On Thursday, October 15, 2009, humorist/writer David Sedaris visited Davenport, Iowa’s Adler Theater to share his musings on jury trials, breast milk, condoms, and our “God-given right to mimeograph.” He lived up to Toronto Globe & Mail writer Bill Richardson’s assessment: “He’s smart, he’s caustic, he’s mordant, and, somehow, he’s well, nice.”
Sedaris has the unique vocal rendering(s) of Truman Capote before him, and, yes, both were openly gay. Hear Sedaris read just one time on NPR, where his career blossomed, and you won’t forget the tone. It’s one of the lovable eccentricities of the man that you learn to like, just as you learn to make your peace with his aversion to having his picture taken.
Sedaris has a way with words. When he describes his son, Todd, as being “the artistic one in the family” and goes on to describe him as having “a useless degree in dance history,” audience members smile with recognition. Everyone has someone in his or her family with a useless degree in something. We can all relate. Some of Sedaris’ sharing is painful, tinged with a deep pathos that gives his humor greater humanity and, with it, greater emotional weight. Whether it’s the needless cruelty that man inflicts on man or his mother’s drinking problem or his own dalliance with drugs back in the day, Sedaris has suffered and it shows in his writing. His humor is a shield and he wields it with bravado.
This night, Sedaris vamped his way through the acronym A.S.S.H.O.L.E. (don’t ask) and what it stands for in a boundary-pushing way that has garnered him 3 Grammy nominations for Best Spoken Word and Best Comedy Album(s). With 7 million books in print in 25 languages, the 2001 Thurber Prize for American Humor and Time magazine’s anointing him Humorist of the Year, it’s pretty clear, as the San Francisco Chronicle put it, “Sedaris belongs on any list of people writing in English at the moment who are revising our ideas about what’s funny.”
On Thursday night in Davenport, Iowa, the funny bits that amused me were about jury duty, possibly because of my own experiences on several coroners’ juries in Illinois. He describes his late mother, Sharon, saying to him, “How can you not want to sit in judgment of your fellow man?” and “Whoever thought a gun could be so tedious?” Reminiscing about a defendant in the trial he drew who had been knifed three times, the line that resonates is “If you’re the type that everybody stabs, maybe you need to make some fundamental changes.” As a member of a jury himself, Sedaris couldn’t quit fixating on the fact that the defendant was wearing “a cross the size you’d reach for if you wanted to crucify a hamster.” The image is vintage Sedaris.
We were treated to Sedaris’ ramblings about depictions of a soulful Jesus on the cross and how easy that is. He pines for an obese, repulsive, balding, Jesus with “fur-covered man titties”…a vision he ultimately referred to as “comb-over Jesus.”
Sedaris’ irreverent observations had the nearly full house amused and laughing throughout. He was kind enough to not only plug his own books which, this night, were his newest (When You Are Engulfed in Flames), but also his best ones of years past, such as 1997’s Naked, 2000’s Me Talk Pretty One Day, and 2004’s Dress Your Family in Corduroy, but also to plug Our Dumb World from The Onion and a book he is currently reading while on the road for 34 days, Everything Ravaged; Everything Burned. Sedaris says he actually enjoys meeting his fans. He doesn’t get a day off until after Day 33 on the road, tours which he typically does on a certain schedule that takes him away from his home in France, where he lives near Normandy with partner Hugh Hamrick. This day, he praises the Davenport YMCA for its kindness and hospitality in letting him swim laps in its pool, (which he must have done less than four hours before show time, because he had not yet checked in at 3:30 p.m. and the show was at 8 p.m.)
A bit of research into how Sedaris got his start (above and beyond his autobiographical tales in the books) reveals that, while living in Chicago, Ira Glass heard him reading aloud from his diaries at a Chicago club. (*Note to self: find out what Chicago club and go read excerpts from Both Sides Now!)
Sedaris was invited by Glass to read Santaland Diaries on the radio. The humorous essays described his experiences working as an elf at Macy’s at Christmas-time and debuted on NPR on December 23, 1992 on “The Morning Edition.” From that start, he has never looked back. Sedaris himself has said, “I owe everything to Ira…My life just changed completely, like someone waved a magic wand.”
Sedaris typically writes about his family members, one of whom is Amy Sedaris, formerly of Saturday Night Live. Amy and David have worked together writing plays as the Talent Family. This night, however, when an audience member practically cooed, “How cool is Amy, your sister,” David seemed less-than-thrilled with the over-the-top enthusiasm for his sister that the audience member was projecting. He acknowledged the comment without joining the love fest. He also said he was not writing about his brother, currently, because his brother loves being written about and owes him money. He told us that he is writing a book with animals, similar to fables (one was read aloud) and that he was collecting stories about rudeness from his audience.
