How Sarah Silverman finally won me over
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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