Sarah Silverman: Playing The Dummy For LaughsComedian Sarah Silverman is known for delivering closely observed social commentary in a disarming, politically incorrect style. She tells stories about her childhood and her career in a new memoir, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee.
This week on Fresh Air, we're marking the year's end by revisiting some of the most memorable conversations we've had in 2010. This interview was originally broadcast on April 22, 2010.
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 memoir, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee.
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.
Excerpt: '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
LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some readers might find offensive.
Chapter 1: Cursed From the Start
My life Started by exploding out of my Father's Balls, and You Wonder Why I Work Blue
Like most children, I learned to swear from a parent. But most children learn to swear by mimicking moments when a parent loses self-control. That is typically followed by the parent stressing that such words are bad and shouldn't be repeated outside the home. When I was three years old, I learned to swear from my father, but he taught me with every intention to do so. It was like he was teaching a "cursing as a second language" course for one.
"Bitch! Bastard! Damn! Shit!" I proclaimed with joy, if not necessarily wit, in the middle of Boys' Market in Manchester, New Hampshire. Random shoppers stopped in the aisle, and watched me with delight -- or at least curiosity -- as I regurgitated this mantra. Dad stood by with genuine pride, beaming through the mock surprise on his face.
My guess is that when something is so easy, so greatly rewarded, and bears so few negative consequences, it's a recipe for addiction. From that moment on, everything I did was in search of that rush. So I guess I'm saying that I'm, in most ways, my father's fault. He filled my mother's vagina with the filthy semen that consisted of me, then filled my head with even more filth.
When I was four I sat coloring a piece of typing paper during a dinner party at my Nana and Papa's house in Concord. It was a white ranch house perched on a hill with long concrete steps leading up to the front door. The living room had bright turquoise carpeting under a long white couch. A blue-and-white candy-filled bowl rested on a thick-glass coffee table. Nana, a fashionable woman in her late fifties, who rocked hot pink lipstick under a swirly mane of salt-and-pepper cotton candy, came out of the kitchen carrying a tray of her famous brownies.
"Sarah, Nana made brownies for you!" she beamed in the third person.
I looked up from my drawing, glanced over to my father, who gave me the nod, then turned to Nana.
"Shove 'em up your ass," I said.
The tide of the guests' laughter quickly swept away any anger Nana had toward Dad. She had to smile. Remembering this very early time makes me nostalgic for the days when naked obscenity was enough for a laugh, and didn't need any kind of crafted punch line to accompany it. It was good to be four.
It strikes me that, in this story of a little girl telling her loving grandmother to shove baked goods up her ass, I might come across as a monster. But allow me to place this anecdote in a cultural context: It was the 1970s. Countless friends of mine who grew up in that decade tell stories of their parents giving them liquor, or pot, or buying them Playboy magazines, or letting their boyfriends sleep over at very young ages. Or having "key parties" and orgies while they believed their children were upstairs sleeping. Like oversexualized retarded adults, the 1970s had the distinction of being both naive and inappropriate. For a naive and inappropriate girl to be born from it, it's really not so crazy.
What I said to my grandmother yielded a strange kind of glory, and I basked in it. The reactions were verbally disapproving, but there was an unmistakable encouragement under it all. No meant yes.
He Farts in the Face of Strangers
My father, Donald Silverman, is a black-haired, dark-skinned Jew who walks exactly like Bill Cosby dances. A little bounce with each step, elbows bent with hands dangling at the wrists on either side of his chest. When you see him approach, you might think, "A ridiculous man is walking toward me." And you'd be right.
My dad is pretty much fearless, which makes him a natural showman and public speaker. He's always the one asked to make a toast or a speech. But a perceived fearlessness can sometimes be mistaken for what is actually gall. This is clearly exemplified by my father's willingness to steal all his material. He would lift bits from comedians, songs, sitcoms -- anywhere -- then tweak them to fit and claim them as his own. He once spoke at the Bar Mitzvah of his friend's son David.