I wrote Mr. Sedaris a fan letter (only the second of my life) after completing When You Are Engulfed in Flames and he wrote back from France. I don’t think he will consider it a violation of this private (and unexpected) correspondence if I share with you that, on a tour of the Hastings Bookstore chain in the Southwest he was placed in the Christian fiction section for his reading. Anyone who knows of Sedaris’ past brushes with drugs (now, he doesn’t even smoke regular cigarettes) or his open homosexuality has to smile at the thought of him delivering his material in the Christian fiction section of any bookstore, just as the audience this night laughed outright at his tale of wheeling an entire cart full of condoms (to give to his readers as gifts) through the aisles of a CostCo store accompanied by his 59-year-old brother-in-law.
After the evening’s performance, which was a great success, at least 100 of us waited in line patiently for 3 hours to shake David Sedaris’ hand…but only after we were offered hand de-sanitizer (probably not a bad idea in these times of H1N1 flu pandemics). [Let New Yorkers attempt to wait so patiently and so politely for so long!) The evening’s artist seemed in no hurry to brush off any of the hundred or so fans who waited it out until nearly 1:00 A.M.
I heard him ask the young couple ahead of me if they were married. They told him of their plans to marry next October. I turned to my line-mate and said, “Well, I had been married for nearly 42 years before I made my husband wait 3 hours outside in the lobby tonight. But that’s ancient history now.” They laughed. [Maybe some Ira Glass/David Sedaris person will recognize my wit and talent and launch me on a reading career of my own humorous essays (I’m very good at it, after years spent reading to 7th graders who couldn’t read well for themselves; I always loved performing “The Night the Bed Fell on Father.”) Ah, if life were only so simple, she said to herself with a sigh. Maybe budding humorists like me should sing a chorus of “Put Me In, Coach. I’m Ready to Play. Today.” Or not. One never knows. I did almost perform a limbo along about Hour Two, in an attempt to shimmy under the metal restraining line to give my long-suffering husband the funny Onion book I had bought.
Earlier, the woman from Cedar Falls who gave up and left early tried to give it to him for me. She came back and told me there was no man with a red umbrella sitting in the lobby, which gave me pause. The cab situation in downtown Davenport is not like that in Chicago, and I was across the river from home. (Later, when placated with reading material given him after my daring limbo dance—which, at my age, could be described my as death-defying limbo dance—he lightened up a little, but I kept seeing one man’s angry face, a swarthy fellow, appearing at the door and mouthing the words to his wife in line, “Hurry up!” (How, exactly, was the poor woman supposed to do this, I wondered? Was she to trample us in a mad rush to the front, like Mad Cows set loose in a pasture? At least my husband merely left the building. And me. But he did return.)
When I finally made it to the front of the line to get the author’s autograph on 3 books and to tell him my “rude” story, I was not sure if Mr. Sedaris remembered my letter that prompted his personal response, or if he realized I was the woman who had left him the books at his hotel (difficult to tell whether that was a bad move or a good move, since the novel has, as its protagonist, a time-traveling rock star, for which I will be eternally remorseful, and a cover of a naked couple that generally catches your eye for all the wrong reasons.) He asked my name. Was I a complete mystery, then? There are multiple pictures of me in the books, so he must have already round-filed them. David (if I may use his first name) was friendly, but not effusively so. He offered me hand sanitizer as I went totally blank on my own name, while struggling to open the small bottle of gel. I’ve never used hand sanitizer. Just as I poured a huge glob of this stuff into my open palm (think KY Jelly, with which I am much more familiar), he extended his hand for me to shake. My timing, as usual, stinks.
I began my rude story of being sold out by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who not only lied to me in print (an e-mail of August 25), but also lied to my face, ruining an expensive (over $3,000) trip to the Hawaii Writers’ Conference and destroying my faith in “getting it in writing,” since I had gotten “it” in writing and the man still flat-out lied to my face. For some reason (Nerves? Stress?) I was suddenly overcome with the emotion of retelling the sad episode that still has not resolved itself, financially or emotionally. As I finished my story, I almost choked up at telling it so soon after it had occurred. I felt like a complete dork as I said, “So I don’t like that author any more.” David Sedaris, in his distinctive voice, looking sympathetic, responded, “Well, then, I don’t like him any more, either.”
Now you see where the “nice” comment comes from. Here’s another with which the audience on Thursday night agreed, as articulated by the Chicago Tribune: “Sedaris’ droll assessment of the mundane and the eccentrics who inhabit the world’s crevices make him one of the greatest humorists writing today.”
Amen to that!