The upper-crust of Santa Barbara shuffle into the seats at the regal Arlington Theatre. The sides of the theatre are lined with what looks like a theatrical set decoration of “mission-style” Spanish villas, while the ceiling is done in mock-up of the night sky. This night, May 1, 2016, no good NPR listener is absent from the audience as author and comedian David Sedaris came to the Arlington to read selected essays and generally muse about the state of the culture.
For those who don’t know Sedaris, he is famous for his autobiographical stories and essays detailing his life as a persnickety, middle-class gay man who grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. Sedaris garnered acclaim throughout the late ‘90s and 2000s for his collections of essays, such as Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day among others, in addition to being a fixture at the New Yorker.
Commencing the event on Sunday were representatives from the UCSB Arts & Lectures series, proud to announce that Sedaris, a staple of the A&L gallery, would be returning for the 2016-2017 season. A wave of relief swept through the gluten-free crowd at this declaration. Before Sedaris himself took the stage, the MCs listed his accomplishments and promoted his upcoming essay collection Death by Finding. They also announced his American Sign-Language translator Amy Mass (for this crowd, any slight to the differently abled would be a grievous shock).
Finally, Sedaris walked on. And then he left. Not wordlessly — he began by declaring that he’s wearing culottes, explaining his knee-length, baggy trousers to dispel the audience’s chuckles. He also told the audience how every touring season he likes to promote a book, and this year he chose the nonfictional recounting of a murder investigation Ghettoside by Jill Leovy. Then he invited her to come on stage and share from her book. Leovy professed her gratitude for Sedaris before recounting what led her to chronicle an L.A. homicide investigation. She told the theater patrons how the U.S.’s astounding rates of murder for a developed nation are concentrated among urban black communities. The quinoa-loving listeners were likely very familiar with these ideas. But Leovy spoke of her acquaintance with the homicide detective in a humanizing way that promised a rich narrative.
Finally, Leovy ushered Sedaris back on. Over the course of the night, the essayist read two of his stories, A Modest Proposal and A House Divided. A House Divided tells of the humorist and his family’s dealing with the aftermath of his sister Tiffany’s suicide. It’s a personal story steeped in the milieu of suburban North Carolina.
A Modest Proposal, alluding to the Jonathan Swift essay of the same name (and combining it with a pun on the word “proposal”), recounts Sedaris’s reaction to the recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage. The story punctures the veneer of political correctness truly for the first time when Sedaris describes volunteering to pick up trash along a highway, where he encounters “a strap-on penis.” It was nice to hear an audience of refined, Fox News-disdaining socialites laugh at a dirty joke. Sedaris continued from there, marveling at how a three-inch strap-on “not much bigger around than a Vienna sausage” could satisfy someone. It was an important moment: There’s not much difference really between the coastal, cosmopolitan, Jon Stewart watchers and the provincial masses they supposedly have so much mutual animosity to. There’s a myth of snooty, upturned-noses directed at lowbrow, Jeff Foxworthy-style humor, but even NPR-listeners love a good dick joke. There was no love lost when Sedaris described the people who’ve spent the last decade opposing gay marriage as “those assholes.” He turned it around when he brought up Ghettoside again near the end of the show, telling about how his preconceptions of the white, Republican homicide detectives were challenged upon learning how much empathy the officer has for members of the poverty-stricken black community he finds himself in.
Other highlights of the performance lie in Sedaris’s reading aloud of his personal diary. Noteworthy is his depiction of a vulgar Phyllis Diller, who says things like “Nancy Reagan was known for her blowjobs.” Sedaris also told of meeting someone who took mushrooms before going to the Anne Frank House and described Charleston as a city “more than a little pleased with itself.”
But politics can’t be avoided. When an audience member asked Sedaris if he has any opinions on the current election cycle, he claimed he prefers to leave political commentary to others. When he told of a man on an airplane struggling with an overhead compartment who said “This is broken, just like Obamacare,” he did so mockingly, eliciting some laughs and cheers from the audience. But when Sedaris lavishly described his subsequent feeling of disdain, he was mocking that too.