NPR

Sarah Silverman: Turning Ignorance Into Comedy

Comedian Sarah Silverman wet the bed until she was 15 years old.

"It was humiliating," she says. "I was sent to sleepover camp since I was 6, and it was a recipe for disaster. But, you know, I guess the silver lining is, 'There's not much to lose in life after that.' [When I was] doing stand-up when I got a little older, the prospect of bombing was like 'Who cares?' "

Silverman shares her experiences as a bed-wetter, a little sister, a Jewish kid growing up in New England and an aspiring stand-up comic in her new memoir, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee.

The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee
By Sarah Silverman
Hardcover, 256 pages
Harper
List price: $25.99

Read an Excerpt

She has been called the "funniest woman in America" by Rolling Stone, but one of the most poignant chapters in the book is about the first time Silverman bombed, years before she would ever step on a stage. Growing up, she often heard stories from her older sister about another sibling, Jeffrey. Jeffrey accidentally suffocated to death in a crib several years before Sarah was born. When she was 5, Silverman decided to test a joke about Jeffrey on the rest of her family.

"My grandmother picked us up for our Sunday breakfast at a local diner, and she said, 'Everybody buckle up.' And thinking I was going to kill, I said, 'Yeah, we don't want to wind up like Jeffrey,' and [there was] just silence. My sisters turned and looked at me like I was crazy, and my grandmother just burst into tears," she says.

Silverman says the incident taught her that there are consequences in comedy -- and she thinks of that memory when writing her boundary-crossing material.

"I think I've been called edgy -- but in all honestly, there is a safety in what I do because I'm always the idiot," she says. "Unless you're just listening to buzz words and not taking into account the context of the situation, you see I’m always the ignoramus. So no matter what I talk about or what tragic event, off-color, dark scenario is evoked in my material, I'm always the idiot in it."

Silverman appears in the films Jesus is Magic, The Aristocrats, School of Rock and There's Something About Mary. She also stars in her own show on Comedy Central, The Sarah Silverman Program.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Not everyone likes my guest, comic Sarah Silverman. Her fearless social comedy turns off some people but has also won her devoted fans. On the surface, her comedy may seem offensive to Jews, African-Americans, Latinos, gay people, you name it, but that's because she's in persona as someone who is clueless, uninformed but certain in her beliefs.

Her Comedy Central series, "The Sarah Silverman Program," had its season finale last week. It was the third and perhaps final season, but is available as downloads.

Silverman is often the high point of award shows. She won an Emmy in 2008 for her video, whose title I can't say on the air, so I'll call it "I'm Bleeping Matt Damon." It was first shown on "The Jimmy Kimmel Show" and went viral on the Internet.

Not being shy about herself, Sarah Silverman has titled her new memoir "The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee." A little later, we'll talk about the bedwetting problems that plagued her when she was growing up.

Let's start with a clip from "The Sarah Silverman Program." Sarah is in a restaurant, at a table with her sister Laura, who is played by Silverman's real sister Laura, and Laura's husband, Officer Jay McPherson, played by Jay Johnston.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Sarah Silverman Program")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JAY JOHNSTON (Actor): (As Jay McPherson) Did you tell Sarah the news?

Ms. LAURA SILVERMAN (Actor): (As Laura Silverman) Oh, it's nothing.

Mr. JOHNSTON: (As Jay) Nothing? What, have you flipped your lid or something? Come on, tell her.

Ms. L. SILVERMAN: (As Laura) Well, I'm creating a Holocaust memorial for Valley Village.

Mr. JOHNSON: (As Jay) How adorable is that?

Ms. SARAH SILVERMAN (Actor): (As Sarah Silverman) Why would you have a memorial for something that never happened?

Ms. L. SILVERMAN: (As Laura) That's not funny, Sarah. You know, a joke like that just demonstrates that you don't understand what it really means to be a Jew.

Ms. SILVERMAN: (As Sarah) I think I know what it means to be Jewish, Laura. Check this out. Excuse me, these pancakes are ishy.

Mr. JOHNSTON: (As Jay) Laura is right. You really should be more interested in the Holocaust. I mean, I'm not even a Jew, and I love the Holocaust! ...Uh, love reading about it because it's so interesting and stuff, the things that happened.

Ms. L. SILVERMAN: (As Laura) You know, you should really think about becoming more invested in our history. You know, there's a great class that you could take...

