I got hooked on reading memoirs written by comedians last year when I decided that I wanted to move to Chicago and study comedy writing and improvisation at The Second City and become the next Dan Aykroyd or Stephen Colbert, except ethnic, and a woman. As you can probably tell, this has not happened. (Yet.) In the meantime, I’ve been devouring books by Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, and Amy Sedaris. I have a Chelsea Handler book on its way, and a Mindy Kaling book on hold because I am still recovering from the shock that she is a republican.
Last night, I finished Sarah Silverman’s memoir The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee. It took several stops and starts, but I finally got around to it after my brother assured me that it had him in tears and at times barking with laughter. I was reluctant; I’d never really liked Sarah Silverman. When I watched her standup or saw her humiliating celebrities at their lowest point I found her cruel and condescending, and just plain unfunny. But after reading The Bedwetter I am entirely endeared to her now, and was often crying with laughter myself.
The Bedwetter begins as many memoirs do, by chronicling the trials and tribulations of being a misfit in high school; reflecting on mortifying situations with extended family members (as a child, Silverman once made a joke about her brother, who died as an infant while in the care of her grandparents, to her grandmother—it did not bode well); and finding one’s feet upon moving out of home. Silverman muses on discovering sex and being sexless, and the ups and downs of her career as a stand up comedian and screenwriter in New York. This may sound suspiciously similar to Tina Fey’s Bossypants, however where Fey reveals little about her private life, Silverman reveals almost everything. As a result, The Bedwetter is at times jarringly intimate, and reading it feels like having a conversation with a close friend who can’t stop drinking and swearing.
She reveals a sense of frustration at those who misinterpret her brand of comedy as being racist or homophobic, when she is using the medium itself as a means to combat bigotry. And she expresses horror and remorse at the times she unknowingly humiliated public figures. (MTV did not tell her that Paris Hilton would be in the audience during her infamous prison cell joke, nor did they allow her to rehearse her material beforehand, so if her routine was offensive the network could not be accused of poor censorship.) But what really impressed me was the willingness with which Silverman divulges her deepest fears and secrets. Silverman was a chronic bedwetter as a child and wore adult diapers into her senior years of high school. She includes scans of her diary entries as an adolescent, each page noting whether the night was ‘wet’ or ‘dry’, and detailing the anxiety of sleepovers and school camps. Growing up, she was also severely depressed and terrified by her own illness. At one stage, she was taking 16 Xanax a day, and had to be slowly weaned off them over years after becoming addicted. I haven’t encountered a more poignant and perfect description of depression than Silverman’s when she describes the feeling to her stepfather:
One night I sat on his lap in his chair by the woodstove, sobbing. He just held me quietly and then asked only, ‘What does it feel like?’ It was the first time I was prompted to articulate it. I thought about it, then said, ‘I feel homesick.’ That still feels like the most accurate description—I felt homesick, but I was home.
Michelle Law is a Brisbane freelance writer and AWGIE award-winning screenwriter. In-between blogging and book selling, she is developing a documentary in association with the ABC.