The Bedwetter, by Sarah Silverman

Book review by Steve Bennett

‘I’m not writing this book to share wisdom or to inspire people,’ says Sarah Silverman in the introduction to her memoirs. ‘I’m writing this book because I'm 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.’

By which celebrity measure, The Bedwetter is much better than it needed to be, if not quite as good as it could have been. It’s reliably entertaining and informative, but on the frequent occasions when deeper insight is threatened, the mood is quickly switched with a jokey anecdote.

It appears to be written less for fans eager to know every detail of her life story and more for the casual reader, aware of her controversial reputation for taboo-tackling gags about rape, race and body parts, but not having any comedic context for them. That’s not necessarily unexpected as there’s surely more of them – and she’s a reported $2.5million investment to recoup for her publishers.

This motive for explanation is most evident in a detailed and measured defence of her use of the racist word ‘Chink’ in a gag on Conan O’Brien’s chat show, arguing, quite reasonably, that pressure groups chose the wrong target in (deliberately?) misunderstanding a ironic comment by a liberal comedian rather than by tackling the more insidious actual racism of far-right broadcasters. But we all know which protests will gain wider exposure for publicity-dependent campaigners. And although she explains her actions, she’s clearly unrepentant about her use of language… the title of the sub-chapter kicking off this section is ‘Dirty Jew drops “Nigger”, picks “Chink” over “Spic”.’

In a similar, but much less successful vein, she offers an unnecessarily protective excuses for bad-taste gags she made about the troubled Britney Spears at the MTV awards, an explanation which seem pointless at best, self-serving at worst.

Other passages about her professional travails describe the discussions she’d have with Comedy Central censors about the script for The Sarah Silverman Program – exposing a hypocrisy in the sensitivity over mentioning female genitalia compared to male bits, or even an exchange of emails with publishers about whether the subtitle to this book should use the word ‘pee’ or ‘pee-pee’ . Such is the lot of a modern comedian – although Silverman is savvy enough to acknowledge that a little censorship can be a useful thing, challenging comedy writers to be more creative.

As well as explaining her motives for HOW she performs comedy, The Bedwetter also goes some way to explaining WHY she performs comedy. And, you guessed it, a anguished childhood is to blame/takes the credit.

On the face of it, growing up in New Hampshire suburbia is not the obvious trigger. Dull, yes, but not traumatic. Even her being the only Jewish girl in a Christian school proved no real obstacle, though it perhaps sowed the seeds of being an outsider – the common feeling among almost every comedian.

But, as the book title gives away, Silverman was a bedwetter until late in life. She got so depressed she skipped months of school and by 14 was popping Xanax like gum, thanks to the therapist supposedly trying to help her. Such sections are told very matter-of-factly, refreshingly defying the trend for misery memoirs, as she keeps a very tight rein on what feelings she lets seep through the page. Yet it is these chapters from the early days that are much more gripping than yarns from her more showbizzy later life.

In keeping with the style of the rest of the book, this is just a series of pithy anecdotes, often with a powerful tragic-comic kick. One day, for example, when she was in the waiting room to see her therapist, another shrink who shared the practice – the Dickensianly named Dr Grimm – told the teenage Silveman, with absolutely no concession to bedside manner, that her doctor had just hung himself in the next room.

Then there was the time that her beloved grandmother – who encouraged Silverman’s early comic impudence – was on her deathbed, Sarah and her sister Laura by her side. As her life ebbed away she whispered: ‘So beautiful’. Laura jumped in to say: ‘She’s talking to me’ – an assertion immediately challenged by her sibling. With one of her last dying breaths, Nan replied: ‘Laura.’

From here, the book takes Silverman through to the early days trying to break into the New York comedy circuit, the inappropriate men she slept with, the year she spent earning her spurs on Saturday Night Live and her climb up the greasy pole of fame.

The story is rich with anecdotes, told with a stand-up’s typical light touch and confession, but always on her own terms. Such tales include how she lost her virginity to fellow comedian Kevin Brennan; how she, without warning, stabbed Al Franken violently with a pencil in an SNL writers’ meeting; and the time when she and Louis CK repeatedly stripped off their clothes and threw them from the balcony of his apartment, then rode the elevator, naked and giggling like naughty teenagers, to retrieve them.

It’s tales like this that depict Silverman as perpetually playful; a willing victim of arrested development who will do anything for laugh, perhaps chasing some of the childish joy she apparently missed out on at the time. It’s why her bad-taste gags, at their best, evoke the same mix of amusement and disproval that a parent exhibits when their daughter says something wildly inappropriate. Even if it is the word ‘Chink’.

  • The Bedwetter: Stories Of Courage, Redemption And Pee by Sarah Silverman is published by Faber & Faber, priced £12.99. Click here to buy from Amazon for £7.79.

Published: 14 Sep 2010

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