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Culture

5 ways of looking at Sarah Silverman

A series of conversations among a quintet of critics after a field trip to ‘The Bedwetter’

SCENE: BAREBURGER BAR, approximately four blocks from the Linda Gross Theatre; cheap, colorful happy hour cocktails adorn the outdoor table as cars and trucks roar past.

TIME: 20 minutes after curtain call for the Wednesday matinee of Sarah Silverman’s “Bedwetter” musical.

CAST: MIRA FOX, culture writer; PJ GRISAR, culture writer; IRENE KATZ CONNELLY, culture writer; ELIYA SMITH, editorial fellow; TALYA ZAX, innovation editor.

Mira, PJ, Eliya, Talya and Irene over drinks on the side of a road. Photo by Mira Fox

Sarah Silverman wet the bed as a kid. Now, she’s turned her childhood trauma into a musical — complete with a song featuring giant dancing Xanax pills — with the help of Joshua Harmon and the late Adam Schlesinger. “Bedwetter,” which runs through July 10, is based on Silverman’s memoir of the same name. But unlike the book, it sticks with a single period of the comedian’s life: fifth grade. 

Little Sarah (Zoe Glick) has just started at a new school after her parents’ divorce. A misfit in her stuffy New Hampshire school, full of sweater-wearing Protestant tweens, she is too crass and too different — “I heard you’re a Jewish,” one of her classmates says, sounding disgusted. Her father (Darren Goldstein) is a used-clothing salesman who taught her to curse too much and is shtupping all her friends’ moms, while her mother (Caissie Levy) is too depressed to leave bed. Her alcoholic grandmother (a pitch-perfect Bebe Neuwirth) attempts to be supportive, but can’t deliver an unqualified compliment, except of Sarah’s perfectly mixed Manhattan.

Sarah, with either preternatural confidence or a well-developed defense mechanism, takes it all in stride: “I couldn’t agree more!” she belts in response to each dig. Her only fear is that her classmates will discover that she still wets the bed.

When that inevitably happens, she falls into a deep depression and finally has to confront the deeper issues that psychologists — and a hypnotist — have told her parents underlie her bedwetting. But, as the show closes, she discovers her knack for tell-all stand-up comedy just in time for the school’s talent show. The musical ends with Sarah discovering her knack for tell-all stand-up comedy just in time for the school talent show, and a triumphant ensemble song declares us all bedwetters. You know, metaphorically.

After leaving the matinee showing, our crew of five settled in to discuss. Everyone but Irene liked the show — she voted “neutral” — but the group sat and griped about the show for well over an hour despite their enjoyment. After all, Silverman, in real life, is one of the most prominent and outspoken Jewish media figures alive right now, and her story of an outsider childhood in an oddball family and the struggles with mental health is almost an ur-story of what it looks like and feels like to be Jewish. But is that portrayal of the Jewish outsider still worthwhile, or has that trope been fully mined? Is Silverman famous enough to power a biopic musical? And are peppy song-and-dance numbers really the best way to examine mental health struggles?

I. Our overall impressions

TALYA: Explain your position, Irene.

IRENE: There wasn’t really a narrative arc. There were lots of vignettes on the theme of middle-school insecurity, but the scenes didn’t connect naturally and it often felt like we were hopping from song to song. I almost wish the talent show was mentioned on the first day of school and the whole build-up was like “Will Sarah perform in the talent show?” 

PJ: That’s such a contrived ending. Think how many movies and things end in talent shows.

IRENE: This is musical theater. It’s a genre that uses tropes. 

MIRA: Even the titular bedwetting could have been made more central. Bedwetting doesn’t come up until 25 minutes into the play. And it’s not addressed in a consistent arc — it’s here, and then it’s forgotten, and it’s there, and then it’s forgotten. It doesn’t actually guide the plot. We have no idea whether she’s still doing it at the end. 

II. On our favorite Jewish jokes

IRENE: The Jewish ladies at the diner — I loved that one. [The joke: “What did the waiter ask the group of Jewish ladies at the diner?” “Is anything OK?”] I also love it when people are laughing mildly at some jokes and then someone tells a run-of-the-mill Jewish joke and the whole theater erupts. 

TALYA: I would love to find the one non-Jewish person in the audience and ask how they felt about the vibes. 

ELIYA: But even if you’re not Jewish — if you have volunteered to see the Sarah Silverman musical, you at least know two Jewish women in your life who go to lunch and nothing is right. I don’t think that joke is so out of reach.

