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Smile, It’s Only Life

For Laura Silverman, shyness is no obstacle to putting on a show

Minutes before showtime at Hollywood’s Steve Allen Theater one evening this past June, Laura Silverman, SMFA91, paced the lobby, her usual pre-show bundle of nerves. She’d soon be onstage as part of “The Rudy Casoni Variety Hour,” a monthly comedy revue in which she’s a regular. The event was pretty informal, several notches below the production values of The Sarah Silverman Program, the recently canceled Comedy Central series in which she starred opposite her younger sister, Sarah. Still, she was sweating the details. “Yeah,” she said, riffling through a looseleaf notebook in the lobby, “I’m famous for pulling everything together at the last minute. But I’ll get this done.”

Onstage, Silverman announced she would read from her “upcoming poetry anthology” (a joke that happened to be true, as she has such a book in the works). But first she gave herself an “affirmation” pep talk—“Nothing matters because we’re all gonna be dead, so it doesn’t matter if I do badly tonight”—which drew nervous laughter from the crowd. So did Silverman’s banter with Rudy Casoni, a Sinatra sound-alike, about how long it takes her to compose herself enough to begin.

The punch line, however, is that she was worth the wait. Once she put on her glasses and commenced reading, she absolutely killed with a series of plaintive, woman-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown haiku. A sample:

I knew not true pain ’
Til I buried my true love
As they say, “alive.”

The verses produced some of the loudest guffaws of the night, and Silverman beamed awkwardly. The act was brief but memorable, as was her end-of-the-night curtain call—in which, inexplicably, she wielded a cowbell, striking it with her index finger, a look of pursed-lipped concentration on her face.

“That hurt!” Silverman confessed the next morning with a laugh, referring to the cowbell. “I did that on a dare, but I couldn’t find anything backstage to hit it with. Kind of wish I had now.”

The setting for our conversation was Silverman’s frequent hangout, a café in her Hollywood neighborhood. The place was small, homey, and suffused with the aroma of baked goods and strong java. Most of the customers seemed to know who she was. Art, a rumpled middle-aged regular who works at a nearby bookstore, occupied the same table during our interview. Silverman did not seem to mind his occasional interjections.

“I don’t consider myself to be a stand-up comic,” she said. “I’m kind of terrible at it, actually. So I made my act about how terrible I am. I’ll tell a joke, get all deflated if it doesn’t go over—or happy if people laugh. I’m a pretty good joke writer. I’m just not so good at the stand-up persona of convincing people I’m saying a joke for the first time. So reading from my pretend haiku book that I hope becomes real someday is good.”

Silverman has a healthy list of independent-film credits, was a regular on such television series as The King of Queens and The Comeback, and frequently turns up on stages large and small around Los Angeles. She has been trying out a monthly show of her own—“Smile, It’s Only Life”—at the Steve Allen Theater, with an eye to developing a one-woman comedy show to take to larger venues.

But she’s best known for her role on The Sarah Silverman Program, which for three seasons enthralled the strong of stomach with outrageous plot lines (Sarah’s engagement to her dog, her failure to recognize that she is nine months pregnant), endless potty jokes, and lavish effects and production numbers, before it succumbed to budgetary pressures in April. Laura played the long-suffering, exasperated sibling, an RN, who was frequently embarrassed at her sister’s madcap exploits, even while indulging in some herself, like the dueling Holocaust memorials they concocted in the show’s finale.

Still, the two sisters’ styles are quite different. Where Sarah trades in deadpan how-could-she-say-that shock value, Laura projects an onstage vulnerability that is as sincere as it is endearing. She described her performance persona as one that “embraces being awkward and a little all over the place.” “She really is a little shy and awkward when you first meet her,” Dan Sterling, the show’s executive producer, told me. “But she’s good at everything, and game to try anything. She routinely ad-libbed better lines than what we wrote, and even wrote a lot of songs for the show. She played it so great, this mild-mannered and seemingly reasonable person saying completely insane things” (like claiming that her sister was formerly a hermaphrodite, to cite a tame example).

“I don’t think I was necessarily born to perform,” Silverman said. That shyness again. “When I started, I was constantly sick with stomach pains, dizziness, the runs. The doctor asked, ‘Have you given any thought to quitting performing? No? Okay, then drink a lot of Gatorade and good luck to you.’ Before that, I had avoided performing for as long as I could—I wrote, did photography, went to art school. But once I was in art school, all I wanted to do was act in people’s short films. So I hung around the film department.”

By then, she’d had a somewhat checkered collegiate career. Silverman, a native of Bedford, New Hampshire, enrolled in Boston University’s College of Communication, where her father hoped she’d become a journalist “like Barbara Walters.” But she admits she was “horrible” at journalism because she didn’t like sticking to facts. After a teacher gently suggested journalism was not for her, she switched to creative writing.

But that didn’t keep Silverman from dropping out of BU with just a semester to go. Eventually she came to the joint degree program at Tufts and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, the school her mother would have attended had her parents not concluded that she “wouldn’t meet a rich Jewish business student in art school.”

