Ten years ago, Sarah Silverman changed late night. The music video I’m F—ing Matt Damon technically aired on Jimmy Kimmel Live in January 2008, but it lived on the internet, suggesting that then-novel notions of “virality” and “YouTube metrics” were both achievable and mandatory for hourlong variety shows starring white men and the desks that love them. Silverman won an Emmy for the song, and then she went back to work. Circa 2008, she was working on The Sarah Silverman Program, a surreal cult-com that lasted just long enough to point forward toward Community and Bojack Horseman.
Silverman seems to have always been with us this past decade, playing herself on Louie, acting in indie movies, calling out Bernie Bros at a political convention long gone now, showing off a vape pen on the red carpet like whatever. It took too long for her to get her own late night show, but the genre followed completely in her wake. Kimmel turned Damon and Ben Affleck into recurring Jimmy Kimmel Live characters. One year post-“F—ing Matt Damon,” Jimmy Fallon came to late night and made celebrity-guest virality a cultural obsession. Then James Corden realized he could drive while celebrities sang. That era could be fading. Late night television has come to life with bold and thoughtful provocation, Kimmel’s open-hearted health care conversations, Seth Meyers’ clever deconstructions, Samantha Bee’s Predator-gun-assault of righteous one-liners, Colbert’s dadly fury.
I Love You, America seems like it could be that, but Silverman’s up to something different with her new weekly show, which debuted Thursday on Hulu. She prologue’d with a song, opened with a monologue, continued with a pretaped bit of docu-comedy, ended with a guest. A familiar structure, but the title is a mission statement. Silverman’s comedy persona depends on a very sincere form of skewering as old as dearly departed Don Rickles: She jokes about everyone because she loves everyone so much to see precisely what could shock them the most.
This was the energy powering the opening musical number, with Silverman singing about her love of this whole country, from “the East Coast to the West and whatever’s in between.” She sang about loving all races, and then she broke off, wondering if it was wrong to categorize human beings. She asked a passerby, “How can I be a good ally?” (The passerby happened to be Retta.) The tone of the song suggested swagger-y country, but the constant break-offs into dialogue suggested jangled-nerve confusion.
Silverman opened the show promising that her show could be a little bit of everything, because this is a genre of entertainment that lives entirely in execution and literally it could be anything six weeks from now. “Sometimes it’s just gonna be aggressively dumb and silly, and sometimes it’ll just be super funny,” she said, and sometimes “it’ll be totally earnest, and you’ll go into it expecting to be funny.”
Then she cut to some naked people in the audience, because she’s on Hulu and why not? This is the right instinct. There’s nothing more staid than talking about how staid late night talk shows are, but I just realized I’ve never used the word “staid” out loud. Also, though, this is a format that’s been deconrecondeconreconstructed, and you could do worse than throwing in some wild improv-night energy.
So Silverman had the camera linger for a while on a man and woman’s private parts, and the bit was funny and then uncomfortable and then oddly endearing and then just clinical. She also promised that, whenever the show got too unsettling, they’d cut to “a white man at a desk, just your average run of the mill late night talk show host.” Cut to Mather Zickel, who between this and Newsreaders is making a fine career as a living joke about white maleness. It’s a gag that you imagine could live and breathe: The archetype of a late night talk show host rendered as the punctuating sidekick, while the host hangs out on a set that looks like a ’90s comedy club’s version of a living room.
But back to the mission: Silverman wants to unite, legitimately, or at least get people to think outside of their echo chambers. To that end, she filmed herself having dinner in Chalmette, La., with a family of Trump voters. She cheerfully gave a kid a fart machine, and she asked about their family history. She talked about Trump, and they made their case. They voted for change. They felt like Obama encouraged freeloaders. Silverman asked about their health care situation and didn’t put too fine a point on the fact that much of the family seemed to get health care from the government. She was happy to find out that almost everyone was in favor of gay marriage. “It felt so great to talk to somebody with different views,” the family told the camera after Silverman left.
This could be my own thing, but bits like this never quite feel all-the-way convincing. There’s the Heisenberg elephant in the room: Would the conversation be like this without cameras? And what was lost in the edit? The show left in a couple awkward moments – the mom joke-but-seriously’d that Obama was an immigrant; another man said gay people shouldn’t have kids because that’s what he was taught. You get what Silverman’s going for here: If we can only talk to each other, we might not agree, but at least we’ll understand each other. Fair enough, but: Given Hulu, given what seems to be a lack of basic time or content restrictions placed on people doing these shows, did this space need to feel so enervatingly safe? The segment ended with Silverman hugging a little kid, either an endearingly twisted act of sincerity or a manufactured like-button moment beamed in from the end of every Buzzfeed listicle.
Better: Silverman’s interview. She spoke to Megan Phelps-Roper, formerly of the Westboro Baptist Church, now (I quote from Wikipedia) “a social media activist, lobbying to overcome divisions and hatred between religious and political divides.” That simultaneously sounds like a job that doesn’t exist, a job that should exist, and one of the worst jobs on earth. The conversation went to unexpected places. A convert from Westboro’s doctrine, Phelps-Roper said that extremists “generally are not psychopaths. They’re psychologically normal people who’ve been persuaded by bad ideas.”
She recalled celebrating 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina and all human tragedies, tried to explain how it felt to see everyone outside the church as “inherently evil.” The conversation turned, lightly, to Charlottesville, which Silverman and Phelps-Roper both treated as a somewhat generic example of extremism. And the conversation turned to Twitter: Phelps-Roper described how she started to doubt her family’s teaching once she joined the social media service, and even wound up married to someone Silverman described as “your Twitter troll!”
So this show wants to be a generalist plea for uniting, not dividing. It’s hard to make that exciting, but it’s not like “exciting” got us anywhere this year. I’m glad Silverman has a venue for this because we should have a venue for this. The other political late night hosts can feel like they’re preaching. (I’m the choir, but that’s part of the problem.) It’s a good instinct, to lower the temperature, and lighten the mood.
There’s even something old school in Silverman’s approach. The show’s not even technically “late night” (Hulu will release new episodes on Thursday nights). But in her opening monologue, Silverman spoke with sincere-mock appreciation about how some people use late-night shows as their warm-down to fall asleep – just like how, she explained, “I need to watch a Law & Order to get to sleep every night.”
And so when the episode ended, Silverman left Phelps-Roper on the interview couch, she got into bed with Zickel and turned on Law & Order. Zickel promised that next week’s guests would be Tom Berenger, Morgan Fairchild, with music by The Judds. The faded celebrity names were a cute nod to late night’s past, while the show just finishing was a hopeful vision of its uncertain future.