Sedaris shows us how to laugh at ourselves

Noted author, essayist, and NPR correspondent David Sedaris spoke last Tuesday evening in the Mainstage of the Adams Memorial Theater. The talk was booked solid days in advance and the Mainstage, a 500-seat venue, was packed for the reading.

I am not a reader of David Sedaris. Admiring fans like my father have read aloud to me various bits and pieces of his essays and books, but I have never sat down and read the man by myself. That didn’t really make much difference – I still enjoyed and understood the talk and Sedaris lived up to his reputation: he was both hilarious and perceptive. From his entrance to his exit the whole evening was an exercise in face-straining laugh-out-loud humor and surprising profundity.

After a gracious introduction by John Kleiner, professor of English, Sedaris took the stage to thunderous applause. Even his entrance prompted laughs, as he fumbled with the curtain just enough to get the audience to giggle and promptly left the stage in search of water immediately after arriving.

The evening started off lightly and comfortably. After thanking the audience for their patience in all the confusion and Kleiner for his nice introduction, Sedaris began to talk.

The talk was structured as a reading of some of Sedaris’ works in progress. His first reading was a chapter entitled “The ass is always greener on the other guy.” The chapter discussed the Sedaris’ angst over the slightness of his own rear end and his attempt to remedy this by purchasing padded underwear, or what he called “the male equivalent of ’falsies.’”

Sedaris’ fascination with butts led him to be an avid baseball fan, admittedly more for the tight pants of the players than for the game itself. He claimed it took him years to realize that “the bottom of the ninth” referred to an inning and not a player. This anecdote set the tone for the rest of the evening, during which he humorously chided himself but also pointed out oddities in the world around us through his bizarre personal experiences.

The delivery of the stories was as delightful as the tales themselves. Sedaris has a distinctive voice, rather high but melodious, that suits the telling of his stories, and he is wonderful at intonation and at varying his voice for different characters. It’s clear why he’s been so successful on the radio – not only does he have a terrific sense of humor in his writing but it shows through radiantly in his renditions.

Sedaris continued with a few chapters detailing how, in his quest for new accessories, he experimented with a personal external catheter called the “Stadium Pal.” The experiences relayed often seemed to be rooted in truth but exaggerated for the sake of humor and making a point. But they didn’t matter – he was very funny and kept the audience on the proverbial edge of its seat for the duration of the lecture, and no one seemed to mind that the stories were a bit out there.

The section of Sedaris’ talk that provoked the most laughter was a piece titled “Six to Eight Black Men” in which Sedaris related a Dutch Christmas tradition, as told to him by a native on a recent book tour of Holland. Though the audience seemed tense about the possible racial discourse coming up, their fears were alleviated when Sedaris began discussing a disarmingly unfamiliar tradition. According to Sedaris and every Dutch person he asked for confirmation, the Dutch version of Santa Claus travels with “six to eight black men” and on Christmas Eve the entire entourage travels from house to house rewarding good children and “beating and kicking – or maybe just kidnapping” bad ones.

After the presentation of the new writing, Sedaris took questions from the audience. He anticipated that, since he spends a lot of NPR airtime and publisher’s ink outlining their quirks and experiences, the first question would be “how does your family feel about you writing about them?”

To answer the question he read a piece he wrote about a recent trip home, including a description of a note his mother left him, “two single-spaced pages” giving exact instructions for the proper use of each household appliance – including a reminder to turn off and unplug each one after use. He summed up his family’s attitude toward his success by describing how they tend to begin every conversation with him, be it earth-shattering or trivial, with “you have to swear you will never repeat this.” This is, of course, a promise which he admits is worth little, for he will shamelessly repeat and re-use anything amusing or interesting.

On a more earnest note, Sedaris also admitted that he has some trouble reconciling his loyalty to his family and his perpetual urge to find and exploit humor in his relationships. In talking about his sister Lisa, he related a poignant story she told him and forbid him to repeat. Though it seemed he would eventually share the story, he adroitly sidestepped this in explaining his difficulties maintaining confidentiality, reassuring his audience he doesn’t lack integrity entirely.

In my opinion, though, this willingness to compromise privacy is a major factor contributing to Sedaris’ success. He doesn’t worry much about what people are thinking, and is honest about his quest to get attention and laughter. When asked how he would respond to the claim of a New York Times critic that he is narcissistic, he simply responded “maybe they mean it in a good way?”

However, he went on to admit his narcissism, saying that although he tried to imitate other writers and their styles, after much experimentation he found that writing self-centered stories the way he does is “my thing.”

What is ultimately most appealing about Sedaris is his honesty. Despite his obvious exaggerations of many of his experiences, his approach is refreshingly straightforward. He makes fun of himself – a lot – and lets us laugh with him. Through laughing about things as trite as his small behind, he includes his audience. His enthusiasm and confusion about the world is infectious, and the breadth of his experiences gives almost everyone a chance to relate. Really, it’s hard not to be incredulous when he tells you that the blind are allowed to hunt in Maine, Michigan and Texas.