April 27, 2010
Sarah Silverman’s ‘Jewiness’
Comedian Chelsea Handler has written three memoirs. Kathy Griffin wrote one, too. And now comes “The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee” by the most subversive of stand-up comics, Sarah Silverman (Harper, $25.99).
But Silverman, as always, is an outlier. Griffin begs us to like her. Handler doesn’t care one way or the other. But Silverman dares us to like her and tries to make it as hard as possible.
“My teeth were bigger than my face, I was coated in hair, and I smelled like pee,” she writes of herself in childhood, when she was sent to summer camp even though she was a chronic bedwetter. “Of course, most events in life are about context. Had my parents instead sent me to live in the Baboon Reserve at the Bronx Zoo, I would have been happy and confident, judging the others for flinging poo and feeling downright aristocratic.”
“The Bedwetter” is meant to be funny, and it is. But the book is not merely a collection of “fart jokes and blasphemy,” which is how Silverman herself sums up her career. She is sly, smart, wry and ironic. She is always willing and even eager to disclose the darkest secrets about herself. She writes in frank detail about the affliction of bedwetting that persisted into adolescence, for example, and the discovery that her psychiatrist had committed suicide while young Sarah was sitting in the waiting room. All of these harrowing experiences are raw material for comedy, but the sharp edges poke through the jokes.
The best example I can give is a telling childhood recollection that somehow predicts the trajectory of Silverman’s comic style. She writes about the death of her parents’ second child, a baby boy named Jeffrey, who accidentally suffocated in his crib while in the care of his grandparents while the parents were on vacation. The family coped with the tragedy, which happened before Sarah was born, by ignoring it: “My parents’ friends cleaned up any sign of Jeffrey’s existence by the time they got home,” she writes. “He was imagined.”
When Sarah was 5, she and her sisters were out for a drive with their beloved Nana, the same grandmother who had discovered the dead baby in his crib. Nana admonished the girls to put on their seatbelts. Sarah was already a budding comic: “[W]ithout a beat I said ... ‘Yeah — put yer seatbelts on — you don’t wanna end up like Jeffrey!’ ” She expected an appreciative laugh, but her joke was greeted with stunned silence. “And after several excruciating seconds, Nana broke the silence with an explosion of sobs.”
Like so many other stand-up comics, she trades on her Jewishness — or, as she puts it, her “Jewiness” — but makes no concessions to Jewish sensibilities. Here’s what she writes about her publisher’s response to her suggested title for the book: “[T]o say they were underwhelmed by ‘Tales of a Horse-Faced Jew-Monkey’ would be like saying that Hitler was underwhelmed by the Jews.” She cracks a joke about one of her sisters — a rabbi who lives on a kibbutz in Israel — by pointing out that she married a man named Abramowitz. “When I was on ‘SNL,’ I did a bit about this for ‘Weekend Update,’ in which I suggested that my sister and her husband just rename themselves ‘The Jews.’ ” And when she devotes a whole chapter to her Jewish identity, it is only because her “Jew editor” made her do it.
“To be honest, I would like to go about my life exploiting the subject of Jewishness for comedy, and not be saddled with the responsibility to actually represent, defend or advance the cause of the Jewish people,” she explains. “Nevertheless, my Jew editor convinced me to write a chapter on Jewiness by using one of our culture’s greatest tools of persuasion: nagging.”
Silverman argues that her scatological humor ought to be especially appealing to a Jewish audience. “[M]any Jews cannot be stopped from discussing what goes on in their GI tracts — the GI tract of a Jew over age 23 is a true melodrama reminiscent of the Old Testament: sudden mass exodus, long arduous journeys, floods, futility, agony, questioning God’s wisdom and lactose intolerance,” she writes. “So the things I talk about are not blasphemy to Jewish people.”
(I tried to read the passage quoted above to my wife. but I couldn’t get through it without breaking into laughter. It’s funny because it’s true.)
Curiously, but tellingly, Silverman seems to lose interest in the whole project about halfway through the book. She barely mentions her famously failed romance with Jimmy Kimmel, but she reproduces at length various adolescent diary entries, answering-machine messages from her father, e-mail exchanges with her long-suffering editor and interoffice memos regarding her Comedy Channel show, “The Sarah Silverman Program.” Along with the charming family snapshots that appear in the book, she includes a close-up of a penis belonging to one of the writers on her show. “This is writer Harris Wittels’s penis,” she notes. “I wouldn’t want him to go uncredited here.”
Silverman herself admits that “writing this book is a gigantic pain in the ass,” and she is no more boastful about her literary aspirations than she is about any other aspect of her life. “Whose jackass idea was it for me to write a book anyway?”
The question is rhetorical, and her own answer may be the best way to describe what “The Bedwetter” is all about.
“I’m not writing this book to share wisdom or to inspire people,” she says. “I’m writing this book because I am a famous comedian, which is how it works now. If you’re famous, you get to write a book, and not the other way around, so the next Dave Eggers better get a TV show or kill someone or something.”