David Sedaris makes me laugh out loud. And that’s just when I’m reading his books. Seeing and hearing him in person amplifies the effect. I found this out last Friday night when he came to Asheville, NC. If you’ve heard him on the radio, probably on This American Life, then you already know that his thin, high-pitched voice does not make him an obvious candidate for a career in public speaking. And yet, sitting near the back of the large auditorium (oh, to be a humor writer and command the kind of prices he does for orchestra seats!) his nasal tones still hit me right in the gut. That would be the gut from which the belly laughs emerged.
It’s fun to be in an audience full of people unafraid to laugh. Not just chuckle, but guffaw, hoot, even snort. And mostly, we laughed at ourselves. The genuis of Sedaris’s humor is his ability to start out by making fun of somebody else, only to turn the tables mid-story so that the joke is on us. The readers (or listeners) who had hoped to join him in his snarky assessment of whatever segment of society he happens to be skewering at the moment, soon find ourselves on the end of that roasting stick.
One of his funniest stories centered on the elements of humanity encountered during airport waits. One moment we are standing in line with the author, happily making fun of the pathetic teenaged father in the vulgar t-shirt and hoping to join with the well-dressed grandmother in our negative assessments. But before we get too comfortable in our smugness, Sedaris wonders whether the grandmother has a conservative agenda or is just petty and judgmental like him. And there we are, laughing helplessly at our own petty judgmentalism.
Sedaris shared several stories from a new book of what he’s not calling fables. It includes stories where, like fables, the animals talk and do other things humans do, reflecting back to us our own natures. But unlike fables, they aren’t particularly moral. (Anyone who has read Sedaris will understand this.) These tales also carry that potent turn-the-tables gift. In one story, the main characters are two stork sisters. The first sister has just been confronted by her young son about where babies come from. The second sister is appalled to discover that rather than share the truth with him, her sister has told him a story about mice coming into the nests with baby storks. While the second sister marvels at her sibling’s fundamentalism and stupidity, wondering how they could have emerged from the same family, we begin to share her intellectual sense of superiority. (Who doesn’t have an anti-intellectual relative who makes us uncontrollably roll our eyes?) But as we follow the intellectually superior stork back to her own nest we discover that she is self-absorbed, whiney and overly rational explaining the world to her own young child, to that poor little stork’s great distress. Yikes. Which stork are we now?
Sedaris, standing primly in his neat button-down shirt and pastel tie, delivered each tale with perfect timing. His self-deprecating humor always succeeded in pulling me onto his side, though politically speaking, that wasn’t a stretch. Sedaris has no problem naming his biases. Nor does he bother to sanitize his language for any public-radio audience members who might be offended. I adore his crude, direct, but somehow also gentle humor. I don’t know quite how he pulls off the gentleness in the midst of the barbs, but he does. I think it’s because you get that he really loves the people he describes, no matter how often he portrays himself as a misanthrope.
It’s only with great love that we see things so clearly. And his truth-telling, while usually sharp and almost always prickly, comes with a genuine vision. And man, what a funny vision it is!