Amy Silverberg: Just for Laughs screengrab

Writer/Comedian Amy Silverberg Wants Freedom on the Stage and the Page

Amy Silverberg’s comedy is at once wry, playful, and at times beautifully filthy, like the trash-riddled Santa Monica Pier during a pink-tangerine sunset.

When Amy Silverberg received her first piece of fan mail, it blew her mind. Her new “fan” had read a story of hers in a magazine and wished to express how moved he’d been by her haunting prose. After Silverberg responded with her own appreciation for his appreciation, he emailed back: “Can I come on your tits?” As a writer, comedian, and teacher, Silverberg replied the only way that she knew how: “It’s may I come on your tits.”

This story, recounted in her 2018 set for Just for Laughs Digital (which currently has over two million views on Youtube), is one of many that best epitomizes her multifaceted career and the absurd challenges she faces. Silverberg is at once a budding comedian in Hollywood’s congested stand-up scene (she’s been featured on Comedy Central and Amazon Prime and is set to release her first album this May), a prolific fiction writer whose work has appeared in The Paris Review and Best American Short Stories, and an adjunct professor at USC as well as UCLA Extension and Stanford Continuing Studies. 

Her strive to achieve, as she deems it, “the writer’s life”, was spurred by a passion she possessed as early as the second grade, “before even putting pen to paper”. Over Zoom and just under 3,000 miles away, I ask her to make the hard choice: is she a writer or a comedian?

“They have to go hand in hand. I always just say I’m a writer and a comedian. I couldn’t picture doing one and not the other.” She considers this for a moment. “I think maybe I like doing stand-up the best, but writing is the thing I care the most about.”

Raised in a family of “funny, anxious Jews” in Orange County, California, Silverberg was born a mess of befuddling contradictions. A bookish child turned inward-facing adult, she was also a class clown and at one point a “very lonely” member of a “blonde, hard-partying sorority”. It wasn’t until college that she realized her love of reading could be leveraged into a viable career in writing, and her foray into comedy followed shortly thereafter.

“I knew I wanted to do stand up, and it took me a really long time to admit it,” she says. “I think it’s coming out in this weird way, where you’re almost admitting that you think you’re funnier than other people…and that they need to listen to you.”

Her first time on stage was at a storytelling event, which seemed like “a softer intro”. Once she got the taste for it, she hungered for the structure of stand-up that would allow her to practice a more traditional setup-punchline format and score the high that followed a huge laugh. 

“I don’t think I had crazy stage fright, but it took so much energy to ride that adrenaline wave,” she says. “And in the beginning when you’re trying to make a name for yourself, there’s nothing more stressful than doing all these open mics and trying to prove yourself to other comedians.”

Fortunately for Silverberg, she has proven herself time and again on stages across Los Angeles and up and down the West Coast. Standing just above the five-foot mark and frequently donning a flannel shirt and baseball cap, Silverberg retains something that an audience member might not expect: a Ph.D.

“My dad was like, ‘Do they call you Dr. Amy when you get on stage?’ I never talk about having a Ph.D. I do talk about teaching at a college level, and I don’t know if people assume that. I just haven’t been able to make it funny. Other than saying that Ph.D. stands for Pretty Horny Dog.”

Her comedy is at once wry, playful, and at times beautifully filthy, like the trash-riddled Santa Monica Pier during a pink-tangerine sunset. The material that pops up the most in her sets revolves around personal anecdotes and baffling encounters with boyfriends, family members, friends, and strangers, such as her aforementioned pen pal or a skydiving instructor who “loves ‘em small”.

“I think a part of the reason why I’m a good standup—and maybe teacher—is I have a big fear of being boring. I always think about it when I’m teaching, like when I see a student look away, or in stand up if someone looks at their phone: how do I keep someone’s attention?”

I pluck the phrase “ADHDification of America” from somewhere in the back of my brain. “I feel like I have ADHD now,” she admits. “Like adult-onset. I had very good attention and focus all through growing up and college. I think halfway through my Ph.D., I was always on Twitter or playing games. When I’m in a movie theater now, all I want is to be able to play a game while I watch. That’s so creepy!”

In the eight years I’ve known Amy Silverberg (she was the instructor of my first undergraduate class at USC, a requisite composition writing seminar), she has graduated with a Ph.D., written for a television show, and been published in The New York Times and The New Yorker. But even amid all the successes, she’s had and the various gigs that keep her busy, at the end of every sunny and 74-degree day, being a working writer and performer in Los Angeles ain’t cheap.