"Today, David, I find in being Jewish a thing of beauty, a joy, a strength, a cup of gladness, a Jewish kingdom as wonderful as any other. Accept in full the sweetness of your Jewishness. David, be brave. Keep freedom in the family and do what you can to make the world a better place. Now may the Constitution of the United States go with you, the Declaration of Independence stand by you, the Bill of Rights protect you. And may your own dreams be your only boundaries henceforth now and forever. Amen."
Tears. Not a dry eye in the house. People flocked to Dad to tell him how moving and brilliant his words were. Evidently, they had never seen the play Purlie Victorious by Ossie Davis, because that's where those words were first heard. On Broadway. Other than changing all the instances of "black" to "Jew," my father stole the passage pretty much word for word.
My dad was born in Boston, Massachusetts, before moving to New Hampshire where his family settled. His Boston accent is as thick as a stack of ten lobsters and he is almost entirely impossible to understand. My sisters and I became adept at translating what he said into English. Caaah was "car," shaht was "short," etc. This was a good system, though one that occasionally backfired, causing us to say "parker" or "sofer" in places where he actually was pronouncing something accurately, like, "Get your parka off the sofa." My father says fuckin' the way people say, "like" or "totally." He might say it in anger like the rest of the world, but what makes him special is he evokes it in everyday talk. "I had such a fuckin' great time." "I'm such a fuckin' lucky daddy." Or, referring to his favorite HBO series, "Is that Ahliss [Arli$$, the HBO classic] fuckin' wild o'ah what?"
Happily, Dad found a career that perfectly suited his personality. He owned a store called Crazy Sophie's Factory Outlet. Much like a certain "Eddie" of legend, who perceived the unlikely connection between psychiatric disorder and retail sales volume, Dad did his own radio ads as "Crazy Donald." They were highly spirited -- and like everything else that came from his mouth, unintelligible -- pitches which went something like,
"When I see the prices at the mawl I just want to vawmit. Hi. I'm Crazy Donald, Crazy Sophie's husband."
Dad would list all the brands of jeans he had in his store -- brands I've never since heard of, like Unicorn. At the end he would say either,
"So, spend you-ah time at the mawl, spend you-ah money at Crazy Sophie's!"
"So if you cay-ah enough to buy the very best -- but yo-uah too CHEAP, come to Crazy Sophie's!"
In fact, Dad was not Crazy Sophie's husband. Sophie did not exist. He invented her. He wanted a woman's name because he was selling women's clothes. Dad's mother, my Nana, Rose, yelled at him after he named the store, insisting, "You named the store after my friend Sophie Moskowitz, and she will be very insulted!" Dad insisted, "I did not name the sto-ah aftah Sophie Moskowitz. If I named the sto-ah aftah Sophie Moskowitz, I would have named it Ugly Sophie's." Classic.
When my father first came home from college, he sat my grandparents down to tell them some very serious news. They followed him quizzically into the living room, and from the bantam couch stared up at their nervous, pacing son.
"I'm gay," he announced.
They sat stunned for a moment, and just as his mother started to cry he said,
"Just kidding. I smoke."
The neighbor's dog was repeatedly shitting in our yard. For a common problem like that, there's a sensible solution: to drop by the neighbor's house and ask, "Would you mind curbing your dog?"
But Dad didn't say a word to the neighbors. Instead, he got up in the middle of the night, gingerly maneuvered the feces onto a piece of cardboard -- careful not to disturb its signature shape -- tiptoed to the neighbor's driveway, and transferred it onto the pavement just below the driver's-side door of our neighbor's car. It was worth it to him to be nearer to this canine excrement than one would ever need to be, in exchange for the possibility that our neighbor would step in his own dog's shit on his way to work.
My parents were enjoying hot fudge sundaes at an ice cream parlor called Rumpelmayer's in New York City. A man at the adjacent table was smoking. Since my mother was eight months pregnant (with my eldest sister, Susie), my father asked him if he'd put out his cigarette.
"Fuck off," the man suggested.