Ms. SILVERMAN: (As Sarah) Oh, Yawn Kippur. You know, Laura, I am getting extremely bored at you, and I will not tolerate it, never again.

GROSS: Sarah Silverman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So I have to ask you, are you good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?

Ms. SILVERMAN: I'm good for the Jews, I believe.

GROSS: How do you know? How do you know?

Ms. SILVERMAN: I think that whenever a Jew has any kind of notoriety, good or bad, the Jews find it to be good. You know, it's like - you know Son of Sam? Jewish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: You know, so I think Jews tend to hold me in fairly high regard. I don't think that I - you know, and also because Jews tend to be able to take a joke. You know, it's kind of like there's a difference between...

GROSS: When it's coming from Jewish people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah, or it's good-hearted.

GROSS: I want to play another example of your humor, and this was, people might remember in the 2008 presidential campaign that in support of Barack Obama you did a video called "The Great Schlep" to get out the older Jewish vote in Florida, and the excerpt we'll play explains the premise of "The Great Schlep." So here it is. This is Sarah Silverman.

(Soundbite of video, "The Great Schlep")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SILVERMAN: If Barack Obama doesn't become the next president of the United States, I'm going to blame the Jews. I am, and I know you're saying, like, oh my God, Sarah, I can't believe you're saying this. Jews are the most liberal, scrappy, civil-rightsy people there are.

Yes, that's true, but you're forgetting a whole large group of Jews that are not that way, and they go by several aliases: Nana, Papa, Zaidie, Bubbe, plain old Grandma and Grandpa. These are the people who vote in Florida, and the Florida vote can make or break an election.

If you don't think that's true, why don't you think back to two elections ago, when a little man named Al Gore got (bleep) by Florida? I'm making this video to urge you, all of you, to schlep over to Florida and convince your grandparents to vote Obama.

GROSS: So that's Sarah Silverman, and by the way, she has a new book called "The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee." So what kind of reaction did you actually get from the two audiences that this was aimed at, the grandchildren who were supposed to convince their grandparents to vote, and the grandparents who were supposed to be convinced to vote for Obama?

Ms. SILVERMAN: You know what? It was universally positive. It really was. I don't remember...

GROSS: Wow, have you ever had anything that was universally positive before?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: No, no. And you know what? I mean, I said stuff like: Get off your fat Jewish asses. And you know what I mean? And like I made - but I guess you're right. Coming from a Jew, you know, it eases the blow, but I think that ultimately people like to be seen, even if it's not in the most beautiful light, you know, I think, and I think it's a culture that has a dark humor and has a humor about itself in general.

GROSS: Okay, so you've titled your book "The Bedwetter," and some of your book is devoted to the fact that when you were young, you used to wet your bed just about every night, which was a horrible humiliation for you, particularly for, like, sleepover parties, camping trips. How long did this last?

Ms. SILVERMAN: You know, I was a bedwetter until I was about 15, and it was humiliating. You know, I was sent to sleepover camp since I was six, and you know, it's a recipe for disaster. But, you know, I guess the silver lining is there's not much to lose after that in life, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: I think, you know, doing stand-up when I got a little older, the prospect of bombing was like - who cares? You know?

GROSS: As long as you're not peeing on stage accidentally.

Ms. SILVERMAN: Please, yeah.

GROSS: So what did you do to cover up when you were young, and you were going to sleepover parties or summer camp?

Ms. SILVERMAN: A lot of it was just denial. I think I pretended it didn't happen more often than not. You know, at camp I would just make my bed over it. I would take my clothes off and put it deep into the hamper, and I probably reeked of pee.

At sleepovers, I would kind of pinch myself awake and try to not drink anything too late and like, just go to the bathroom as much as I could. But, you know, when you pinch yourself awake all night, eventually your body gives in when you're a little girl and you fall asleep even deeper than ever. So it was usually unfruitful - or fruitful in a bad way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did it make you feel out of control - something so fundamental that you couldn't control? Did it make you think that you were just out of control of your body in general?

Ms. SILVERMAN: Yeah, yeah, I think so. That's interesting. I mean, it was frustrating to have something that I couldn't control. It was - you know, I was a hairy kid, you know, with hairy arms and hairy legs because I wasn't allowed to, you know, shave my legs yet. And it was so different than everybody else.

I grew up in a very blond, L.L. Bean kind of New England town, and so the things that were frustrating were things I couldn't control, and that's probably the way it is for everybody to a degree.

