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

"Humor is how we all survive."

Sarah Silverman, the comedian, in Los Angeles, Sept. 26, 2017.
Sarah Silverman, the comedian, in Los Angeles, Sept. 26, 2017. –Brinson+Banks/The New York Times

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 night, 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.”

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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 said she experienced shame for many years in relation to the segment, done for Comedy Central series “The Sarah Silverman Program,” and that she wished to apologize for her “complicity in a liberal-bubble” form of racism.

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 documentary “Laughing Matters,”  which details 12 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. “I mean, I can’t just skate by that — it’s crazy.”

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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 become comedians because somewhere in their childhood, they needed to be funny in order to survive,” Silverman said in the documentary. “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 recommended a psychiatrist, a suggestion that may have saved Silverman’s life.

“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 noted using humor to combat pain isn’t a tendency exclusive to comedians (“Humor is how we all survive,” she added), Silverman said she’s happy to have 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!'”

Watch the full documentary below: