s gay! I’m from Boston!’ One time, I was defending it, and I just heard myself, and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m the guy who’s like, “What? I say colored!” … My God, I’m that person.’ I should be creative enough to think of something besides ‘gay.’ It’s crazy!”
One piece of work Silverman is hoping still has legs: her 2010 memoir “The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee,” which she revealed is getting the musical treatment soon. Silverman first hinted that the book — which covers her youth in New Hampshire including, yes, her problems with bedwetting — could be turned into a musical back in 2014. During the talk, she said that the project is finally a go, and will be officially announced in two weeks by New York’s own Atlantic Theatre Company when it unveils its 2019/2020 slate.
The musical, which will focus on Silverman as a ten-year-old, will start its run within a year, and will feature songs from Adam Schlesinger and a book from playwright Joshua Harmon. Silverman has longed worked with Schlesinger, who she credited with helping her figure out that the material could even translate to the medium.
“He read the book and he came over and he just said, ‘This is a play! And this is a musical!,'” Silverman said. “The first chapter is called ‘Cursed From the Start.’ ‘Cursed from the start! That’s a song!'”