“I facilitate book clubs for wealthy women in Los Angeles,” she tells me. “And it’s wild. They don’t know my name and call me Book Girl. At the end of the month, it pays my rent, but sometimes you’re like, how much is it worth to get yelled at by these women? Some of them are lovely and sweet, like cute little older women who love reading. And then some are like The Real Housewives of Brentwood and seem like they want me dead for some reason.”

Albeit demeaning, Book Girl is not an entirely inapt moniker for the “Suburbia!” writer. In January 2022, Silverberg announced that Grand Central Publishing would be publishing her debut novel, First Time, Long Time, centered on “a young aspiring writer and her relationship with a famous, aging radio host.” Selling a novel was one of her primary goals in life, a list that includes selling a TV show, a film, and maybe even performing a late-night set. I ask her how the writing process has been going since receiving her advance.

“Damn, it’s really hard,” she says, cracking up. “No wonder I haven’t done it before—it’s fucking hard! I’m not finding it easy at all. In fact, I’m dodging emails from my editors as we speak. They’re like, ‘We’d love to see some pages,’ and I’m like, well, too bad! I don’t feel like sharing any pages with you!”

While this may be her first novel, it’s not her first large-scale project she’s shepherded through a tight deadline. Her Ph.D. thesis in USC’s creative writing and literature program was focused on women’s comic fiction, covering the likes of Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley, and Aimee Bender (who sat on her committee). Elements of these writers’ styles and voices can be found in Silverberg’s stories, which frequently center on young women wrestling with preoccupations that tend to sully the relationships most needed to keep them from being pulled into the mouth of loneliness. And with most, if not all, of her stories, a warm current of humor rides just beneath the waves of melancholia at the surface.

Clearly, her work speaks to her readers. Her story, “Have You Met Husband?” was one of Granta Magazine’s ten most-read of 2021. I ask her what she thinks it is about her writing that elicits such a generous response.

“Oh God, I don’t know. Something I’ve been trying to tell myself—and something I tell students when I’m teaching—is that you can’t control if what you write is good, but you can control if it’s honest. I don’t have that great of an imagination, so all I can do is write from an honest place.

“I also feel that in comedy,” she continues, “You never bomb when you’re being honest. Maybe you don’t get a big laugh, but people are like, ‘huh, interesting.’ Whereas you can really bomb when you’ve written some sort of goofy setup-punchline.”

During our Zoom conversation, Silverberg is backlit by a pale glow streaming into her apartment. Sparse, nearly abstract artwork lines her walls, with lightbulbs sans lampshades hanging over her sofa in the background. An interior designer may deem the style minimalist, though that description doesn’t seem entirely accurate—for her apartment or her writing. Friends of hers say she draws comparisons to millennial-of-the-moment Sally Rooney’s exacting prose. Silverberg considers herself something different.

“I’m much more interested in what people in a bar are saying to each other than I am in, like, the way the mountains look in the light,” she says. “Pages of landscape, which can be beautiful, are just not my interest. I’m way more interested in listening to people interact than I am in a wild plot. There’s a word that I heard Amy Hempel use that I liked. She calls herself a miniaturist. And I think that I would put myself in that camp.”

Apart from this descriptor, Silverberg is reluctant to define herself or her work with too much specificity. As with most writers, she understands the power that words can carry. Embellishing herself with them adds a sense of finality to her developing storyline—as a person and a performer/artist—that can be difficult to break away from.

“Freedom’s a big thing with me,” she concedes, “and I have a big preoccupation with getting trapped. In life, in a relationship, in my career, I don’t want to feel trapped. When I look back on decisions I’ve made I’m like, ‘Oh, you’re always in search of freedom.’”

Like with anything, a life in pursuit of freedom comes at certain costs. “Everything’s a give or take. I know there are people in my life to whom my life would sound so stressful. They want to know exactly what they’re doing next week and they want to get married and have kids and all that.”

Her face lights up as she forgoes her de facto comic spin for honesty: “The things that I am good at are writing, talking, and reading, and those are what have made up my career. And I think I’m happy as long as those are the three things I’m doing, no matter the ratio they take.”

Amy Silverberg is recording her first comedy album on Thursday, 28 April, at the Comedy Fort in Denver, Colorado. First Time, Long Time is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing in 2024. You can follow her on Instagram at @amysilverbeg and Twitter at @AmySilverberg.