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How Sarah Silverman finally won me over

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Sarah Silverman. (Steve Agee/Comedy Central)

I’ve always been a little wary of the urge to validate my identity by pointing to other people who are marginally, even superficially, like me. But I’ll admit: Because she’s a Jew, I like Sarah Silverman more than I otherwise might. That is, I like the idea of her—a sweet-voiced Jewish girl making jokes about racism and bodily functions—but I’ve often been disappointed by her output. While “I’m Fucking Matt Damon” and her video promoting The Great Schlep are pure genius, The Sarah Silverman Program just kind of annoys me—what’s supposed to come off as outrageous just feels calculated and predictable. And I’ve only made it through half of her movie Jesus Is Magic.

But her new memoir, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee, which arrived in bookstores last week, has pushed me over the edge into genuine fandom. And although I’d prefer to let the fact of Silverman’s religion exist in the background, passively enhancing my enjoyment of her bits on sex and “scatological matters” (her phrase), she makes a pretty good case in The Bedwetter for considering her in a less superficial way.

Silverman is known for telling jokes that make Jewishness (among other not-so-sacred cows) a punch line, and I expected The Bedwetter—a comedian’s memoir, after all, that was in the first place someone else’s idea to write—to be as blithely self-deprecating in this regard as she tends to be elsewhere. I figured it would be a breezy read, with text just slightly larger than what’s found in the average book, some gratuitous photos, a digression or two (or 20), and a few genuinely hilarious moments. I was right about all of that. She describes her career highs and lows with humor that is predictably off the wall and cheerfully rehashes the humiliations of her youth with just enough solemnity to let you know that while it may be a scream for her to title her probable bestseller after a problem that killed her self-esteem until she was 16—she’s nearly 40 and has her own show on Comedy Central—at the time, it was miserable. Silverman is a professional funny person, and it’s plain entertaining to read about her teenage traumas, her experiences as a struggling comic in New York, and the shenanigans of various writers’ rooms—even if what she tells us (and for the most part, how she tells us) isn’t surprising.

What is surprising is to find that Silverman is at her best when she’s dropping some version of the word “Jewish” into an otherwise unrelated conversation, as she does relentlessly throughout the book. It’s so frequent it’s unsettling, and that’s refreshing. In a recent email to the first guy she ever slept with (which she wrote as a way to fact-check her own memory of the event) she nonchalantly uses “I’m Jewish” as a sign-off. She explains that when she first moved to New York, people assumed she grew up here because she was outspoken and visibly Jewish. (“My dark features and name both scream ‘Jew’ like an air-raid siren,” she writes, and made her stand out in the place she actually grew up, small-town New Hampshire.) She says she really wanted to call her book “Tales of a Horse-Faced Jew Monkey.” (To say that her publisher was underwhelmed by this idea, she writes, “would be like saying that Hitler was underwhelmed by the Jews.”) She describes herself, accurately, as a “Jewy comedian reputed to have an unhealthy obsession with penises, vaginas and farts.” In total, she drops variations on the word “Jewish” 151 times in 240 pages, plus the jacket flap. (I counted.)

Given this, the final chapter—which contains the bulk of those 151 mentions and is titled, simply and unambiguously, “Jew”—feels like what the whole book has been building, or at least meandering, toward. “To be honest,” Silverman writes,” 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.” It’s an honest desire, and an understandable one—and she openly wrestles with it for the following 15 or so pages (amid jokes about her parents’ divorce and her belief that the Vatican should be sold to feed the hungry, of course).

Judaism is a pretty good religion, she concedes; she approves of how Jews don’t nag other people about their religion, that they “don’t make a habit of sexually violating their youngest and most vulnerable congregants,” that women can be rabbis (as one of her three sisters is), and that they don’t believe in hell. Still, she writes, “I talk about being Jewish in my act more than I’m really entitled to, considering that I’m an agnostic at best who has no background of participation in Jewish traditions other than nausea.”

Over the years, though, Silverman developed what she came to understand as “a mutually beneficial relationship” with Judaism. For a comedian, having an identity to play with like this can be a real gift, and she welcomed it. She appreciates how her Jewishness translates to a disarming “differentness,” which she can then use to make fans shift in their seats. She knows the feeling of awkward reassurance that comes with seeing a Jew in an unusual place: “When the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke, I wasn’t happy that our president had an affair, but I was kind of tickled to bits that it was with this sassy, chubby Jewess.” And she accepts that Jews embrace her because of the simple fact of her own surface-y Jewishness. “I have been deemed ‘good for the Jews,’ and from that there seems to be no going back,” she writes with some bewilderment, reflecting on the 2008 video she filmed to encourage young people to go down to Florida and convince their reluctant grandparents to vote for Barack Obama.

