I really, really like comedy. I think the ability to be consistently funny is amazing and I wish I thought I could get laughs daily just from using my words. I especially like female comics like Margaret Cho and Wanda Sykes and Janeane Garafolo. Seriously, if you’ve never seen Wanda Sykes bit about making a drink to ease her own stress while her baby cries in her “Imma Be Me” HBO special, you are missing out. And when Margaret Cho imitates her mother? I die. And everything Janeane Garafolo has done is genius.
My proclivity for female comics with no shame and plenty to say should mean that I love Sarah Silverman. But I don’t. I feel like I should but…I don’t. I know she’s smart, I know she’s funny, I know she can roll with the boys but I just can’t get into her stuff. She always seems to turn me off at the punchline. Her jokes end up being kind of cheap, ending with a poop joke or a fart joke or something. I want substance from her and it usually seems to me that she’s on the verge of saying something truly good but then it devolves into frat-boy humor. Maybe it’s because she dated Jimmy Kimmel, the create of the sophomoric The Man Show, for so long? I don’t know. I just know I stopped paying attention to her after the first few times I saw her stand up because I got sick of the juvenile punchlines.
So when I decided to read her book The Bedwetter: Tales of Courage. Redemption and Pee, I expected a lot more of the same thing that has turned me of about Sarah Silverman in the past. And I wasn’t entirely wrong, but I wasn’t entirely right either. This book is part memoir, part comedy deconstruction, though Silverman prefaces all of her discussion of her comedy by saying that she doesn’t like to deconstruct her work. But the deconstruction gave me insight into her humor that I probably needed in order to appreciate her a little better.
She starts out, rather disjointedly, talking about her family and her upbringing in New England. A lot of the angst in her life was due to her chronic bedwetting, which continued until she was well into her teens. She also had deep concerns about the quantity of hair on her arms and her feelings of being an outsider due to being Jewish in Vermont. I was all “blah, blah, blah, Jewish, pee-pee, hairy arms, yeah, yeah” when I was reading it because it was the same damn tone that makes me frustrated with her comedy. Then she got to the section on her legitimate and prolonged depression. Her later teen years were plagued by crippling depression that was mistreated by doctors. There’s no joke there. She was in bad shape and it took a long time for her to get better.
Once Silverman got back on even mental health footing, she headed to New York to pursue first college, then comedy. The rest of the book is a fairly predictable reminicensne of her career in comedy. There’s the lean years begging for spots on open mic nights, the failed stint on SNL, the stories of making other comics laugh by peeing on the sidewalk. She talks a lot about the creative process on her tv show, a program I’ve never seen, largely because I don’t like her comedy well enough. And her descriptions of the show don’t make me want to Netflix past seasons. It sounds totally reliant on jokes about penises. And while penises can be funny, I don’t think they can carry 30 minutes in prime time, even on Comedy Central.
The Silverman talked about two different episodes in her career that I found really illuminating. One dealt with a time she satirically used a racial slur on Conan O’Brien. The other was her decision to do the “The Great Schlep” video during the 2008 presidential campaign to help convince older Jewish people to vote for Obama. Neither incident was what I would call comedy genius but…but she finally got into her humor philosophy in discussion them. What is comes down to is that Silverman is acutely aware of all forms of discrimination and tries to use humor to illuminate them. She draws on Norman Lear’s method of using the language of bigotry, ala Archie Bunker, to expose it as ignorance. It’s a sophisticated idea and now that I know that’s where she’s going, I can see it clearly. But…but if she needed to explain the joke, is it really a good joke? I’m not stupid nor am I deaf to satire but I was basically unable to get down through the layers of poop jokes in Silverman’s material to get to the substance below the bullshit.
If you like Sarah Silverman, you’ll love The Bedwetter. If you don’t like her but feel like you should, this book may make you understand why. That’s what it did for me, even though it probably won’t have me tuning in to Silverman’s next tv appearance.