The thing that surprises me about Sarah Silverman’s memoir is that it’s a memoir. It’s not a memoir spoof; it’s not a book of comedic essays packaged as a memoir; it’s a honest-to-goodness collection of stories from Silverman’s past.
The title threw me off—The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee. I assumed the book was a parody of celebrity memoirs in which melodramatic mountains are made from molehill-sized obstacles. Maybe that’s why Silverman initially wanted to title her book Tales of a Horse-Faced Jew-Monkey or My Life in 18 Poops.
Her publisher nixed both ideas.
Bedwetter is light on redemption (Silverman behaves herself [offstage, at least], so she doesn’t need to be redeemed), but it’s heavy on courage, and it’s really heavy on bedwetting.
“It’s helpful to mention,” writes Silverman, “that I was—and would be for many years to come—a chronic bedwetter.” It’s no joke; the woman used to pee her sheets at night, and she used to feel awful about it. But she overcame her secret shame when she saw actress Jane Badler (the original sexy V alien) on The Tonight Show, admitting that she was a bedwetter as a child.
“This secret,” says Silverman, “that I knew for a FACT would be the most painful secret of my life was a trivial fun fact for this elegant, confident beauty queen-actress. Until now, I could not imagine ever getting over the embarrassment of being me, and here she was, giggling about it on The Tonight Show. The motherfucking Tonight Show.”
- The Bedwetter
- by Sarah Silverman. Harper, $26
Silverman displays this sort of openness and emotional honesty throughout the book, alongside her aforementioned courage. The courage, by the way, usually comes up when Silverman is made to defend her jokes, which tend to offend people who don’t understand them. Case in point: Silverman’s “I love chinks” joke, which she told on Late Night with Conan O’Brien:
I got a jury duty form in the mail, and I don’t wanna do jury duty. So my friend said, “Write something really racist on the form so they won’t pick you, like ‘I hate chinks.’” I was like, Jeez—I don’t want people to think I’m racist, I just wanna get out of jury duty. So I filled out the form, and I wrote, “I love chinks.”
The joke is on Silverman—well, on the insensitive, oblivious, Archie Bunkerian character Silverman plays in her act. It’s not on Chinese people. Specifically, the joke is that Silverman doesn’t even realize the word is offensive. In fact, she’s so clueless that she thinks saying “I love chinks” actually demonstrates that she’s not racist.
Still, people were offended. Particularly, Media Action Network for Asian Americans founder Guy Aoki. Or maybe he just pretended to be offended for media attention. After all, the media placated Aoki and branded Silverman a racist. So what did Silverman do in response? She defended her joke.
Here’s the first paragraph of her letter to Aoki:
“I heard that you were hurt by my joke on the Conan O’Brien show and wanted to write to you and address it. I had no intention to offend. The joke is satirical and the intended point of view is to underline the ignorance people demonstrate when the employ racial epithets. In my act, the joke is usually in a greater context, which explores race, tolerance, and fear.”
Nine years after the fact, Silverman has this to say about the controversy, about Aoki and about the type of organization for which he works: “I think there is a need for cultural checks and balances, and I believe Guy Aoki has an important job. I just think he’s shitty at it.”
Now those are the words of a courageous bedwetter. I’ve always respected Silverman’s comedy, and I walk away from her memoir respecting Silverman the person, too.