From the queen of shock, surprising choices

(Michael Loccisano
Getty Images)
By Eugenia Williamson
May 2, 2010

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Sarah Silverman catapulted into the national consciousness through her use of the word “chink’’ on Conan O’Brien. The attendant kerfuffle raised questions that neatly define her career: Was Silverman’s joke racist, post-racist, or a commentary on racism itself? This issue might not be resolved in our lifetime.

Silverman’s humor offers a diabolical mélange of self-aware schoolyard taunts, AIDS and poop jokes delivered with the vain brutality of the cutest girl in the room. Watch “Jesus Is Magic,’’ her feature-length standup film, to see her in full swing, or Comedy Central’s “The Sarah Silverman Program’’ for sitcom-appropriate doses.

Even those who sniff at doody jokes must allow that Silverman is deathly clever. It shouldn’t come as a shock, then, that she was booted off “Saturday Night Live’’ after only one season.

Those prescient enough to have followed “Mr. Show’’ and the work of Gary Shandling were introduced to Silverman in the ’90s; far more watched was a music video she made with Matt Damon for her ex-boyfriend, talk show host Jimmy Kimmel. It racked up more than 10 million views on YouTube and won an Emmy.

Those in search of something a bit more recherché might have caught Silverman last week. She was in town to promote her first book, a collection of essays called “The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee.’’ (Harper)

What was your favorite book growing up?

It’s a toss up between “How To Eat Fried Worms,’’ “The Giving Tree,’’ and “Mein Kampf.’’ Growing up I read and reread Woody Allen’s “Without Feathers,’’ “Getting Even,’’ and Steve Martin’s “Cruel Shoes.’’ I think Steve Martin is a beautiful writer.

What are some books that have touched you? Bad touch or good?

I’m not a fast reader and it’s always been discouraging for me. I read everything that was assigned to me at school, but I tended to obsess over TV. The first book I fell in love with was Tom Robbins’ “Still Life With Woodpecker.’’ It was so funny and beautiful and dark and romantic.

Have you ever had a crush on a character?

The woodpecker in “Still Life With Woodpecker.’’

Was there a mentor who influenced your reading habits?

I was too sad and scared to go to school — in ninth grade I missed three months straight. I went through a depression as a teenager, and there were a couple teachers that got me through it. Mr. James — a math teacher from my freshman year — came uninvited to my house every day when I didn’t go. He was a big hulking man with a too-small polyester suit and a porn mustache.

My father always loved writing, but he never let himself go for it until later in life. He came from a time when people tended to repress artistic desire. When I was growing up he would let glimpses of it out. I would get assigned an essay for school, and he would say, “Take dictation!’’ and write the whole thing, pacing, while I scribbled down everything he said.

Think back to a time when someone turned you on to a book.

The one year I went to NYU I took a class from an Indian woman — I wish I could remember her name — and she suggested a book by John Berger called “Ways of Seeing.’’ It pretty much changed my life.

Whatever the scary-awesome comedian equivalent of a desert island is — what book would you take there?

Either, “How to Survive Anything, Anywhere: A Handbook of Survival Skills for Every Scenario and Environment’’ by Chris McNab or “Garfield Large & in Charge: His 45th Book’’ by Jim Davis.