TALYA: I thought the Jewish porn star stoke was incredible. [The joke: “What did the Jewish mother say to her porn star daughter when she saw her in the orgy scene?” “You were the best one.”] It’s like, every Jewish mom is Kris Jenner in some ways. 

MIRA: Also very present in the show though, through the grandmother’s character, is the fact that it’s extremely Jewish to be unbelievably critical. Like, your kid is the best, but also can’t do anything right.

[redacted conversation about personal family dynamics]

Nana (Bebe Neuwirth) has a Manhattan — made by Sarah — in hand in all scenes. Photo by Ahron R. Foster

PJ: On the scale of Jewish musicals, though, not very Jewish. There’s no prayers, no bat mitzvah.

TALYA: Here’s a thought experiment I’d like to pose. What is a not-super-Jewish city that is big enough to have a theater that would host a touring Broadway production?

ELIIYA (with feeling): Columbus, Ohio! [Eliya is from Columbus.]

TALYA: OK, so let’s say we’re in Ohio. This musical comes on touring production. It’s a pretty WASP-y audience. Does enjoying this musical at that point become antisemitic?

IRENE: If it was full of Holocaust jokes, I would say yes. But these jokes are about, like, being demanding at restaurants. Or the riff where people constantly ask Sarah if she’s from New York because she seems Jewish — that joke is at the expense of the people asking. 

MIRA: I don’t think the jokes even approached problematic. But I think even jokes that don’t feel problematic — because they’re so accepted — do still reinforce this idea that Jews are unlikeable, we’re stingy, we’re critical. I don’t know what to do with that. On the one hand, they’re funny because you recognize that grain of truth. But are they reinforcing stereotypes that we then just live out again? Especially in America, where we’re very assimilated, the message is: “This is how you be a Jew: You act super critical and complain.”

TALYA: I also think it’s true that people who grew up in places without a lot of Jews learn to deal with their Jewishness by telling about it. That’s a defense mechanism. So in the song where Sarah’s classmates are insulting her and she keeps saying, “I couldn’t agree more,” even when the insult is “You look super Jewy” — it’s funny, and I also felt the 10-year-old in me who used to say things like this say, “I hate this.”

III. We opine on Zoe Glick, the actress playing young Sarah Silverman

ELIYA: So blown away by her. 

TALYA: It gave me flashbacks to being in JCC theater camp and watching all the really talented girls audition for shows and knowing I had to go after that. 

MIRA: I had a moment when she was doing the final number, when the other three kids were her backup singers. And I was like, that is probably how they feel all the time in real life. Because they’re good, but during rehearsals during Zoe Glick’s numbers they’re probably just in the background thinking, “God, she’s so much better than us.” 

ELIYA: I thought all of the young girls were very good performers, but the show would have worked better for me without so much child acting. Every time I got bored, it was when there was a plot related to Sarah’s friends. I thought the show worked best when it was a musical about this funny, dysfunctional, intensely loving family. I think they could tell that story and still allow Sarah’s social anxieties to feature, without making the friends so central.

MIRA: They did a surprisingly good job of getting to the heart of the weird imaginary stuff little kids make up, especially when they’re being mean — like that Sarah’s desk at school is “corroded” by her weirdness, and none of them will touch it. That’s such a real fifth-grade thing.  

IV. Our thoughts about Sarah’s parents

ELIYA: When the show started out, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about it. But as soon as the dad started doing his first number, I was like, “oh, this seems fun.” 

TALYA: Controversial opinion: I kind of loved the casual sex symboling of the middle-aged Jewish dad. Let’s do a poll: Who thinks the dad could get it?

[Redacted conversation about whether the dad could get it] 

TALYA: With the dad in the show, there’s an interesting dichotomy. The heart of his sexual appeal, to women who are not his ex-wife, is that he seems like someone who will put their needs first. 

IRENE: And he does do that for his daughters. 

TALYA: But for the mother, he’s the complete opposite. So it’s interesting to see a middle-aged male character on stage who is both of these things. 

ELIYA: That’s why, to go back to my earlier point, I think I would like the show more if it focused on the drama in the Silverman home and cut some of the school stuff. The divorced parents have a great dynamic, and it would have been nice to see that developed. 

TALYA: They wrote the mom really flat. 

MIRA: Especially compared to the dad, who’s so charming and compelling. 

IRENE: I do think one strength of the musical is that it does so well at portraying divorced parents who are both lovely people, yet bring out the worst in each other. 

MIRA: The thing that happens when something is memoir-y — but obviously somewhat fictionalized — is that I spend the whole time wondering what’s actually true and what’s written for effect. My conclusion from that is that Sarah Silverman must be much closer to her dad and took his side in the divorce. 

