Late night television has several accepted formulas. There’s the format currently employed by your Jimmys Fallon and Kimmel, for example: monologue, maybe a recurring bit or man-on-the-street segment, guest, maybe another recurring bit, guest, musical number, goodnight. There’s your Daily Show lineup—topical segments, field piece, interview—and its weekly variants, which typically skip the interview in favor of additional or more in-depth topical stuff. There’s the occasional sketch show. And then there’s what Sarah Silverman, Funny or Die, and Hulu have put together. It’s an unholy, uneven, but undeniably entertaining marriage of the three, airing at any time you like, and it mostly works. That’s in part because Silverman is funny, and funniness is a highly valuable quality in a host. But another part of its success comes from the fact that it shouldn’t work, really. This should be unbearable, and it would be, if it weren’t so damned sincere.
That’s not to say it’s particularly substantial. Like her cozy cabin of a set, Silverman’s show seems designed to offer warm, fuzzy feelings. The set pulls it off—I half-expected Silverman to hand guest Megan Phelps-Roper a blanket when they sat down on the couch—while the show itself has mixed results.
It all kicks off with an opening number, co-written by Silverman and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger (also a part of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s killer songwriting team), that’s mostly just a catchy way of calling out everything a well-meaning person can get terribly wrong. A quick interaction with Retta in which Silverman asks to be told how to be a good ally is particularly smart, with the added bonus of involving Retta, who should be all over television all the time. The song seems to be a thesis statement of sorts—a fact underlined by Silverman’s later reference to “the cunty part of me I’m trying to change with this show.” It’s funny, but it doesn’t actually play as a bit. This isn’t a Borat thing. There are bits, and that’s a pun, because there’s actual genitalia involved, but the approach isn’t one of them. Perhaps the most surprising thing about I Love You, America is that it feels, just a bit, like an assignment Sarah Silverman got from her therapist.
That earnestness isn’t really at play in the opening monologue, which Silverman uses to address the show’s aforementioned Frankensteined format and to prepare the audience for tonal inconsistencies. “When we don’t know what to expect, our brains… fill that gap with something, and you’re all shittier writers than me,” she says, before turning one such expectation—a “first show” bit about picturing people naked” into an excuse to cut, repeatedly and at length, to the two totally nude people (Scott and Stella, or perhaps “Scott” and “Stella,” sitting in the front row. Particular attention is paid, as mentioned above, to their genitalia. It’s not sexy in the least, nor is it intended to be, and from what Silverman calls “clinical nudity,” she pivots to the device by which she’ll help us get through other things as unfamiliar as lengthy shots of a guy’s flaccid penis: a white man (Younger’s Mather Zickel) in a suit, behind a desk, doing late night things.
It’s a solid enough bit, one that seems likely to be a permanent fixture, and while it mostly works (“Oh, Mather, you’re not too much!”), the issue is that the promised discomfort doesn’t really surface. Before the first field segment, Silverman explains—there’s a lot of explaining, which is understandable, but it’s a lot—that she’s seeking out people whose point of view and day-to-day experiences differ wildly from hers. Don’t expect Colbert at the Republican National Convention, or any of Full Frontal’s trips to talk to Trump voters, though. She’s mostly there to listen, and while she challenges a few opinions, there’s no correction or condescension. These people are absolutely not a part of the joke.
It’s nice, but insubstantial. The Standers family of Louisiana are “Christian, gun-owning Trump voters,” and while they disagree with their dinner guest on almost everything, guess what? They’re also friendly! They have a cute kid named Blaze, who gets a fart machine as a gift! They voted for Trump because they want change, and only one of them is outspoken about her belief that Obama’s not actually American! They’re all for gay marriage, because love is love, except for the third of the family that’s opposed to marriage or adoption for same-sex couples! It all adds up to what Silverman has already told us: that people are more complicated than the boxes we put them in. It’s warm and fuzzy, but it’s not likely to linger.
Silverman’s sincerity, and the sincerity of the Standers family, is what saves it from being dismissable fluff. When the matriarch of the family says that it was nice to talk to someone who disagreed with her and not be judged, it’s easy to believe. That goes double for the interview segment, in which Silverman plops down on the couch with Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of Westboro Baptist Church who now works to make up for all the damage she did as a member of the hate group.
Before their chat begins, Silverman explains (again) what she wants to do with these interviews: she’s bringing in people who’ve experienced change, and talking to them about how and why that change came about. In the case of Megan, who was raised in the church, her beliefs were first shaken when she took over Westboro’s social media accounts and began to engage with people (one her future husband) who wanted to challenge but not rage at her. It’s a solid conversation with an interesting person, and if the moral of the story feels a little on-the-nose, it’s easy enough to forgive. Once again, it’s all very sincere.
It’s tough to know what to make of this show. In one of those explanations, we’re told that I Love You, America won’t be the same every week, so it’s impossible to predict if that earnestness will be at the center of each episode. It’s possible that this really is an experiment in which a comedian wants to see if she can make herself into a more open-minded and compassionate person. I have no idea if that will make good television. I doubt, however, that “we’re all just people” is a theme that can sustain a series. It’s true, but it’s easy. If things get more complicated once we’re past all the explaining and thesis statements, I Love You, America could be a great watch. As it stands now, it’s just nice. That’s fine—good, even—but it’s also not much.
- I Love You, America isn’t getting weekly coverage, though we may pop back if things get interesting. I’ll keep following the show personally, so feel free to let me know what you think in the weeks to come.
- I’m assuming the opening number won’t be back… and if it is, why the hell are there two theme songs?
- The pan from Sarah saying her favorite family member was Blaze to Blaze’s grinning face was my biggest laugh of the show.
- One moment that did not come across as sincere: the assertion that Mather’s presence is really intended as a kind of security blanket. That’s a joke with teeth, played as a silly, cuddly moment. That said, I absolutely believe she falls asleep to Law & Order.
- Abrupt ending, no?