Book review: ‘The Bedwetter’ by Sarah Silverman

Special to the Los Angeles Times

TV show producers battle network execs for many things, and that includes using that specific sexual term that, for so many reasons, just doesn’t have a decent substitute.

But the battle over a single word hardly compares to stand-up comedian Sarah Silverman’s much larger censorship battles. The star of “The Sarah Silverman Program” on Comedy Central has worn blackface and slept with God on her television show, and now she extends her boundary-pushing efforts to the page in “The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee.”

In her self-written foreword — which she deems an “auto-foreword” — Silverman provides an e-mail exchange between her and her editor David Hirshey, who was concerned about her writing her own foreword. Later, Silverman provides another of their e-mail exchanges in her “midword.” Yes, you’re reading correctly — a midword serves as her intermission, in which she describes her editor’s fondness for the word “pee-pee” rather than her preference for the word “pee.” Given the title of the book, Silverman clearly won again.

Though Silverman’s book provides her customary shock-and-awe humor — her afterword, written by “God,” describes things he “had a direct hand in developing. Like I’m really proud of cancer. Also the HIV virus” — it is Silverman’s honesty and vulnerability that are most surprising. At first glance, the title of the book seems like a joke, but it turns out that wetting the bed was a problem into her high school years and contributed to her depression.

“It happened as fast as a cloud covering the sun. It was at once devastatingly real and terrifyingly intangible. I felt helpless, but not in the familiar bedwetting sense,” Silverman writes. “As quickly and casually as someone catches the flu, I caught depression, and it would last for the next three years.”

Silverman’s stand-up delivery transitions nicely to the page as she jumps from soft, sensitive subjects to taboos and tense topics. After writing about her grandmother’s death, for example, she moves on to a chapter about her sex life. She isn’t shy about the details of her early sex life, writing about losing her virginity to fellow comedian Kevin Brennan and pointing out that, at one point, she dated comedian Dave Attell. One person who doesn’t receive a detailed mention is Jimmy Kimmel, a surprise given their publicized relationship of more than half a decade.

Not all of Silverman’s stories, however, are as mind-bending as the tale of her misguided attempt to spear a pencil through Al Franken’s hair: She ended up stabbing him in the head during a writers’ meeting at “Saturday Night Live.” Silverman also writes about how boring it is to read diary writing: After those pages, though, it’s easy to argue that the only thing more boring than reading diary writing is reading someone else’s take on how boring it is.

To Silverman’s credit, though, she’s clear on why she’s writing this book when, in her “auto-foreword,” she explains: “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.”

Despite her proclamation of not wanting to “share wisdom or inspire people,” Silverman does just that when she describes her own life lessons with family and friends like comedian Chris Farley, who taught her to live in the moment. “So far from jaded — Chris was downright awestruck, even three years into his tenure at SNL, in the thick of becoming a comedy legend,” Silverman writes. “And it’s because of him that I now sit on the set of my own TV show between takes and yell, ‘You guys!! Can you believe this?? We’re making a real TV show!!’ They laugh at me, but I mean it. It’s a joy.”

Call it the curse of being a comedian, but at first it’s hard to believe Silverman is being serious when she’s trying to be. However, her highly intelligent musings on race, politics and hypocrisy are what most fans of her humor will want to read most. Silverman always manages to insert humor into these topics, but that’s OK, she’s allowed: After all, as she explains, she’s the reason why Barack Obama was elected U.S. president.

Sandoval is a television producer, most recently on “Latino 101.”