If there’s anyone who might relieve America’s indignities and unite its warring demographics in transcendent political consensus, it is most certainly not Sarah Silverman. But it’s funny to watch her try.
Silverman’s new 30-minute talk show, I Love You, America, produced by Funny or Die, premiered Thursday on Hulu, where new episodes will post each Thursday evening through December. I Love You, America is Silverman’s effort “to connect with people who may not agree with her personal opinions through honesty, humor, genuine interest in others, and not taking herself too seriously,” per Hulu’s official description. Where the reigning late-night comedy news anchors Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Bill Maher, and Samantha Bee all channel irreverence and impatience with regard to conventional news media and the U.S. political order, Silverman comes in peace, and she leads with humility in the face of reactionary nonsense. “I live in a bit of a bubble,” Silverman concedes at the onset. “I’m on the left coast, I work in the entertainment industry, I generally try not to leave my apartment ever, and as a result, it’s possible I may have some unfair, preconceived notions about what people are like in the rest of America. But that’s the cunty part of me I’m trying to change with this show!”
Silverman’s humor is offbeat, and her debut execution is experimental and rough, but she’s basically working with a conventional, late-night cable comedy format, though she repeatedly warns her debut audience that the format is subject to change. For now, she opens with friendly audience banter, followed by a field segment, and then she’s back in the studio to interview the episode’s featured guest. In the season premiere, Silverman travels to Chalmette, Louisiana, a New Orleans suburb, where she visits the home of the Standers, a white, Trump-loving family who, Silverman assumes, has never met a Jew. The Standers also tell Silverman that their prevailing ideological concern is that “Obama took what it means to be an American out of America.”
For the studio interview segment, Silverman sits with Megan Phelps-Roper, repentant daughter of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps, to talk about religious and political extremism. While the field segment and the studio interview are altogether separate segments, Silverman’s conversation with Phelps-Roper contextualizes the interview with the family and christens the premise of Silverman’s show. “Extremists generally are not psychopaths. They are psychologically normal people who have been persuaded by bad ideas,” Phelps-Roper tells Silverman. “We can’t expect to isolate these people and hope that these ideas will just fade into oblivion. We really have to engage those ideas and understand the mind-sets of the people we’re dealing with.”
In 2017, it’s an urgent mission. Following President Donald Trump’s election, political analysts have wracked their brains for explanations of how they misread the U.S. electorate so badly during every phase of the campaign. Many pundits posit that there are coastal shortages of empathy for white Americans who live in the heartland and speak of themselves as an endangered national majority. In December 2016, CNN dispatched the former Obama administration staffer Van Jones to Trumbull County, Ohio, to eat dinner with a family that supported Obama through two presidential elections before voting for Trump. In June, the celebrity chef Eddie Huang opened the second season of his Viceland food travel show, Huang’s World, by eating Peking duck with the white nationalist activist Jared Taylor in Washington, D.C. Jones’s and Huang’s segments were earnest attempts to “engage” and “understand,” as Phelps-Roper puts it, with both hosts staking firm, stark opposition to the politics of their subjects.
In May, Charles Barkley launched a full TNT series, American Race, dedicated to placing “a diverse cross section of Americans” in contentious conversations with one another about racial justice. In these recent episodes of ideological tourism, the hosts are slumming for easy contrast and conflict that presents basic, familiar contradictions as profound gotcha moments. Typically, both the hosts and their subjects are simply performing the ideological incompatibility that viewers sympathetic to either side knew to be true before they ever pulled into town. The result is an impasse that masquerades as a breakthrough; a sense that the televised dinner date viewers just watched wasn’t all too substantive, productive, or informative after all.
Silverman, in her debut, takes a less prescriptive tact with her political foils. She challenges the Stander family’s doubts about Obama’s citizenship, as well as their hypocritical attitudes about government assistance, but her basic friendliness and humor frame the discussion as a standard, family kitchen table debate rather than formal diplomatic outreach. The Stander family, with eight members featured onscreen, generally support Trump, but Silverman leads them to reveal disagreements among themselves about Trump’s first year in office and Obama’s legacy, and she interrogates these differences and nuances in a manner that ultimately inspires the Stander family to challenge each other. It is a subtle coup for a host who is only beginning to hit a stride.
That isn’t to say that Sarah Silverman has single-handedly redeemed the dining-room-diplomacy format, just that she shows some capacity for avoiding predictable, condescending, and pointless encounters. In her show’s silly debut musical number, Silverman repeatedly interrupts her Springsteen-y wailing to muse about the tricky distinction between empathy and condescension. She seems to recognize the latter trait as the key peril of any feel-good, post-partisan endeavor such as I Love You, America. She also seems to understand that the last thing any healthy news consumer needs in 2017 is still more politics content. For her first live-audience segment, Silverman interviews a front-row couple who just so happen to be nude; as Silverman jokes and marvels at their confidence, the studio cameras extensively review the couple’s anatomy to prove Hulu’s lax policies regarding censorship. It’s a vulgar comedian’s stunt but also, quite simply, an icebreaker. In a world of unrelenting political hostility, I Love You, America rides the distinction between empathy and condescension as well as it hits the sweet spot between relevance and relief.