TALYA: How could you not come away feeling like that? The mother, they gave her this sad and stately cast that I’ve seen depressed moms get a million times. 

PJ: I didn’t expect that the father was a serial adulterer.

IRENE: He’s a pretty good parent, though.

V. How we felt about the show’s take on mental health

TALYA: I thought the depiction of childhood depression was pretty moving. It was simple, but that made sense to me. We’re Jews, so we know what it’s like to either be depressed or have people like that around us. It was really touching for me to see a show be honest about what that’s like for a kid. But I didn’t like the “validation, love, and finding your passion can cure it” vibe at the end. 

IRENE: There was the part where the mom comes out of bed for the talent show and Sarah says, “Are you better now?” And the mom says, “No.” So it’s not really suggesting that depression will go away.

TALYA: That would have been more persuasive if the mom was less of a flat character. It’s very deus ex machina — they managed to get the mom out of bed, so everything’s fine. 

Laura, Sarah’s older sister, is the only cool one in the family. Photo by Ahron R. Foster

IRENE: How does [Sarah’s older sister] Laura feel if her soccer games couldn’t get the mom out of bed? 

MIRA: The mom is sowing grudges. 

TALYA: I felt a little annoyed by the “your trauma becomes your engine” kind of moralism. It felt very Jewish to me, and also bad. Yes, Sarah Silverman became who she is today partially because she wet the bed, but a lot of people wet the bed and do not become Sarah Silverman. There’s a lot going on and it feels reductive to just say, “My struggles made me great.”

VI. Our mixed feelings on the show’s ending

PJ: It does rely on the foreknowledge that this is a musical about a well-known personality. And in terms of an arc, she’s always been a show person and now she has an outlet for it. But it’s very much winking at the audience. Like: “This is where it all begins.” 

MIRA: I had a similar feeling. When I was taking notes, one of the things I wrote down was, “Would this be interesting if it wasn’t about Sarah Silverman?”

PJ: That’s where the ending fell flat for me. Because it’s like, “Let’s deliver her origin story.”

IRENE: What the parents tell Sarah in the most moving moments is that life doesn’t get easier. It’s just as hard, but you have to take it one day at a time and find happiness in your family. But then the ending is like: “Actually everything is fine because she’s going to become a famous comedian.” Which sort of contradicts the point. 

TALYA: The actress who played Sarah was really really funny, and I thought it was not cool that they cut the show before she got to tell jokes. I want to hear what she has to say about this experience. I want to hear how she delivers this in her own words when she’s not having a heartfelt conversation with her family. 

ELIYA: I’m trying to imagine, what if this was just a musical about a girl wetting her bed, and that girl was not Sarah Silverman — what would have been different about it? I think, for me, it still would have worked. For most of the show, it was just a sweet story. Normally, when you see a musical about someone’s life, there’s a sort of obvious takeaway, or like, a narrative about how these specific events crafted this specific, accomplished person. For the most part — until the very end — this show wasn’t trying to do that. It’s just saying, this challenge built a tiny little girl into a person she’s about to become, but we don’t know who that is. I liked seeing that. 

VII. We attempt to define the actors’ somewhat bewildering accents

MIRA: I just don’t know that those were New Hampshire accents. They sounded like Bronx accents.

PJ: The dad’s was definitely just a Massachusetts accent.

TALYA: I interpreted the dad’s accent as specific to working at a discount clothing shop. It felt native to that. When I was growing up there was this used car salesman in Denver whose name was Dealin’ Doug, and he would come on the TV talking about “Dealin’ Doug’s deals.” The dad had Doug’s accent.

MIRA: I also felt like a lot of the accents were just sort of Jewy.

TALYA: Little Sarah’s accent was super Jewy. It’s impressive for a little girl to sound so Jewish.

VIII. We rate the drinks we consumed while having this discussion

Mira, PJ, Eliya, Talya and Irene over our drinks on the side of a road. Photo by Mira Fox

MIRA: My Scarlet Macaw was OK, but neither smoky nor spicy enough. 

PJ: [in Elvis voice] The Elvis was pretty good. It’s peanut butter whiskey, banana liqueur and bacon. His favorite sandwich was peanut butter, banana, and bacon. 

ELIYA: Mine is fine. It’s very strong, and I’m kind of a lightweight.

IRENE: I have to say it’s not the best martini I’ve ever had. It’s a little sweet. 

TALYA: This glass of rosé was as inoffensive as possible.

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