After graduating, Silverman did sketch comedy with a group in Boston that included the comedian and actor David Cross. When Comedy Central set up shop in nearby Watertown with a new animated series called Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, she landed some voiceover work—a good place for a shy person to start out. Her live-acting break came with a regular part on the HBO series The Comeback, playing the director of the Lisa Kudrow character’s reality show. But this was largely a voiceover role, too: Silverman was more often heard than seen. The best thing about it was learning that the part had been written specifically for her, which was a great confidence builder.

“That was so wonderful for someone like me,” she said. “It’s such an uncertain business. You can choose to think nothing is happening or that something is happening, and either could be true. If you stay in it, you might as well believe something is coming your way.”

Despite her comedic gifts, Silverman maintains she is better suited to drama, like her 2008 guest role on the Fox series House as the patient with the mysterious malady du jour. She played a music producer who had sworn off all her bad habits to become an Orthodox Jew, only to be struck down by a condition in which she fainted whenever she tried to stand. The culprit: a “floating kidney.”

It was, she said, the thrill of a lifetime to work with Hugh Laurie, the series’ star. “My first scene with him, he walks into the room and I hyperventilate and pass out,” she recounted. “That was pretty much how I felt. Didn’t take much acting. I feel like I could’ve done a better job, but that’s okay. That’s what drives you and keeps you going. You don’t beat yourself up, but you want to feel like you’re progressing. Those little glimpses of what more you can do, that’s exciting. You want to keep jumping off that cliff and see how much you can trust the universe to catch you.”

Almost on cue, another café regular appeared at Silverman’s table—the owner of the fabric store next door, where Silverman buys material to make clothes.He had apparently just caught her episode of House on reruns. “Excuse me,” he said apologetically. “But I must give you a compliment on House. Excellent job! I was so proud of you, I was jumping up and down and telling people, ‘See, that is my friend from the café!’”

Smiling broadly, Silverman could not suppress a blush.

Being shy—“very, very shy,” in her own words—has taken Silverman down a few dark roads, most notably a brief period of heroin addiction in her early twenties. She said she was drawn to it because of depression and anxiety. “There’s a window when it’s good,” she said. “But it has a way of turning on you. Getting off that stuff was really hard.”

Today, she seems largely at peace with the twists and turns of her past. “I can’t say my trajectory hasn’t been the one I was supposed to take,” she noted with a lawyerly circumspection. “I’m proud of what I’ve done—some things I think are really good, that people remember, and some big things that people know.”

Another side of her life that brings her satisfaction is volunteer work. She helps out in a food pantry and participates in the Reading to Kids literacy program in Los Angeles public schools. The volunteer project that has her most fired up at the moment is training to be a member of the Los Angeles Police Department’s crisis response team. The job, which she discovered through an online ad, calls for her to go to crime scenes and tend to next of kin.

A key part of the work is to avoid being traumatized—mostly, she said, by “listening without visualizing.” But an even bigger part is having the humanity to help people when they’re at their absolute neediest. “This centers around homicides, suicides, fatal accidents,” she said. “Family members are freaking out, so there needs to be someone focusing on them and their immediate needs. There will be little kids covered in blood who just saw their father get shot. So we change diapers, give water, wash them down. Then we activate their support system, whether it’s clergy or family.”

Obviously, it’s not exactly an appropriate setting for humor (and leave it to Silverman to unwind from her day job as a performer with extracurricular work that most people would find unbearably grim). But humor does have its place among the team members—“in helping each other cope,” Silverman said. “The speakers they’ve brought in are incredibly humorous. Even the coroner, who we had the other night. We all thought that would be rough because he has to deal with bodies and body parts all day, but he was hilarious—just his way of presenting things and the little built-in jokes he had to keep it flowing. Hmm, maybe I’ll get him for my show . . . ”

Silverman broke into a laugh.

“The crisis-team work is part-time, and I think I’ll keep acting,” she continued, changing the subject. “I like to think the best is still ahead for me, but I’m also realistic. There are times I just hate the nature of the business. I currently have a manager that I love and trust like crazy, and just signed with a new agency that I am super happy with. But in the past I’ve worked with people who kept trying to set me up with nothing but wacky sitcoms I was just not right for. I’d think, ‘This is what I’m making sacrifices for?’ I mean, if it’s not lucrative or creatively satisfying, why do it? I just want to be happy.” Still seated at her table, Art spoke up for the first time in a while. “Well, Laura,” he said, “it looks like you’ll be staying happy for a while.”

“Thanks, Art,” she replied.

The Immortal Haiku of Laura Silverman

I am so lonely
And have a lot of problems
Be my Valentine?

A message to snails
Evolution has failed you
Your shells are a joke

Asked the universe
To please stop sending me signs
Has not responded

A pack of Wet Ones
Inadequately sealed shut
Is pack of Dry Ones

He has those two eyes
So very much like I do
It’s destiny-ish

One in five experts
Agrees that the other four
May well have a point

Wearing fur’s okay
If the animal was killed
In, like, self defense

When old people fall
It rips my heart to pieces
Yet they still do it

There once was a girl
And she lived in Nantucket
And that’s all I know

DAVID MENCONI is the music critic at the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. He has written for Spin, Billboard, and a host of publications that no longer exist.
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