June 3, 2010

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The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee, by Sarah Silverman (2010, Harper, 240 pages)
Sarah Silverman had me at gorilla arms.

The Bedwetter, not surprisingly, features much discussion of Silverman’s childhood troubles with bedwetting. We all have our mountains to climb in childhood, and bedwetting was one of her biggest, but she also mentions growing up a dark-haired, hairy person in a light-skinned, light-haired place (specifically, Manchester of the 1970s and 1980s). For any kid who ever grew up feeling different and having physical attributes that proved it — hairy arms never bring what you’d call positive attention — Silverman’s story is one you/I can relate to.

Elsewhere in this country, fans of The Sarah Silverman Program on Comedy Central or of her movies or stand-up will buy this book to learn more about their foul-mouthed, offensive-joke virtuoso heroine. For us here in southern New Hampshire, the first chunk of her book is a familiar portrait of life here, full of people and places you’ll recognize. She talks about her brief time at Manchester West High School and her better years at Derryfield School. We hear about the doctors who tried to help her with the bedwetting and later depression. There are stories about her grandparents from Concord and her father Donald’s store Crazy Sophie’s Factory Outlet. She talks about her mother’s disapproval of the inarticulate movie times recording for the late Bedford Mall Cinemas. (Her mother, Beth Ann O’Hara, is still a fixture in the Manchester/Bedford arts scene, and Silverman dedicates her book to her family in general and specifically to O’Hara’s late husband, John.) And we hear how, even in a nearly comedy-free Manchester, she got the opportunity to do some stand-up (and also to bomb) at La Cantina.

I realize this book has a lot of penis references and swearing, but particularly for her description of these early years, I think it should be required reading for Manchester high school students — all high school students really, but it will have special resonance for young Mancunians. You hate school and don’t fit in and can’t find your place in your hometown — but that doesn’t mean you can’t follow your dreams and one day piss off the Asian American community with an appearance on Conan O’Brien’s show. As she breaks out of an early teen depression, Silverman finds outlets for her interest in comedy and theater. And Silverman talks about seeing Jane Badler, a Miss New Hampshire from 1972 who went on to star in the first incarnation of V, on the Johnny Carson show talking — and laughing — about her childhood bedwetting problem. To the young Silverman this was like a ray of hope that the biggest, most embarrassing secret of her life was not going to be forever a source of suffering. I can’t help thinking that for hairy-armed, bed-wetting, not-loving-high-school girls today, The Bedwetter would provide a similar sense of “don’t worry; one day, things will be better.”

Not all of The Bedwetter takes place in New Hampshire. Though Silverman’s family appears throughout — they seem like the model of happily divorced parents with charming, adjusted kids — we do get Sarah’s whole life, including her early struggles as a comedian, the crucible of Saturday Night Live, putting together her show and her run-ins with religion. It’s a fun read, particularly if you like Silverman’s sense of humor, which comes through well on the page. This is her story as she tells it, so don’t go in looking for gossip about Jimmy Kimmel or a critical look at her comedy style. What you’re getting and what you should expect is Sarah Silverman — the comedian as she explains herself. It’s a franker examination of her life than I’d be willing to write of mine and it provides an interesting look behind the scenes of comedy and TV.

And Silverman has fun with her book — she writes her own foreword, introduces the concept of the “midword” and gets “God” to write the afterword. Her back-of-the-book blurbs are “quotes” from kids ages 6 and under (advance praise: “She’s a lady and it’s a black shirt,” says Alec, age 3. “Book” says Bea, age 2). She’s telling her story but she’s also offering a book version of the kind of performance you look for when a comedian is on stage and the result is a good time.

It’s not often that celebrity memoirs are worth more than a skim, but compared to surviving middle school with hairy arms, putting together a solid autobiography that leaves you feeling like you’ve really gotten to know its author is the easy part. B+Amy Diaz