Sarah Silverman was all set to make her debut as a musical-theatre librettist with a musical version of her comic memoir The Bedwetter, which would have started previews on April 25 and opened at Off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company on May 20 for a limited run. Since I spoke to her in February, though, the coronavirus pandemic not only shut down all theatre activity, it also brutally claimed the life of Silverman’s co-writer, composer and songwriter Adam Schlesinger. That bad news is especially bitter, given that Silverman credited Schlesinger with persuading her to turn her book into a musical in the first place.
Since the pandemic shutdown, the show has been indefinitely postponed, with the Atlantic giving me a statement that the theatre “is committed to seeing The Bedwetter through to fruition. The company plans to make it part of next season,” though dates for that are still unknown.
So, though this conversation was recorded and transcribed before the current shutdown, I think it’s still worth sharing. We started by talking about the show, in which a young Sarah wrestles with the usual childhood dilemmas, including the one described in the title.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: I want to start by asking what it’s like to cast your younger self. I mean, you’ve done sketches where you’ve cast like a younger version of yourself, right?
SARAH SILVERMAN: Yeah, in The Sarah Silverman Program.
But this is something different. Are you in the room for these auditions, and are you coaching these kids to be like you, or assuring them they don’t have to be?
Yeah, It’s wild. As an adult I am mostly just very much wanting these kids to feel secure and that they’re good. It’s an absolutely terrible dynamic to have these tiny children actors, with all the needs and insecurities of an actor. As an adult, I’ve often been been on both sides, obviously. I’ve auditioned a lot and I’ve had been at auditions for other people, and you just want them to feel like, “Hey, you did a great job.” So it’s a lot of just wanting them to leave feeling good about it, and that so much of the choice has nothing to do with them or that they’re not special. Maybe this isn’t the answer you’re looking for, but it’s a little heart-wrenching. I just want these kids to feel like they’re good, they’re enough, they deserve love.
The crazy thing about kid actors is, for better or worse, they’re such pros. The good version of that is they don’t know what they can’t do. Kind of like anyone who excels at what they do, it comes almost more from an unawareness of what they can’t do. I always think of the four-minute mile—no one could break it, and no one thought it was possible or that they could. And then one person who didn’t know that they couldn’t did. Kids are like that, and it’s really amazing and inspiring, but also a little bit worrying as an adult, because our job is to care for them. And sometimes nobody tells you in this business what’s too much, especially good kid performers.
The main question I have is, what makes this story a musical?
It was Adam Schlesinger’s idea. He does all the music, and we write the lyrics together. He had read my book, and he came over one day and he said, “This is a musical,” and he just like took me through it. It has gone through many incarnations since then. For some time our first draft was like a standup act that this 10-year-old tells about her life, and it went through the beginning of adulthood, with a young me moving to New York and trying standup. We kept tinkering it with it. But when we met up with Josh Harmon, that’s when it really became about one year of my life.
Is it the year that young Sarah kicks bedwetting, or the year you write about, with the sleepover trauma?
Well, we make it the year she’s 10, but there are of course elements we take from that sleepover situation, which was when I was 7, and the start into depression, which was at 13. We made it all one cohesive year.
I still want to know about the “why a musical” question. Why are people singing their way through this story rather than just acting it?
My unromantic guess would be that Adam writes songs and it was his idea. I mean, I’m so curious what strangers will think, because we’ve just been hibernating in this. And it’s like, I can’t imagine it any other way. The songs are so vital. I remember way back, seven years ago, when he was pitching it to me. The first chapter of the book is called “Cursed From the Start,” and he was like: “That’s a song.” For a long time it was our opening song, and we just recently killed it and went with like a more minimal thing. For me personally, and I’m guessing others too, I could tinker forever if I had it the time. It’s like, when I do a comedy special, I can never watch it after or do any of the material ever again because I just I want to keep honing it, you know—it’s too frustrating.
I’m sort of obsessed with the appearance you made on Seth Rudetsky’s show where you talked about your own theatre background and then sang a bunch of songs. I thought, when do we get to see you in Company or something?
I mean, I kind of dream of that sometimes, but it has to be just the right thing. I’m an excellent singer for a comedian; if I were a singer, I would be fair at best in that profession. But I do love it and I love musical theatre. I think what will be surprising about The Bedwetter—and I could be so wrong—is that like the book itself, yes, it has hard jokes, has hard comedy, the kind of comedy I do, but it also is moving and, I think, brave. Like, I think we earn its serious moments. We’re all real conscious of things being corny, but I think the drama is well-earned.
