Is Sarah Silverman a true taboo-buster?

Her new autobiography reveals that the ballsy comedian is not the fearless taboo-buster fans and critics might have thought she was.

Nathalie Rothschild

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This article is republished from the September 2010 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

‘It’s really hard to masturbate on this sad day but it’s not impossible.’

Her Twitter entry on the ninth anniversary of 9/11 a couple of weeks ago was trademark Sarah Silverman. The New Hampshire-born, foul-mouthed comedian’s humour is of the jaw-dropping, sacred cow-slashing, ‘did she just say that???’ variety. And it’s egalitarian in its targets. Asian, Mexican, black, Jewish, Catholic – Silverman has pooh-poohed, poked fun at, upset everyone. Except, perhaps, Muslims.

In her new autobiography, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee, Silverman hints at why. She recounts how many enraged letter-writers complained about an episode of The Sarah Silverman Program in which her character has a one-night stand with, and then dumps, God (depicted as a black man), demanding to know why she didn’t show Muhammad having sex. ‘I don’t want to get blown up with explosives’, she explains. This would have been funny, had she not then added, sincerely: ‘I am afraid of angering Muslims, but not afraid of angering Jews and Christians, so I chose to depict the Judeo-Christian God instead.’

This is one of several moments in her book where we get a glimpse of the real Silverman behind her carefully cultivated on-stage persona (an ignorant, inappropriate, narcissistic Jew). In the case of her fear of offending Muslims, we can see a comedian celebrated for her no-holds-barred satire actually holding back. And in her explanation for why she does so, she genuinely manages to be quite offensive because this time she means it. If you poke fun at Muslims, you risk your life apparently.

This is the problem with The Bedwetter. It tells you too much that fans of Silverman, like myself, would be better off not knowing. Where a big part of the appeal of her comedy is the way she confuses the audience about what is an act and what is genuine (her character in the now discontinued The Sarah Silverman Program was called Sarah Silverman, for instance; her sister Laura played her sister Laura; her chihuahua-pug played her dog Duck), reading the book you get a better idea of where the self-assured, arrogant and daft fictional Silverman ends and where the real, far more humble, at times even self-deprecating prankster begins.

On the other hand, there aren’t that many new revelations in the book, and Silverman still carefully guards aspects of her private life. For instance, you’ll find only a few passing mentions of her ex-boyfriend Jimmy Kimmel, the comedian and television host. And anyone who has followed Silverman’s career and read interviews with her will already be familiar with key features of her childhood that get aired again in the book. Like how her dad taught her to swear, beaming proudly when the three-year-old Sarah exclaimed ‘Bitch! Bastard! Damn! Shit!’ in the middle of a busy supermarket. Fans would also already know that her problem with bedwetting lasted into high school and that she suffered from depression as a teenager.

Silverman harbours no delusions as to why she, at the relatively tender age of 39, gets to publish an autobiography. In the foreword, she admits: ‘Tragically, my life has only been moderately fucked up. I’m not writing this book to share wisdom or to inspire people. I’m writing this book because I am a famous comedian, which is how it works now. If you’re famous, you get to write a book, and not the other way around…’

Still, The Bedwetter, though offering plenty of funny anecdotes and some interesting thoughts on censorship, free speech and offensiveness, mostly veers between a humorous misery memoir-lite and a whole lot of talk about genitals and bodily fluids. I personally can’t quite see the funny side of thirty-somethings like Silverman and her friends mooning, farting, drawing genitals and getting stoned.

Perhaps it’s about comedians pushing boundaries and outdoing each other in outrageousness, while delighting in making outsiders visibly uncomfortable. Admittedly, I found myself trying to hide the book from the view of my fellow London Underground passengers whenever I turned the page and came face to face with explicit pictures, such as that of Silverman’s former flatmate naked in front of a fridge with letter magnets spelling ‘your fat vagina stinks’, or the photograph of writer Chelsea Peretti’s hairclip wrapped around writer Harris Wittel’s penis, or a drawing of a penis which headwriter Dan Sterling sent to the TV network’s Standards Board for approval. Working on The Sarah Silverman Program seems like a barrel of laughs, but as comedy, all of this can feel grating and un-edgy in the long run.

I always preferred Silverman’s stand-up routines to her TV show. Contrary to what some critics say, Silverman avoids being gratuitously offensive and, thankfully, she is never moralising either. This is refreshing at a time when many stand-ups mistake being as un-PC and insulting as possible for being funny, while others are so self-important that they seem to forget that they’re entertainers and not policymakers or saviours of the Third World.

Silverman is right to say, in a section of her book titled ‘Why It Is a Mistake to Deconstruct One’s Self’, that overanalysing one’s comedy can seem ‘identity crisis-y’. But in the following section, ‘I Will Now Deconstruct Myself’, she explains pithily that ‘adopting a persona at once ignorant and arrogant allowed me to say what I didn’t mean… For me, it was a funny way to be sincere.’ She has also shown that turning personally embarrassing and unbearable stuff – like being a teenaged, hairy, flat-chested bedwetter – and socially taboo subjects – like racism and rape – into comedy is a good defence mechanism, a way of overcoming shame and getting people to think and talk about uncomfortable subjects instead of keeping things under the surface.

Silverman offers true comic relief on some of the heavy stuff around which we have built barricades of taboos – the Holocaust, 9/11, famine, race, sexual abuse. And it’s a winning formula. From her horror at seeing African toddlers on TV with flies all around them and nine months pregnant (the giant-bellied children are, in fact, starving) to her admission that being raped by her doctor was a bittersweet experience for a Jewish girl, what’s not to laugh at?

Now, if only Silverman could break those final taboos, and maybe even take the piss out of jihadis or ridicule public figures who are afraid of being blown up by Muslims, she could truly live up to her reputation as taboo-buster number one.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

This article is republished from the September 2010 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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