My father kept his eyes trained on the man as he instructed my mother to go wait by the front door. He then sidled up to him as close as he could, lifted his leg, and twisted as he sang, "Puff on this," which was followed by the most putrid blast of human gas known to man at that time, and was not exceeded until the late '80s by the great violinist Yo-Yo Ma.
The reason I am not Completely Retarded
My mother, Beth Ann, is fair-skinned with green-blue eyes, soft brown hair, and a God-given nose most Jews would pay thousands for. She speaks beautifully and with great passion for proper grammar and pronunciation. Books -- real books by fancy book writers -- are read with pen in hand to correct typos and grammar mishaps -- and she finds them. She's a real-life Diane Chambers. She didn't care if we said "fuck" or "shit" as long as it was with crisp diction and perfect pronunciation.
When we were kids she marched up to the counter of our local movie theater to complain that the voice on the recording (this is way before Moviefone) was so garbled she couldn't make out what movies were playing. The guy just shrugged and said, "You wanna do it?" A star was born.
Mom would take me to the tiny room where the popcorn was stored. There were gigantic bags of pre-popped, yellowed, and packaged popcorn, taken out in increments and placed in the popcorn machine out front to simulate freshness (and also be heated by a lightbulb). The popcorn room was where she would tape the recording of the week's movies, and here, she quietly put her values into practice. Giving such care to each word, her beautiful voice was clear and articulate with just a hint of whisper -- like a Connecticut-born Julie Andrews. She expected from herself what she would expect from anyone: perfection. And she did those recordings over and over until she achieved it.
"Thank you for calling Bedford Mall Cinemas 1, 2, 3, and 4, where all bargain matinees are only two dollars Monday through Saturday. Now playing, Ordinary People, directed by Robert Redford! . . ."
Instead of a cash payment, we were all allowed to go to the movies for free, plus one, anytime we wanted.
In May of 1964, my mother-to-be (at this point she's borne only my eldest sister, Susie) got on the game show Concentration, with Hugh Downs. She won the first two games, then came back the next day and won two more. When she repeated her success on day three she automatically became a contestant in that fall's "Challenge of Champions."
She remembers winning some SCUBA gear and that Hugh Downs asked her smugly if she knew that SCUBA was an acronym and what the letters stood for. She immediately answered, "Self- Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus?" To which, according to my mother, he blanched and said a very small, "Yes." She said she didn't even know she knew that information until it came out of her mouth. She was twenty-three.
Among the stuff she won was:
a Triumph Spitfire sports car a dozen leather handbags (all of them yellow) a twenty-foot speedboat a twenty-seven-foot "party barge" two outboard motors for the boats a mink stole 100 pounds of coffee a dozen pairs of men's pants 20 pairs of men's shoes a suite of living room furniture (some of which, forty-five years later, can still be found in the house I grew up in -- a bachelor's chest on my stepfather's side of the bed, two maple end tables, and a large hassock in the living room) and a cruise to Bermuda
Other than those pieces of furniture and the fancy cruise, my parents sold the prizes for cash and with it bought their first house, in Manchester, New Hampshire. Since my mother was pregnant with kid number two, they decided to wait until a few months after the baby was born to take the cruise.
The First Time I Bombed
My parents' second child, Jeffrey Michael Silverman, was born on February 9, 1965. That May, Donald and Beth Ann went to New York City to take their cruise to Bermuda, after which they returned to New York to spend the weekend at the World's Fair in Flushing, with their friends Ellie and Harry Bluestein before heading home to New Hampshire. Susie, who had just turned two, was staying with my mother's parents in Connecticut, and the baby, Jeffrey, was in Concord with my father's parents (Nana and Papa), Rose and Max. When they arrived at their hotel near the fairgrounds in Flushing, my father called his parents to check on Jeffrey.
My mother heard my father say, "Gone? What do you mean, 'gone'? Where is he?"
She walked over to him, "What's going on?"
He listened a few moments longer, then collapsed into tears, which curled into wails of despair. Jeffrey was dead.
