Interview: Sarah’s hour at Sundance

Sarah’s first time talking extensively about I Smile Back since completing the movie was apparently this one hour live-streamed New York Times “Times Talk,” at Sundance, the morning of January 24. Times movie blogger, Cara Buckley, interviewed both Sarah and Tig Notaro. Notaro was at Sundance for the documentary about her, called “Tig.”

Tig Notaro is a long-time friend of Sarah, including having worked on The Sarah Silverman Program. (In this interview, they mention that Sarah visited Tig daily in the hospital when she had her cancer surgery.) The interplay between Sarah and Tig in this interview is hilarious; you can see from some of their shorthand that they are real friends. But if you haven’t seen Tig before, prepare for her frequent irony.

It’s interesting for fans to observe Sarah’s difficulty finding the right words to talk about I Smile Back in this interview, seemingly unsure how to “promote” such a troubling story. In the subsequent interviews, Sarah became much more fluent in her “talking points.”

(Note: It will take some persistence for you to watch this, since half of it is Tig talking not about Sarah. Sarah’s more significant segments are more toward the beginning and toward the end. Also, we’ve transcripted several of them below. And to save some time, you can manually skip the first three minutes of Sundance personnel introducing, to get to when the actual interview starts.)


CB: Laney, in I Smile Back, is a dark character. Did you read the book, and then want to [play the character]?

SARAH: The book came to me by way of Amy. I guess she heard me on Howard Stern actually, and felt I was a ‘smile back-er.’ And got the book to me, and I read it, and I thought it was beautiful and sad and– um, real. You know, Laney is– this is my first time talking about it and it’s very different because– how do you, uh– I’m not a good salesman of myself, and I’m like in every scene of this. And it’s a drama, so I feel weird going, like, ‘It’s so great, you’ve gotta see it. You know. I’m very proud of it, I think it’s good. I don’t know– this is like the least [idea] I’ve had on something. You can’t watch it and measure how it’s going by laughs or anything. But it’s, um– The one thing I find kind of parallel is, I love playing self-centered in comedy. Like in The Sarah Silverman Program, she was kind of ignorant, arrogant. And that’s not Laney, but the self-centeredness in comedy is so fun. And there’s a self-centeredness to this character that is not fun, but it’s the same kind of thing where… I think people mistake self loathing as modesty– or even wanting to punish yourself or not liking yourself. But it’s a self-centeredness, because there’s no room for anybody else. And so it’s interesting because there’s that weird similarity. But it couldn’t be more different in lots of ways. And in terms of just the– comedy is very vulnerable and exposing. And this is vulnerable in such a different way. Is that a good answer?

CB: Did you want to go into drama? That’s a trajectory so many comedians have, and to great success– Tom Hanks, Steve Carell– into these really dark characters. Is that something that you saw for yourself?

SARAH: I’ve never planned anything. I’ve never had an ambition to do anything specific. I really like having lunch with friends and I have a lazy comedian group that I love. I mean literally lunch with friends, but I also mean figuratively. I own my apartment. I keep my overhead low. I always just want to do something that sounds interesting. And when this came across, I was like, ‘Wow, this could be really neat,’ and I hitched my wagon to it. And like three or four years later– five years later– they were like, ‘It’s happening.’ And I remember I was in my bathroom, and I had just smoked pot (because I had just washed my face and flossed– and that’s when I smoke pot– and then I brush my teeth), and, I was like, ‘Oh my god, amazing!’ And then I hung up and I had a full, physical panic attack of, ‘What am I– What have I done?!’

CB: What is your process?

SARAH: Well, it’s funny. My boyfriend was like, ‘Are you prepared?’ And I’m like, ‘Not like in your world prepared, but for me. I read it, and I thought it through, and have a basic game plan– But I’m also prepared to throw it out the window… I don’t know. I don’t have a process. We talked about what it was, or what it meant, or whatever. And then each scene, I learned the lines. And then I said them like they were real.

FROM AUDIENCE: What is your writing process when you are writing your standup? And how do you figure out the fine line between tragedy in your real life and comedy– trying to make it humorous for the audience to laugh at?

SARAH: I don’t really have a writing process that’s consistent. I really like using Twitter for throwing out ideas, and kind of seeing how the response is. But I also learned a good lesson a few years ago about not second guessing the audience, not wondering about what they want to hear, because that’s just death for comedy. And as a person, in my life I think it’s important and really want to embrace letting myself be changed by new information. And so my standup has to reflect that. There are some comics that just cling to this one thing that worked one time. I always think of this reference in Groundhog Day— he almost gets to kiss Andi McDowell, and they have a snowball fight and they fall in to the snow and they almost kiss, and then he wakes up the next morning. And he keeps getting to that point, and getting to that point, until he’s like [fast motion:] snowball fight, fall, almost kiss– and she’s like, ‘Ughhh.’ Where that moment was organically beautiful, but it became horror. And I think when you stick with something that works and don’t let yourself change with new information, and growing, and learning, and don’t let your material reflect that, it just can really make you stuck. And people say you are risky because of the things you talk about, but really I think the risk in comedy is being brave enough to change and reflect who you are now, and have that comedy reflect that, even if you lose people, or gain different people, or gain no people.


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