David Sedaris knows his audience

Nov. 3, 2021, 1:10 a.m.

David Sedaris apparently doesn’t feel the need to introduce himself. If, on a drizzly Monday night, you’ve made the trek to San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House and proffered your $100 ticket to hear him read from a book you’ve probably already read, he’s assuming you know who he is.

Instead, to kick off BroadwaySF’s “An Evening with David Sedaris,” he walked onstage in an outfit that was half–sport coat, half–French maid dress (with some motel curtains layered in to boot) and said, “I know you’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, he looks …  amazing.’” The packed crowd roared in laughter.

Of course, this all happened a fashionable 15 minutes after the show’s slated start time. Perhaps the delay was to accommodate the stragglers fishing through their handbags for vaccine cards; perhaps it was simply to ratchet up the suspense. In any case, the holdup allowed me ample time to eavesdrop on neighboring audience members.

To my right, a pair of friends was discussing their love of horseback riding; to my left, a couple recounted their great pandemic travels. In the row in front of me, a man of a certain age was scrolling through Instagram. His feed was populated entirely by gray-haired heterosexual couples posing in formal attire — senior prom photos, one might call them. For each picture, he’d zoom in, examining the bowties, the dresses. Then, always choosing not to like the photo, he’d scroll to the next image.

All that to say: This was Sedaris’ key demographic — white, affluent, middle-aged, vaccinated — and, during the reading, they seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely.

Sedaris’ writing draws you in. The recurring characters of his essays — Hugh, Amy, Lisa — are mononymous; like Sedaris, they need no introduction because, through the intimacy of Sedaris’ storytelling, you are rendered his confidant. And, needless to say, as Sedaris’ confidant, you should know that Hugh is his partner, and Amy and Lisa his sisters.

If you’re not familiar with Sedaris’ biography or oeuvre, “An Evening with David Sedaris” is a bit like jumping into a TV show five seasons in — the plot points work and the jokes land, but there’s a feeling that everything would be more impactful if you’d tracked it all from the beginning. Still, it’s hard not to be swept up in his acerbic wit, which he applies even to the darkest of moments. Reading from the titular essay of his collection “Happy-Go-Lucky,” which will be released in June 2022, Sedaris recalled his father’s last words to him: “Don’t go yet. Don’t leave.” His last words to his father? “We need to get to the beach before the grocery stores close.”

Cutting through the audience’s shocked guffaws over these words, Sedaris continued: “They look cold on paper” — here the audience laughed even louder — “and when he dies, a few weeks later, and I realize they were the last words I said to him, I will think, Maybe I can warm them up onstage when I read this part out loud.” Sarcasm aside, Sedaris’ viva voce delivery — though not exactly warm — does, in fact, bring out the full jocularity of his compositions, which is not always evident in purely written form.

Sedaris’ keen eye not only finds humor in grief, but can rejuvenate even the most tired topics. In “The Vacuum,” another essay from his forthcoming book, he writes of the bare grocery store shelves at the outset of the pandemic, “First to vanish was the toilet paper, followed by the most obvious toilet paper substitutes: Kleenex, napkins and paper towels.” Then the kicker: “I remember looking long and hard at the coffee filters.” 

Sedaris’ selected readings encompassed the broad range of his comedic skill. In the pithy “A Better Place,” he asks, “Can we give the whole ‘looking down from Heaven’ bit a rest? … Sure about that, are you? Sure that there’s a Heaven … and that my long-dead mother can peer down from it and spot my brother, my sisters and me indoors, some of us with hats on, out of the eight billion other people on Earth, and without her glasses, because they weren’t with her in the box she was burned to ashes in?” Later, reading a diary entry from October 2021, he probed the town of Uranus, Mo., its famed Fudge Factory included, for all the juvenile jokes he could. The audience, relieved that Sedaris’ cultural capital permitted them to appreciate a series of such decidedly unintellectual puns, went into fits.

The moments Sedaris lost me — but, judging by their reactions, not most of his other patrons — were those in which the extent of his privilege came into unpleasant view. One anecdote saw Sedaris navigate a particularly annoying airport; the story appears as though it will culminate in his flight’s cancellation but actually ends with his boarding a lovely private jet. In another anecdote, also taking place on a plane, Sedaris clumsily attempts to engage with race: He comments on the “unnatural” eyebrows of his Black flight attendant — the one character throughout Sedaris’ entire reading who was racially marked. His initial observations veer into snideness (“I got the idea that a stencil had been involved”), but just as you think he’s about to unleash the unalloyed force of his signature misanthropic snark, he retreats and merely compliments the woman’s eyebrows.

In a recent interview with The New York Times Magazine, Sedaris noted, “If you have a character who’s Black and is not a virtuous character, the audience freaks out, because they think: If I laugh, does that make me a racist? If I don’t like this person, does that make me a racist? It’s something I’ve noticed for years. The audience freaks out, and it’s by and large a white audience freaking out, and it gets worse with every passing day.”

Sedaris knows his audience; last night, they chuckled nervously when he spoke about the flight attendant. And yet, in his literary treatment of the flight attendant, who, it should be noted, plays only a minor role in his narrative, it seems that he himself is unsure how to write about Black people — reluctant, perhaps, to write a Black character who is not entirely “virtuous.”

Sedaris ended the night back in a place of comfort — for both him and his audience — with a book recommendation. Virtually unprompted, he sang the praises of “Crossroads” by Jonathan Franzen, an author who could be characterized as the dramatist to Sedaris’ humorist in the field of white literature. The man in front of me pulled out his phone, closed out Instagram and typed “crossroads book” into Safari. He traced his fingers along the Wikipedia summary and nodded.

After the show ended, audience members lined up to get their books signed. I heard a woman say that she was getting hers inscribed to her son, an aspiring creative writer. “He’s only 14, but he’s already got an eye for the absurd,” she said.

“He’s struggling in math though,” she added somberly.

I studied this line — a sea of white faces, each one eager to impress their favorite author with a joke of their own. I considered how much they knew about Sedaris; how little he knew about them; how, through his writing, he had invited them into his life. And, again surveying these readers — their diction, their mannerisms, their homogeneity — I wondered if invitation necessarily engendered disinvitation, and if intimacy and exclusivity went hand-in-hand. 

Jared Klegar ’24 writes for Arts & Life and co-chairs the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team. An English major, dangling modifiers are among his biggest pet peeves. Contact him at jklegar 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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