The Bedwetter reveals a tenderness that is disarming; the first quarter is essentially a love letter to her sisters and parents. (In an unusual tribute to her mother, Silverman has papered the wall of a storage closet with a blown-up photo of her, partially visible on the previous page.) The book is not a Mackenzie Phillips–style tell-all, but Silverman had her share of anxiety (this is, after all, a story about comedy): a high-school depression so intense she dropped out of school for a year and took sixteen Xanax a day; the titular bed-wetting, which lasted until she was 16; and the death of a stillborn brother, which taught her that there are some things you absolutely cannot joke about with your parents. But while it can be revealing, it is curiously unreflective, much like Silverman’s stand-up. When I ask her about the absurd amounts of Xanax she was popping, she says, “It was a time when you didn’t question doctors.” She stonewalls further attempts to dig into her psyche, offering only that “everyone has sad stories.”
So why write the book? It wasn’t Silverman’s idea to do it, but once she agreed she didn’t want it to be a typical comedian’s riff on events, like Dennis Miller’s Rants. The odd, shambling, and funny result is as close to an explanation of Silverman and her comedy as we’re likely to get. It seems to be saying, Obviously I’m joking, but it’s also me up there.
At 39, Silverman has already spent over half her life performing professionally. She began doing stand-up after she dropped out of NYU at 19. She passed out comedy-club fliers for $10 an hour from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., sharing the corner of West 3rd Street and Macdougal with a drug dealer named Sandy. At 22, she wrote for Saturday Night Live. At 26, she was on Seinfeld, followed a year later by the gig on Larry Sanders. Her breakout moment, she says, was her infamous 2001 appearance on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, when she made a joke about avoiding jury duty by writing “I love Chinks” on her questionnaire. Afterward, Guy Aoki, head of the Media Action Network for Asian-Americans, blasted her for the racial slur, then debated her on an episode of Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher. Silverman devotes a short chapter to the episode: “Guy Aoki: Heart in Right Place, Head Up Wrong Place.” In it she points out that men with jobs like Aoki’s “require a more nuanced perception of irony and context … not only are the progressive messages out there more refined and sense-of-irony dependent, but racist messages are more oblique too.”
“Money has never been a reason to compromise. You’re very free if you don’t love money.”
The publicity resulting from the dustup pushed Silverman from a slightly ribald comic to a First Amendment social satirist, a role she initially embraced (once telling The Believer that she likes “saying things that force people to have opinions”) but now finds oppressive. For Silverman, unlike Lenny Bruce, does not thrive on confrontation. In her new book, she relays a crack she made about Paris Hilton while hosting the 2007 MTV Movie Awards. Hilton was in the audience, with jail time imminent, and Silverman joked that to make her more comfortable, the bars on the cell would be painted like penises: “I just worry that she’s gonna break her teeth on those things.” Hilton was upset enough that Silverman wrote her a note of apology. “She was out there, probably terrified about going to jail, and everyone is laughing,” Silverman says now. “I never want to make a girl feel bad.”
Silverman’s reaction surprises people. That she is taken aback by her comedy’s effects is naïve but not ridiculous. Thanks to her 2008 viral hit, “I’m Fucking Matt Damon,” she moved quickly from being a comic’s comic, living primarily in a comedy-world bubble with a rabid cult following, to a mainstream entertainer. And being a player in this wider universe of popular culture has made her uncomfortable. Not everyone gets that her humor is essentially victimless; critics find her comedy disrespectful, juvenile, even mean. “Matt Damon” was directed at Silverman’s then-boyfriend Jimmy Kimmel (he responded with “I’m Fucking Ben Affleck”). The two were comedy’s high-profile golden couple until they broke up in March 2009, but he remains a big fan and defender. “The world of comedy is composed primarily of angry, envious people,” he says. “Sarah is one of few who genuinely roots for her colleagues and takes pleasure in their success. I’ve never heard her say a mean thing to anyone, in public or privately. Cruelty is never her intent.”
Chris Anderson thought otherwise. The curator of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference asked Silverman to speak at the annual event this past February. She was a logical choice. Her “The Great Schlep” video, asking Jews to fly to Florida to encourage their grandparents to vote for Obama, was a viral smash (Frank Rich jokingly credited her with handing Obama his victory). And though Anderson didn’t know it at the time, she’s a longtime TED fan. (“My mom and I used to send each other TED videos all the time,” says Silverman.) Still, she wondered if Anderson was familiar with her comedy. They had a conversation beforehand and she told him her onstage character was “sort of an Archie Bunker–Meathead thing.” Silverman got the sense Anderson didn’t like her. “I’m not into vibes, but it was a bad vibe.”