Last Sunday night, I experienced a sort of hybrid between the solitary pleasure of reading a good book and the camaraderie of a crowded movie theater. I went to hear acclaimed author David Sedaris read his work at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium.
If you are not familiar with David Sedaris, you may be missing out. He is the leading figure in the genre of humorous, autobiographical essays — his bestselling collections include “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” which elevated his celebrity status (Time Magazine named him “humorist of the year” in response), and his most recent, “When You Are Engulfed in Flames,” has furthered his rather illustrious title.
Sedaris has been blessed with near-universal praise from critics, and has even been compared to Mark Twain, arguably the highest honor an American writer can garner. It’s an apt comparison — Twain, the father of American literature, was popular not only for his wit and humorous stories, but for his speaking tours.
Sedaris’ stop in Santa Cruz was part of his own 35-city speaking tour.
What was most striking about seeing the man in person was his non-descriptiveness. One look at him would have you guessing he worked at a telemarketing office. He is average height, wore a light blue shirt with a pink tie, and greeted the audience in a mild voice.
Sedaris’ humor is based on relatable absurdities drawn from his own life. At times, when the butt of his joke is everyday people, there is an uncomfortable hint of elitism, a word I hesitate to use (its prominence in the last presidential campaign annoyed me so much that it still haunts me). For example, Sedaris read an essay lampooning that most hallowed of punching bags: airline travel. Specifically, Sedaris said he could never get used to the slovenly way Americans dress while traveling, and referred disdainfully to “eight-dollar T-shirts.”
But he redeems himself with his consciousness of his snobbery. For instance, he provides a hilarious description of a passenger at the airport waiting in line with his parents, his wife, and an infant, wearing his ginger-orange hair in beaded cornrows and a shirt distinguishing him as a “Real Motha Focka.” A woman in line next to Sedaris muttered, “typical,” under her breath to the author.
Sedaris’ reaction to the woman’s statement had his audience at the Civic Auditorium cracking up as he read: “I want to say, look, I agree with most of what you’re saying. But before we go any further, I need to know who you voted for in the last election. Because if this is just being petty and judgmental, that’s great, but if it’s part of a conservative agenda, I’ll have to switch sides and ally with the ‘Real Motha Focka.’”
The well-know online blog “Stuff White People Like,” now a book with the same name, satirizes Sedaris’ fans in an entry devoted to him. It says, “they will pay money to see someone read from a book they have already read.” For what it’s worth, Sedaris’ inclusion in “Stuff White People Like” was completely validated by the demographic of his audience Sunday night.
But much of his reading was of work yet to be published, and even short observations from his personal diary. Sedaris is shifting towards a new direction and writing fiction, in particular animal fables, which he says aren’t really fables because fables have morals. Instead, he calls his stories “bestiaries,” and read several at the auditorium. The tales are hilarious, and live up to the high standards Sedaris has set for himself. The stories are distinct from his past autobiographical work, with a certain sense of whimsy, and a humor that is often more based on plot than on descriptions like that of the airline passenger.
The personable Sedaris took breaks from his readings to chat with the audience, and was not afraid to touch on politics. He expressed nostalgia for the paranoid but entertaining fears of the evils inherent in socialized medicine, now that the debate over the health care bill has culminated in its passage. He talked of his experiences with health care in France, where he lives. This too, of course, was done in a sardonic manner, with Sedaris describing a French health care system that’s cheap and competent, but one in which your doctor asks you to go out to pick up some needle and thread for your own stitches — “and a Pepsi, if you get the chance.”
It’s just as well that Sedaris asserts his politics, because, whether he likes it or not, he is a partisan in the culture wars. Sedaris is a gay cosmopolitan with literary roots in the liberal bastion that is The New Yorker. Much of the humor in his breakthrough work “Me Talk Pretty One Day” is derived from his countercultural youth spent as a drug-using conceptual art student. Culturally, the left can’t help but embrace him as one of their own, and considering his wit, we’re lucky to have him.