Sarah Silverman tells a story in her book, Tales of Courage, Redemption, and Pee (originally titled, I Said Vagina, Now Make Me Famous, but Silverman says that the publisher wouldn’t sign off on that), about her brother Jeffrey. Jeffery was an older sibling who died when he was still a baby. In the early 1970s, her parents went on a vacation and left their two young children with their grandparents. Sadly, one night the side of the crib that held baby Jeffrey collapsed as he slept. The baby slid down into the open space and became trapped. When his grandfather got up to check on him in the middle of the night he found that the baby had suffocated.
It’s a terrible story, and you feel awful for Silverman’s grandparents who were, understandably, overcome with grief and guilt over the tragedy. But the reason that she tells the story has more to do with her journey as a comedian. She is explaining how she discovered the euphoria of making others laugh at an early age, and she describes it like an addiction. She couldn’t get enough. And at the age of five, it was very easy to get a laugh by saying words that were shocking, like curse words, or inappropriate, like “tampon.” Basically anything to make adults stop and laugh in surprise.
But one day, she and her sisters were getting in the car with their grandmother and were told to put on their seatbelts. “That’s right,” she quips. “You don’t want to end up like Jeffrey.”
But instead of laughter there is silence. Followed by the devastated sobbing of her grandmother, who never forgave herself for the accidental death of her tiny grandson.
When I listened to the story I cringed so intensely that I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I remember – when I was about that age – feeling a similar craving for attention. I made a lot of profoundly bad jokes in the process of figuring out how to get what I needed from the adults around me. I never meant to be vulgar or hurtful. I just loved it when I made people laugh and it took a long time for me to figure out how that worked, exactly.
Most of the time that I got people to laugh, I didn’t really understand why. I was just a little kid. It was like trying to make a machine work by pulling levers and pushing buttons and then waiting to see what happens. I never made someone cry by joking over the death of my baby brother, but only because I didn’t have a dead baby brother. Not because I knew better.
I’m trying to think of a concrete example, and I’m having a hard time thinking of any that directly explains the potency of my reaction to Silverman’s story. I went through a period when I was four or five where I thought it was funny to give people a hug and a “kick” instead of a “kiss,” because I noticed the words were similar and the effect seemed to be shocking. My dad laughed when I did it to him. And when I heard my mom laughing when he told her about it I felt encouraged. My next two test subjects, however, were of the geriatric variety. Neither of them were amused. In fact, I think my grandfather briefly considered seeking medical attention. My mother put a stop to it after that.
I also went through a phase where I would think of something funny, but I was acutely aware that I had passed out of the “cute kid” chapter of my life and that the joke would play much better if my little sister, Andrea, delivered it. So I fed her a couple of one-liners. She nailed those jokes, as I recall. For the record, Andrea is naturally much funnier than I am. And at five, she was a professional “cute kid.”
There are elements of that story that may sound endearing. The seven-year-old future playwright developing material for her five-year-old sister. It makes me think of something my friend Sarah told to me, recently. “You are a story-teller,” she said. “And you always have been. I think that you should embrace that fact.” I think that’s true, and ultimately these memories are really about my learning how to do that.
Nonetheless, it still grosses me out to think about feeding Andrea lines. First of all, I don’t like that I put words in my sister’s mouth. It was undermining and manipulative. But what is more disconcerting is that it makes me feel like there was never a time in my life when I was without artifice. Even at an early age, I couldn’t just relax and be a person. I’ve been coping though shtick for as long as I can remember.
At least I had enough respect for the craft to know when a line would be better served by another’s delivery; I can be proud of that.
The Jeffrey Silverman story also managed to unwedge another lost memory from some deep and forgotten recess in my mind. This one has to do with a teacher and friend of my mother’s, an elderly Irish woman named Teressa (who coincidentally was the other victim of the “hug and kick” bit).
Teressa was a character. I remember – when my sisters and I were growing up – we would go to visit her at her home in the tiny town of Hagerman, Idaho. Teressa openly criticised my mom as intensely as she openly flirted with my dad, all while her aging female dalmatian – an idiotic sweetheart named Magpie – humped the legs off all visitors who sat in the living room. Those were fun weekends.
Teressa only displayed her Irish accent after the third or so glass of wine (or whiskey – she loved whiskey), usually after dinner, as the evening wove into night. I remember one such evening when I was still quite young, Teressa told me about the grief she suffered when losing her first-born daughter, who died when she was a toddler. Then she told me – her accent as thick as I had ever heard it – about the time that David, her only son, came to her a few years later and asked about his sister. He would have been five or six, I suppose.
“I was thinking,” Teressa was speaking as David, giving him a little boy’s voice, “That we could go to where she is buried and that we could dig up her skeleton. And that it could be my skeleton?”
“I’ve never been so angry with that child,” Theresa told me, going back to her full voice and curly Irish brogue. “Not before or since. I told him to get out of my sight and to never speak to me of it again.”
I didn’t know why she told the story, but it upset me. I think I thought she was trying to send me a message, of sorts. I remember feeling shaken, as if I were the one being told off for being macabre and self-centered. I don’t think that’s true, now. I think that she was a tipsy old woman in the dusk-years of a hard life, speaking in free associations. But in that was that all children are narcissists, I was convinced that the story was about me. I thought she was trying to tell me, specifically, to watch my behavior and to understand that my actions could be hurtful. And I received the message as admonishment.
My dad piped in at about this point and said, “Children at that age, they don’t have dense skeletons. She was so small. Just a baby. I don’t think there would have been any skeleton left for him to find.”
That freaked me out also, I recall. It made me feel small and impermanent, like I could just disappear into the ground. But in another way, I remember feeling a little better after Dad tossed that thought into the conversation. Because even as a little kid, still trying to learn how to be a person, I understood that wasn’t the point of Teressa’s story and was the wrong thing to say.