Sarah Silverman on how to write jokes after you’ve nearly died

Photo by Michael Rowe/Netflix

‘In times where truth has no currency, I think the most truth you can really get is through comedy.’

A Speck of Dust is an appropriate title: Sarah Silverman asks the big questions about religion, death, and existence in her first Netflix special. Late in the set, she brings up an audience member to answer one of the biggest: “Would you let God cum in your mouth?”

Filmed in Los Angeles, A Speck of Dust finds Silverman in storytelling mode, often jumping from bit to bit or putting a “pin” in a story to elaborate elsewhere. This is a different tactic than 2013 special We Are Miracles, which had more of a traditional standup structure. Early on in Speck Silverman breaks down the anatomy of a “throwaway joke”—she puts a pin in that, too. This special is Silverman working through some stuff.

Though a few throwaway jokes exist in Speck, when she unpacks the bigger questions the special starts taking shape. One of the big threads is death: She talks about being hospitalized and nearly dying in 2016, and in video footage from the hospital urges the person filming her to “play that last bit in slow motion” on her death reel. Speck is also dedicated to Harris Wittels and Garry Shandling.

“When I finished my last special, I started over,” Silverman tells the Daily Dot. “It was a lot of stops and starts. Three huge people in my life died and then I almost died, all in the span of two years… It’s a weird kind of special in that way. It ended up being all one piece, in a weird way.”

She expertly builds up an allegedly true story that should put a lump in any woman’s throat, but Silverman ends it as only she can. She likes “the journey” of that storyand it’s a journeyas well as the harsh reality.

“I was at a benefit where someone said, raise your hand if a man’s ever taken his dick out in front of you, like a stranger,” she says. “And almost every woman raised their hand. And the guy I was standing with was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ No, this is how life is.”

She devotes some time to talking about abortion, but finds a different way than Louis C.K. did on his recent Netflix special. (“Abortion does kill… your whole day,” she cracks.) Silverman calls out the way legislators “chip away” at women’s rights over time, but finds a silver lining to Texas’ horrifying fetal burial law: “I want to speak at those funerals.”

“The fight is important,” Silverman says. “Things like when these little laws in Texas chip away at women’s rights over their own bodies. It’s exciting to know the power of women. The Women’s March and our voices. And to be relentless in protecting our rights. But to be able to show men what it’s like to be a woman is also going to really help.”

Perhaps Silverman will address this on her new weekly Hulu show, I Love You, America, which is set to air later this year. She wants to focus on connecting with people who have different views and beliefs, and explains she’s trying to be more mindful of thoughts in this politically and socially fractured time. She hopes that will help the show “take life,” but that could also just be an extension of working on new material. She admits the personal events of the last few years made her believe she couldn’t get up there and be funny again. Still, she says she’s always trying to reflect what’s going on in the world around her, even if it’s just “cum and shit.”

“If there are no laughs you either cut it or you go, ‘No, this is funny! What am I missing?’” she says. “And you try to figure out that little pause or word. It’s like a puzzle.”

Silverman gets in a Trump joke early, but doesn’t drag in any of the attendant dread. Asked if she thinks comedians have more responsibility nowor more pressureto address what’s going on, she zooms out a bit.

“In times where truth has no currency, I think the most truth you can really get is through comedy, even if it’s made-up jokes,” she says. “…I think generally throughout time you can get the most honest telling of history through comics.

“…If you look at Amos ‘n’ Andy, it’s totally racist, but it also tells us a lot about that time, about the racism of that time. It’s existence. That’s why erasing things that are unsavory can be dangerous. Fuck, my first special has stuff that super bums me out racially, that comes from a veryin my mind now, looking back from this momentliberal bubble.”

The special is a lowkey call to reassess our speck of dust, and maybe our bubble, too.

Audra Schroeder

Audra Schroeder

Audra Schroeder is the Daily Dot’s senior entertainment writer, and she focuses on streaming, comedy, and music. Her work has previously appeared in the Austin Chronicle, the Dallas Observer, NPR, ESPN, Bitch, and the Village Voice. She is based in Austin, Texas.