Well, I think that’s true of your comedy as well, if I can say so. In writing this, are you and your co-writers using other musicals as reference points or templates, or just letting it find its own form?
I think I’m the least aware of that, but Josh and Adam are very aware of it. Josh is big on structure; he’s a brilliant storyteller. I don’t know if you’ve seen his other plays, they’re just astounding. I just saw Skin Tight, which blew my mind, and Significant Other—the lights came up, I was sitting next to a stranger on my right, and we were both sobbing so hard and we were like kind of holding each other’s arms. He’s so good with both comedy and drama and how they interweave—they’re such siblings, you know?
Did you see Bad Jews?
I didn’t. I read it only.
I have to ask, would you call yourself a bad Jew, Sarah?
I would not. I mean, you know, cavalierly I would. But there are so many truly bad Jews lately that as a Jew, it’s so horrifying. I mean, there are so few Jews. We make up one fifth of 1 percent of the world, so if you round down, there are zero of us. And yet there’s Weinstein, there’s Epstein, there’s Stephen Miller, there’s Jared Kushner—such myriad terrible Jews. I mean, Bloomberg’s not looking so hot either, and it’s just such a fucking bummer. You know? It’s horrifying. I mean, I’m a bad Jew in that I’m godless. But I think, you know, in the ratings system of Jews, I think I’m considered good for the Jews.
On your talk show I Love You, America, you really tried to reach across the aisle and talk to folks you disagreed with strongly. Do you feel like that’s still possible?
So you’re still hopeful?
Yeah. I mean, I’m both hopeful and very nihilistic. I feel our democracy is over and we’re probably bound for extinction as a human race anyway. But in terms of left and right, this is almost like a tech phenomenon: We’re being separated by algorithms, by bots, by foreign countries, by our administration, all these people. It behooves them to keep us separated. If we were to be in the same room and talk about what matters…So I hate liars, but I do not hate the lied to, and I really believe that people are being lied to.
Do you think Twitter has been good for comedy or bad for comedy?
Both. Both. Both. I mean, you can’t grow and change without being fucking accountable for something you posted seven years ago—certainly anyone who sticks their neck out comedically or politically is gonna know that nothing is evergreen, that shit goes bad, and we change over time at our best. But in terms of trying out jokes, putting stuff out there, seeing how it goes, that’s nice. The foreverness of it, and the way it’s taken out of context, is absurd.
I think of your jokes as pretty crafted in terms of language, but do you find writing lyrics that are trying to be funny a new challenge?
We have a blast with it. Adam is a genius. Some of my favorite comedy lines in this are his. We hang out and we figure out what’s making us laugh the hardest. The timing is certainly different, you know? We’ll see what the audience ultimately tells us about what works.
What’s the last thing that you saw or read that you loved?
There’s so much, but I’m going to go with Better Things. I think it’s such a stunning TV show. It’s on FX, it’s by Pamela Adlon. I just think she’s brilliant and this show is so special. With one-hour TV, I usually like the murder-y stuff. But every episode of this is like a piece of art to me, and I really marvel at it. I’m so grateful to get to see it.
What’s your first theatrical memory? I know your mom had a theatre company, the New Thalian Players, when you were a kid. Was it there at her theatre?
You know, I will say that one frustrating thing about this show is that because of the one year it takes place, a lot in the play is about my mom’s depression—but two years she started a theatre she loves, and for the next 25 years she directed 50 fucking plays.
Well, that could be the sequel.
Right, that’s the sequel. She did musical theatre and straight plays in New Hampshire, and kind of brought theatre to our town, Manchester. She always loved it. I grew up in New Hampshire, so we didn’t see Broadway much. I would see it on PBS—I wish they did that more now—I got to see Pippin on PBS. Also I watched the Tonys. We saw Little Shop of Horrors in Boston and that became my favorite play. I listened to that nonstop, and Les Miz and Phantom of the Opera, A Chorus Line—I never saw A Chorus Line, but I got to see it in my mind, you know, listening to the album. Dreamgirls too—listening to the original cast album and picturing it so vividly in my mind.
A lot of that was sampled on that Seth Rudetsky show.
Yeah. Like, you don’t even realize that you know every word to all these songs. It’s like going to see Huey Lewis in concert and going, “Oh, I know his entire catalog, don’t I.”