Sarah Silverman discusses empathy, mental health, and what’s more important than being funny

Sarah Silverman speaks onstage during a talk with Andrew Marantz at the 2019 New Yorker Festival on October 12, 2019 in New York City.
Brad Barket/Getty Images for The New Yorker
Sarah Silverman speaks onstage during a talk with Andrew Marantz at the 2019 New Yorker Festival on October 12, 2019 in New York City.

Sarah Silverman spoke out about cancel culture, the need for empathy and mental health awareness across a public appearance and documentary this past week.

On Saturday, the Bedford, N.H.-born comic attended the New Yorker Festival and was in conversation with Andrew Marantz, a staffer for the magazine. Discussing how headlines can misconstrue the essence of a public discussion, she admitted to being “terrified” of stepping wrong in the current cultural climate.

“Can we hope for people to change? Can we be open to being changed?” Silverman asked. “Cancel culture is a weird, black-and-white thing that I think should be taking into account the nuance of things, and the people’s intentions and their room for growth, and if they have changed or if they have not — there’s a big difference.”


Silverman has previously stated that she was fired from a film role after a 2007 photo of her wearing blackface for a comedy sketch resurfaced online. At the talk, the comedian admitted she felt shame for many years in relation to the segment, done for Comedy Central series “The Sarah Silverman Program,” and said that she wished to apologize for her “complicity in a liberal-bubble” form of racism.

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Elsewhere, Silverman discussed her experience of befriending someone who’d bullied her on Twitter, opening up a channel of communication that lasted an entire year and eventually finding common ground in their experiences with back pain. Naysayers in comedy clubs and on social media are simply people searching for some acknowledgment of their own existence, she explained.

“If you see them, it means something,” she said. “Empathy is free; it’s not like something you can get back.”

In last week’s documentary “Laughing Matters,” which details 11 comedians’ struggles with mental illness, Silverman also got painfully honest about her battles with depression.

At 13, growing up in Manchester, N.H., Silverman was taking dozens of Xanax tablets a day, she explained in the film, released Friday on YouTube to mark Mental Health Awareness Day.


“The psychiatrist who originally put me on [Xanax] hung himself,” she said in the documentary. “I mean, I can’t just skate by that — it’s crazy.”

Silverman, who performed her first stand-up show in Boston at 17, said she likely would not have become a comedian had it not been for her struggles with depression; she was also candid about her success taking Klonopin, used to treat depression and anxiety.

“One hundred percent of comedians became comedians because, somewhere in their childhood, they needed to be funny in order to survive,” Silverman said in the documentary, which also features interviews with Rachel Bloom (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”), Chris Gethard (“The Chris Gethard Show”), Wayne Brady (“Let’s Make A Deal”), YouTube comedian Anna Akana, Neal Brennan (“Chapelle’s Show”) and “The Office” star Rainn Wilson.

“That survival was finding a way to be funny to defuse a scary household, or abuse, or to be the first one to make a fat joke before someone else does,” she continued. “You might be the only Jew that anyone knows. I was covered in black hair and tiny, with big teeth that didn’t fit my tiny head. All those things were fed into how I became a comedian because I needed to be funny to be liked.”

As a young comedian, Silverman was famously fired from “Saturday Night Live” after one season, a brutal experience she’s since said toughened her up for a career in comedy. While she was on the sketch comedy series, comedian friend Mark Cohen had recommended a psychiatrist, a suggestion that may have saved Silverman’s life later.


“These years of torture and shame kind of became my superpower,” she said. “There’s nothing more important to me than being funny – except being well.”

While the comedian acknowledged using humor to remedy pain isn’t a tendency exclusive to comedians (”Humor is how we all survive,” she said at one point), Silverman said she’s found a community of like-minded, empathetic souls in the stand-up world.

“There’s a lot of ‘I love you’ going on in the stand-up community,” said Silverman in the documentary. “I think it’s kind of us going, ‘Don’t die! Don’t die!’”


Isaac Feldberg can be reached at or on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.