GROSS: So you tell a great story in the book about when you were - I think you were, like, in high school or something, you were watching "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, and a comic comes on, a woman comic, who's talking about bedwetting. And you talk about the impact that had on you. Can you tell that story?

Ms. SILVERMAN: It actually wasn't a comedian but an actress.

GROSS: An actress, yeah.

Ms. SILVERMAN: Her name was Jane Badler, and she was an actress going on Johnny Carson to talk about a miniseries she was in called "V," which coincidentally is now a series that they've revamped.

And she was beautiful, and my mom got excited. She sat with me to watch it because she said this woman had been a Miss New Hampshire once. So it was exciting for us, you know, and there was like a connection. Here's this woman who had been Miss New Hampshire and she's on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson.

And we're watching her, and she very cavalierly talked about being a bedwetter as a child, and I - it was like the Earth stood still. I couldn't believe it, you know, and I - this thing that I was sure would be my deepest, darkest secret of my life was something that was an anecdote for her, that life went on for her, and she was even beautiful and, you know, an actress on television and on Johnny Carson. And it wasn't dirty that she said it, and it wasn't - no one's head exploded, and it kind of blew my mind. My head exploded.

GROSS: I have a question that's maybe much too personal, but - so you can tell me it's too personal, and then I'll drop it.

Ms. SILVERMAN: Okay.

GROSS: So after you got over the bedwetting part of your life, you discovered -not too long after that, you discovered sex and liked it and had lots of it with lots of people. And would it be going too far to suggest that the part of your body that caused you the most humiliation then became a part of your body that gave you a lot of pleasure, connected you to men, opened up, like, a different world?

Ms. SILVERMAN: I think I definitely, at the time, associated it with power. You know, and that is such a neat point that I would never have thought of, but yeah, this - the part of me that caused so much pain and was so, I was so unable to control, became the part of me that controlled, was able to kind of control others.

I think I also just developed so late that by the time I became, like, a sexual being, I was already a comedian, so it was - even though I wasn't known at all, I was in a comedy community where I got around a little for a couple years. But I don't regret it. I really loved it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay.

Ms. SILVERMAN: I got it out of my system.

(Break)

GROSS: In your book, you write about how, before you were born, your parents had a baby who died as an infant. The baby was staying over at your grandparents' house and got accidentally strangled in the crib, by the way it...

Ms. SILVERMAN: Yeah, it was a faulty crib, and yeah. He - it had broken, and the baby had slipped down into the corner and had suffocated in that space.

GROSS: A really horrible thing. Did your parents talk to you about this as a child?

Ms. SILVERMAN: You know what? Maybe they did. The way I remember it is my oldest sister, Susan, who was older than Jeffrey, she knew the story, and we were all very young and she kind of told my sister Laura and I, told it to us almost like a ghost story. You know, we were kids.

And that chapter's actually called "The First Time I Bombed" because it's about how, you know, my father taught me how to swear when I was little, and I saw how adults would be shocked but give me - you know, I got approval from it. And it was addicting.

You know, I saw this way that I could get approval, and I killed all the time, you know, as a very young kid. And I call that chapter "The First Time I Bombed" because my sister told us the story of Jeffrey, and shortly after, my grandmother, who picked us up for our Sunday breakfast at a local diner, and she said, everybody buckle up, and I - thinking I was going to kill, I said, yeah, we don't want to wind up like Jeffrey. And just silence. And my sisters turned and looked at me like I was crazy, and my grandmother just burst into tears, which I had never seen before, and I thought - what did I do, you know?

GROSS: That interested me so much, since so much of your humor is about saying things that seem horribly inappropriate and potentially offensive, but it's not personal in the way that this is. I mean, your grandparents felt so guilty because the baby died at their home. And so this was hurtful in a way that your humor now is not. What did you learn from that experience?

Ms. SILVERMAN: I think, you know, I've been called edgy, but you know, in all honestly, I think that there is a safety in what I do because I'm always the idiot. And unless you're listening to the buzzwords and not really taking into account the context or the content of it, you see that I'm the idiot always, the ignoramus in the scenario. So no matter what I talk about or what tragic event or, you know, off-color, dark scenario is evoked in my material, I'm always the idiot in it, you know.

GROSS: Because your persona is the idiot, yeah.

Ms. SILVERMAN: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Whereas I guess in the car you were really behaving like an idiot, as opposed to being in the persona of an idiot.

