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review: memoir

Sarah SilvermanThe Associated Press

Like Sarah Silverman's book, The Bedwetter, this review comes with a warning: Do not read this if you are easily offended by radical, funny women, crude language or jokes/ironic humour about pee, male/female sexual anatomy, sex, semen, defecation, body hair, religion (specifically Jews, Catholics, God), race (specifically African-Americans, Asians), homosexuality, rape, death, suicide, the Holocaust, drugs or bedwetting. Or anything, really. Save yourself and the editors of this newspaper your outrage, and go do the crossword. Run along now! Thanks.

I love Sarah Silverman. Not so much her TV show, but that could change (it took me a while to warm up to Arrested Development, a show I still mourn 4¼ years after its tragic murder by Fox Network). Like food or sex, the best comedy can be tricky, sticky and icky, and Silverman is all three.

Silverman's humour is deeply ironic and, like Stephen Colbert, she's so good at it that if you're stoopid you could think she's for real. Silverman is a comedic daredevil, driven by the rush of pushing boundaries, which by necessity includes the occasional crash. For her bravery alone, I salute her. The stand-up comedy world is not vagina-friendly, and the fact that Silverman has been developing her distinct, female voice within this domain is remarkable - and why it was heartening to read that her good friend, stand-up comedian Louis C.K., once laughed his head off as she peed on him, boy-style, from her New York City apartment balcony.

The Bedwetter is chock-full of such pungent anecdotes, peppered among chapter titles and subtitles such as, Summer Camp: The Second Worst Kind of Camp for Jews, The Happiest I Have Ever Been in a Public Toilet, and Dirty Jew Drops 'Nigger,' Picks 'Chink' over 'Spic.' In the first chapter, Cursed from the Start, Silverman blames her penchant for profanity on her father, who made it his job to teach her "cursing as a second language."

To wit, one day Silverman's Nana brought a plate of brownies to the table at a dinner party. "Sarah," cried her mother, "Nana made brownies for you!" Silverman looked at her father, who nodded. Then like the trained monkey she was, the four-year-old Silverman turned to her Nana and said, "Shove 'em up your ass!" And everyone laughed, including Nana. What hope did she have of becoming a sweet little girl when her own dad was toilet-training her mouth, and everyone was loving it?

"In most ways," Silverman writes, "I'm my father's fault. From that moment on, everything I did was in search of that rush." A comedy addict was born.

If comedy is an addiction that comes from pain, the book presents a number of possible catalysts for Silverman's career. While being orally raped with a plate of cold cuts by the high school bully seven years after becoming a vegetarian was clearly unpleasant, her description of the event was too funny for it to qualify as trauma: "Suddenly the phrase 'hide the salami' had a whole new meaning," Silverman writes. Certainly growing up Jewish in small-town New Hampshire had an effect on her, as did her parents' (oddly amicable) divorce.

As painful and humiliating as Silverman's chronic bedwetting was, continuing into high school, it led to an even darker experience in her formative years. In the sub-chapter Living with Unrelenting Agony and Shame Proves to Have a Downside, Silverman writes about returning from a traumatizing Grade 8 school camping trip for which she and her mother secretly hid Pampers in the bottom of her sleeping bag. In a rare paragraph of seriousness, Silverman describes being overwhelmed with shame as she walked from the school bus toward her mother's car, triggering a dark, transformational moment in her life: "It happened as fast as a cloud covering the sun. … As quickly and casually as someone catches the flu, I caught depression, and it would last for the next three years."

It didn't help that the first psychiatrist she saw, Dr. Riley, handed her a prescription for Xanax and told her to take it "whenever you feel sad" - as medically incorrect as it was dangerous - which may explain why, on her second appointment, another doctor entered the waiting room crying and screamed, "DR. RILEY HUNG HIMSELF!" By the time Silverman was 14, she was popping 16 Xanax a day - something even she was so sure must be wrong, she hid the empty prescription bottles in a shoebox for evidence, just in case.

What surprised me as much as anything in this book was how remarkably balanced, honest, self-aware and good a person is Sarah Silverman. Her argument in favour of marijuana versus alcohol and/or cocaine is hilarious, brilliant and sobering - as is pretty much everything she writes about, whether it's why she hates teenage girls' diaries, including her own ("Teenage boys' diaries are different. They tend to read thusly: Dear Diary, I've been feeling so - oh, oops, look at this, I'm writing in a diary. So I guess that settles it: I'm gay. Thanks, Diary!"); how she inadvertently dissed Paris Hilton and Britney Spears at two different MTV awards shows and wrote letters of apology to both of them; why Jews like her ("any press is good press"), or why she doesn't really mind that EVERYONE hated her truly revolting 2009 Emmy dress (photograph included).

Despite what her critics say, it's impossible to read this book and believe there are any mean bones, only funny ones, in Sarah Silverman's body. This is not a woman who got into comedy to "get back at the world," but to have as much fun in it as possible. Plus, her video The Great Schlep helped get Obama elected. Eh. What's not to like?

Anne Fenn is a comedy screenwriter who also writes satirical song lyrics. Her book, The Joy of Failure, has never been written.

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