Donald and Beth Ann arrived at the Concord house, where many friends had gathered around weeping, inconsolable Rose and Max. When Max looked up and saw my parents, he cried out, "How can you forgive me?"
My parents were told that Jeffrey had been crying a lot during the night and that Papa was the one to keep checking on him, since Nana was hard of hearing and couldn't hear him cry. In the morning Papa got up and went to look in on the baby. He got to the crib and didn't see him. He called to Nana, saying, "Rose, where's the baby?" Then they both found him, down in one corner of the port-a-crib. The metal support frame had slipped off its peg, allowing a little narrow space between the mattress and the bottom rail of the crib. My parents were told that he had strangled in that space.
Any concept of closure, if it existed in the '60s at all, was a notion invented by hippie fruits. My parents' friends cleaned up any sign of Jeffrey's existence by the time they got home. He was imagined.
In 1976 I was five and cute as a really hairy button. My eldest sister, Susie, was twelve. She was fair with very long dark brown hair and big brown sad eyes reflecting a heartbreaking need for love -- by any means necessary.
When I was three she would babysit me and say, "If I drink this orange juice I'm gonna turn into a monster!"
I'd cry, "Susie no!" But she drank the juice anyway, went into the closet where the washer-dryer was, put a brown suede ski mask on her head, and came back out, monstrafied.
"RAAAAARGH!! The only way I'll turn back to Susie is if you hug me!!!"
Terrified, I ran in a burst toward the monster, hugging her, eyes clenched.
Susie once pulled a steak knife out of the silverware drawer, turned to me, and mused, "It's so weird, like, I could kill you right now. Like, I wouldn't, but I could. I could just take your life . . ." One way to interpret this is that it foretold her eventual future as a rabbi. At age fourteen, here she was, already pondering the biggest issues of the human condition -- life, death, morality, and the choices we must make. An alternate interpretation is that living with me eventually causes one to contemplate murder. But I'm feeling the former explanation is the right one, as it is a scientific certainty that I'm pretty adorable.
Laura was in the middle. She was eleven. A tomboy, she looked just like Mowgli from The Jungle Book.
She had olive skin with bright green almond-shaped eyes, and dimples on either side of her perfect smile. A lot went on inside her, which she mostly kept to herself. She was popular, smart, and could play any instrument she picked up without a single lesson.
We moved from Manchester, the biggest city in New Hampshire, to Bedford, New Hampshire -- a small town of about twelve thousand people. We lived on a big lot of land -- an old farm with a big barn where we would spend our summer days playing. One afternoon, Susie sat us down and told us the story of our brother, Jeffrey. She spoke with the measure and drama of a campfire ghost story.
It was chilling and shocking and tragic, but mostly it was exciting, as most ghost stories are. And like only the best ones, it lived in the front of my mind for a long time after.
At this point I was on a tear with the zingers -- killing with my parents and sisters, strangers in markets -- just being five and saying, "I love tampons!" or any shocking non sequitur was rewarded with "Oh my gods" through frenzied laughter. The approval made me dance uncontrollably like Snoopy. The feeling of pride made my arms itch. It fed this tyrant in me that just wanted more more more push push push. So when Nana picked us up to go to Weeks' Restaurant for lunch, as she did every Sunday, we got into her big boat, a dark blue Cadillac Seville with a beige leather interior, filled with the odor of stale cigarettes—a smell I loved because it meant "Nana." As all grandkids are to grandmas, we were her world. Before starting the car she bellowed, "Everyone put their seat belts on!" and without a beat I said . . .
(... oh this is going to be GREAT ...)
"Yeah -- put yer seat belts on -- you don't wanna end up like Jeffrey!"
Crickets. No one was even breathing. Susie and Laura looked at me with wide, angry eyes. And after several excruciating seconds, Nana broke the silence with an explosion of sobs.
Four words swam in my head -- the most grown-up arrangement so far in my five years: What have I done?
Excerpted from The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee by Sarah Silverman Copyright 2010 by Sarah Silverman. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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