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Animal Magnetism

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Silverman with her father circa 1975.  

Still, she agreed to appear, and “I swear to God, I killed. I got a standing ovation.” She flew to Burbank directly afterward for a Haiti fund-raiser, and by morning, all hell had broken loose. Anderson started the next day’s conference by apologizing for Silverman, then tweeting, “I know I shouldn’t say this about my own speakers, but I thought Sarah Silverman was god-awful.” When she heard about it, she was stunned, responding with her own Twitter, Kudos to @TEDChris for making TED an unsafe haven for all! You’re a barnacle of mediocrity on Bill Gates’s asshole.” Out of nowhere, AOL co-founder Steve Case sent Silverman an anti-tweet of his own: “Shame on you.”

If you want to watch Silverman’s TED routine, you can’t: It was never put online. So she tells me the joke. “The bit was tied into the theme of the conference, which was ‘What the World Needs Now.’ So I say I’d like to adopt a retarded baby because I don’t have this urge to have a little version of myself to get right this time.” She stops to explain her feelings about the word retard. “I don’t like it. I think it’s a negative bummer word. Retarded, however, technically means [mentally challenged].” She continues: “So I say I’m adopting a retarded baby and I’ll be worried about who will take care of my child when I’m gone. So, solution! I’m going to adopt one with a terminal illness. Now, you’re probably thinking, what kind of person looks to adopt a terminally ill retarded child? An amazing person! I don’t see those 9/11 firefighters adopting retarded children with terminal illnesses. I’m just saying. Of course, there’s going to be the uncomfortable, inevitable question in the adoption process: Are you sure there are absolutely no cures on the horizon?”

Funny or not, this is exactly the bit a Silverman fan would expect her to do at a TED conference devoted to “What the World Needs Now”: It’s theoretically offensive, it’s a new twist on a current issue (notably, what the word retarded really means), and it sends up liberal piety at a conference devoted to that very thing. As Times critic A. O. Scott once wrote in a review of her 2005 concert film, Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic, “Her version of insult humor is actually flattering, both to herself and to those who find it funny … everything she says is delivered through enough layers of self-consciousness—air quotes wrapped in air quotes—to make anyone who finds it offensive look like a sucker.”

Silverman wanted to include Scott’s entire review in her book but ultimately it was cut for space. “I got what he said, and I thought it was cool,” she says. Her reaction to the review reveals her openness to analysis and criticism. Which doesn’t mean, however, she isn’t deeply hurt when her comedy is taken the wrong way. “What a bummer,” she says of the TED situation. “I came with my heart so open and so excited to be a part of this thing. I know I’m a grown woman, but it felt like these two grown-ups [were] attacking me. I had a benefit for Down syndrome that was booked before TED, and they got so nervous after that. ‘We want to make sure you won’t use the R-word.’ They were being so kind, and it was just so heartbreaking.”

In a clever conceit, The Bedwetter’s afterword is written in the voice of God, on the occasion of Silverman’s death in 2063 at age 93. He recaps her career (in 2018, she’s banned from show biz for being too old to be “cute”) and delivers an epitaph: “She loved dogs, New York, television, children, friendship, sex, laughing, heartbreaking songs, marijuana, farts, and cuddling.” The epitaph is premature, the recap less so. In December, Silverman will turn 40. She’s aware of the implications without being paralyzed by it. “I can’t be in my forties with pigtails and a football shirt,” she says. “It turns into something different then.” But she does recognize the need to evolve. She’s working on new stand-up material but finding it difficult. “My old stuff is old and done,” she says. “I’m starting over with people knowing who I am, so it’s an odd place.” Silverman claims to have no master career plan, but the “animalistic” joys of her TV show’s writers’ room are clearly more appealing to her right now than the controversy that has come with mainstream popularity. Curiously, she brings up Andrew Dice Clay a couple of times. Turns out her biggest fear is that her comedy will get stuck in a similar rut. “The road is how most comics make their living. There’s that quandary of stand-up,” she says. “The audience wants to see the Diceman. When the Diceman continues to be the Diceman twenty years later, he’s a caricature. He’s giving the audience what they’re paying for. I don’t want to be the comic who talks about race all the time. So I’m moving on to poop and pee.”


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