Ms. SILVERMAN: Yeah, well, I was five.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: I was five and had been taught repeatedly that saying bad things was adorable and appreciated. So it was the first time I was - kind of had the first adult thought of, there are consequences to my words.

GROSS: I want to next play a clip of you on "The Jimmy Kimmel Show" and precede this by saying I was sad, as probably a lot of fans of yours - and fans of yours who are also friends of Jimmy Kimmel were sad - when you split up. You know, you feel like, oh, two people I really like are together, isn't that nice? And then, like, oh no, they're split up. Oh, how sad, you know.

And so I can imagine it's probably very uncomfortable to have a relationship in the public spotlight like that. But you both did something so funny with it. You were on his show - you'd been on his show several times when you were a couple, and then after you split, you were on his show, and everybody, I'm sure, would be thinking, oh, this is going to be so uncomfortable, and boy, did you use that to effect. So let me play the excerpt of you on Jimmy Kimmel after you had both split up. Here it is.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Jimmy Kimmel Live!")

Mr. JIMMY KIMMEL (Host): So how are things?

Ms. SILVERMAN: Good, good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KIMMEL: What have you been up to? Everything good?

Ms. SILVERMAN: Yeah, everything's been great, really, really great. And you're good?

Mr. KIMMEL: Good, yeah.

Ms. SILVERMAN: Good.

Mr. KIMMEL: Nothing, you know, just doing the show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KIMMEL: So how'd you get interested in acting?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: I just, you know, I was, like, I was the class clown and, you know, the kind of funny one in my family and, uh...

Mr. KIMMEL: You know, I've been reading a lot about you. I read that you started in, like, community theater in your hometown.

Ms. SILVERMAN: Yeah.

Mr. KIMMEL: What was that like?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I just think that's really great. Sarah Silverman, how did you and Jimmy Kimmel decide to do that together on his show?

Ms. SILVERMAN: Well, like you said, we wanted to take advantage of the stuff we couldn't necessarily control, which was that, you know, people were aware of our private, you know, private stuff, and yeah, we took advantage of it. I don't know, it's just what you would imagine, you know.

But, you know, it was - we did use - we had a source to pull from for our awkwardness with each other, certainly.

GROSS: So can I ask you a personal question? Do you want to have children?

Ms. SILVERMAN: Probably. I love children. I'm embarrassingly baby-crazy. I could be in the middle of any intense conversation, and if somebody walks by with a baby, I'm gone, you know, just - but you know, I really, I want to do it when it's kind of all I want, and I don't - you know, I think that I could have a baby or have children and still have a rich life filled with other things, but I really want to do it when it's kind of the most important thing to me.

And also, you know, I'm thir-- I'm not going to have a baby. You know, I happen to think that there are already tons of perfectly good babies out there already born, and I don't necessarily need to see a little me and, like, do it right this time. I'm already trying to do it right this time with me.

You know, so I can see myself adopting. I'm not in a rush to do it. I'm 39, I know, but when I think about having kids of my own, I think, you know what, the older I am, as long as I can lift them and be alive for the big parts, I probably will be, have more patience and be able to be a better parent at young-grandparent age. I don't know, I'm going with it because I'm 39 and not ready, but I do love kids, and I'm very good - I've got a lot of really good moves.

Like, a three-year-old girl, that age, around three to five or six, I've got a really great move. This is what I do. I go: I'm going to tell you something, but you can't tell anybody - and I know you're not supposed to tell kids to keep secrets, but that's part of the rebellion.

And then they go okay, and I say: I'm a princess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: But I dress normal because I want people to treat me regular. And their brains explode. It's really fun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What kind of reactions do you get?

Ms. SILVERMAN: Oh my god, their eyes go so wide. It's really - and I went really far with it with my friends Sam and Nicki's daughter. I did that whole thing where I say I'm a princess and don't tell anybody, and I said when I come visit you in New York, I have some of my old princess stuff that doesn't fit me anymore. Would you be interested in it? Yes, yes I would.

So I came to New York, and there's, like, this huge Halloween store on 4th and Broadway that used to be a Tower Records, and I went there and I bought a bunch of three-year-old, you know, size three little girl princess stuff, and I took it out of the package and mussed it up and put it in a trash bag and brought it over. It's the little pleasures.

GROSS: Sarah Silverman, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Ms. SILVERMAN: Thank you so much. It's always exciting to be on FRESH AIR with Terry Gross because I'm an avid listener and fan.

GROSS: Sarah Silverman's new memoir is called "The Bedwetter." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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