That video, for The Great Schlep, isn’t straightforwardly “pro-Jew,” she points out, since she was bluntly taking older Jews to task for their hypocritical prejudices (notably, as only an insider can). The many Jews who loved it may have gotten the message, but, she figures, they “ate it up because what they saw was a visibly Jewish, somewhat familiar woman saying words like ‘schlep’ and ‘Jew’ and ‘grandparent’ in a loving manner.” Silverman’s Jewish identity may not involve any of its more traditional elements, but she understands how the game is played. She knows how to strategically deploy Jewishness to make a point, to play off the idealized picture many Jews have of themselves, and to provoke them—sometimes all at once.

It’s no shock to learn that Silverman has spent time thinking about the identity that she makes the butt of so many jokes. But she’s crafted a remarkably earnest little essay about it here—essentially, a stream of consciousness rant about how being Jewish has affected her life and career, which I suspect a talented editor or two then shaped into coherence—embedded in a book that ostensibly cares more about the comic potential of genitalia. These final pages (they’re followed only by an afterword, purported to be written by God, and her acknowledgments) feel cathartic—both for the woman who wrote them and for admirers. I didn’t realize I wanted her to say these things until I was reading them, nodding along in agreement, and laughing so hard I risked having even more in common with her than I’d like.

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Well done piece. I would hope that Sarah does try to come to an understanding of our heritage. It would enhance her comic repertoire in the medium to long term. Too often Jewish comedians get by on their inheritance of the tradition, which often plays on dominant themes of our experience but misses the people we are becoming. Eryn writes that Sarah uses her “Jewishness to make a point, to play off the idealized picture many Jews have of themselves, and to provoke them—sometimes all at once.” Although such humorous critique serves a critical role, it is only one part of informing a people about themselves. It is part of the overly-hashed capacity for self-criticism that is our heritage. The truth is we need a comedian who can take on the dimension of the Jewish experience that is least comfortable in the mainstream, which is that despite our success in America, our efforts to secure the Jewish people’s future in Israel still founders, and sadly, the liberal, Hollywood, elite, mainstream currently inhibits the establishment of that security.

It should read: “I would hope that Sarah does try to come to a deeper understanding of our heritage” rather than “I would hope that Sarah does try to come to an understanding of our heritage.”

Laurie Chana says:

I think she’s mildly amusing and would hardly consider her “great schlep” to be “pure genius.”
Clever? Agreed.

Methinks Sarah Silverman is Howard Stern with a leaky vagina.

Toby says:


Dorothy Wachsstock says:

Haven’t seen her at all but have heard the name. Is she the kind that just clutches her crotch and uses 4 letter words? This is what has kept us away from today’s comedians.

Go back to Jewish comedians like Myron daddy told me about him or google Sid Caeser, Alan King, Buddy Hackett, Joey Bishop, Elaine May etc. They were Jewish but used it in a way that one could sit with their children and all enjoy it.

Is this the kind of Jew that is Sarah Silverman?

Helen says:

Saw Sarah Silverman on British television a year ago. Was utterly mortified how she stoops so low to get some laughs with her brand of humour. I back Dorothy Wachstock’s comments…those were the times when these oldies were hilarious. I was a kid at that time when these comedians were on television. They were totally cathartic and one walked away still chuckling away, seeing the philosophy of their delivery. So unlike Sarah’s style which is so cringemaking and unfunny.

Great article. Thank you, Ms. Loeb. I’ve been a fan of Sarah for years. I agree that the “Great Schlep” was genius. If there were more Sarah Silvermans, we’d laugh a lot more and the world would be a better place.

Sarah is one of many rightful heirs to the throne of Jewish comedy.

Mal Citron says:

The test for Sarah is for her to be funny and stay away from unfunny words and actions that make young people laugh just because it’s there, no matter the context.

I find her really interesting — I think the big-eyed faux-naive pretty-girl-say-naughty things schtick gets tired fast, and i’m turned off when she’s nastily slut-shaming (like the time she went after paris hilton with hilton in the audience…it came off as Mean Girl, popular crowd behavior; calling a girl a whore is just lazy humor). most of all, it wasn’t funny. i’ll forgive anything if it’s funny. funny trumps all. and i DO think she can be hilarious and super-smart: i loved the bit about raising kids in two faiths — how she’s just going to tell them “mommy is one of the chosen people, and daddy believe jesus is MAGIC!” and also the “i love chinks!” thing MOCKING racism, and also how much we girls love getting abortions, and also the thing about nazis being “so cute when they’re small.” shocking, yes, but also genuinely odd and funny and thought-provoking. Auslanderian, even! and yup, thought the Big Shlep was great. i’m looking forward to reading the book and hope it’ll take her comedy in a more personal, jewy, storytelling direction and away from the rape-obsessed, i’m-so-cute-and-bad! tropes i think she gets stuck in.


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How Sarah Silverman finally won me over

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