At 8 p.m. on Feb. 28, 2014, I had the pleasure of seeing David Sedaris, one of my all-time favorite comedic writers, read at the Arlington Theatre in downtown Santa Barbara.
Sedaris’ performances are an annual event, brought to us by UCSB Arts & Lectures year after year, and this was my third time seeing Sedaris read. It was also the best time.
Sedaris is a prolific writer: He’s come out with a volume of (inevitably excellent) new essays every two to three years since Barrel Fever in 1994. Alongside his own books, he is published regularly in The New Yorker and has been featured on NPR’s This American Life close to 50 times.
Though he is not on everyone’s radar (for shame), the people who love him love him fiercely. In some ways, Sedaris has taken up the mantle of writers from a bygone era — an era when there was a place in the mass media and America’s collective cultural consciousness for writers of books beyond the world of Young Adult sensations.
How has Sedaris earned this role? What makes his stories so good?
Surprise, surprise: The key is in his live readings. Sedaris tours for a good portion of every year, throughout the U.S., in Europe (he and his boyfriend are ex-pats, living primarily in England), Asia and beyond. He sets out on his book tours with a group of stories, some recent and some brand-new, and reads and edits them in rotation.
At the end of his reading last Friday, an audience member asked, “What are you scribbling on your paper?” As he reads, Sedaris marks things that got big laughs, things that “didn’t work at all” and other notes on his stories. It’s no wonder his essays are consistently laugh-out-loud funny: They were honed using a live audience that was literally laughing out loud while hearing them.
Sedaris famously follows his readings with book signings that can last hours. I once waited with a friend after the show and spoke to him at almost midnight — he waits until the last person has gone through. He usually asks the people in line for a joke or what they think about such-and-such topic or whether they do this or that (the time I waited, I think he was asking people what they wear when they sleep.) This is all evidence of a mind that is always curious, always working. Sedaris has talent galore, but he also has craft.
On Friday, Sedaris read one new essay, one “dramatic monologue” from his 2013 release, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, and one essay that was recently published in The New Yorker and featured on TAL (“Episode 517: Day At The Beach”) called “Now We Are Five.”
The new story (“An English Lesson”) dealt with some themes Sedaris is fond of: language, foreignness and how weird America can be. As someone who travels extensively and has kept learning new languages to do so, Sedaris offers a unique viewpoint on what English is like to an outsider.
He offered the great truism: “Pretty much everything that isn’t ‘terrible’ is ‘awesome’ in America.” The essay was well-balanced, with frequent callbacks to our overuse of “awesome.” What I love about Sedaris’ best work is how his narratives easily move from one subject to the next, always surprising us and yet wrapping up in a way that is unexpected and “ahhh…”-inducing at the same time. I thought this piece did this wonderfully.
I did not feel this way so much about many of the stories in Sedaris’ most recent collection. There are some showstoppers (“Understanding Understanding Owls”) but they’re packed into the very beginning and the very end, and the middle falls surprisingly flat. But the story he read from it on Friday was wonderful (“Health-Care Freedoms and Why I Want My Country Back”: a short, absurd piece from the point of view of a tea partier who utters phrases such as “Chairman Obama”), and if his newer pieces and plentiful diary entries were any indication, I foresee myself laughing and crying over a new Sedaris release in the not-so-distant future.
“Now We Are Five” might induce some sad tears, along with the funny variety. Essentially a reflection of his four siblings returning to their childhood summer vacation place to mourn the loss of their sister, Tiffany, after her suicide, the long essay wavers between thoughtful questioning of familial bonds and his biting portrayals of the world around us.
Just when it’s feeling heavy, he tells us about a sign in the beach cabin — “Old shellers never die; They simply conk out” — or the various names the family devises for their own beach home: “The Sea-Section … The Conksucker.” “For our beach house, I want to have a train theme.”
Then we’re back with an image of snakes in tanks and a small, caged alligator, for sale at the end of a parking lot in North Carolina, its jaws bound. Sedaris and his father stand there, not really having the words to confront the question on the mind of everyone: “Why did she do it?”
After a hearty section of diary entries (Sedaris writes in his diary every day, another brilliant example of his work ethic) and a Q&A that mentioned “RuPaul’s Drag Race” not once, but three times, the evening closed. The many patrons who filled the Arlington rose — some to go chat with the writer, some to gingerly walk through the wet streets of Santa Barbara — bundled up, energized, confused and mostly laughing.
A version of this story appeared on page 8 of Thursday, March 6, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.