Symphony Hall, Boston
April 2, 2023
I have had the pleasure to read, and mostly listen to, the many books of the talented and compelling David Sedaris, but never had the pleasure of hearing and seeing him in person. I’m glad I did. He’s engaging, informal and spontaneous, and he tried out new material which happened to be hilarious.
Apart from reading several new, and quite long, pieces, Sedaris incorporated a couple of extra tidbits. As a lead-in, he introduced a former writing student of his who is now a published author of works in the same genre – very straightforward, autobiographical accounts that happen to be extremely funny. Her name is Cindy House and her new book is Mother Noise and I certainly intend to read it. In addition to offering wonderful passages like her own fear of being a frazzled insomniac writing with impostor syndrome, or her son’s reflection that you and my Mom are like an old lesbian couple who make their own water, she recounted a trip to her son’s school and to a reading of his own writing. Her account of being a mother to this child for whom she played classical music when he was in the womb, and then, as a teenager, who became a fan of bands with names like Carcass and Decapitated Cattle, was poignant, true to life, and also very funny.
Sedaris took over with a new essay entitled The Doctor Is In which, as with many of his essays, started in one place and transparently jumped from there to any number of other locations, all seemingly connected through his ironic lens. What starts as an account of eating alone in a restaurant to reflecting on new “categories of infraction” posited by some in the contemporary world, identified as emotional incest and non-contact sex abuse. If a mother asks her child does this dress look ok? it can now, through a lens in the Sedariverse, be considered equivalent to finger fucking my mind.
Immediately, he transitions to a short series of visits to a psychiatrist whom he calls Frieda – not my idea as he puts it – years ago when he was with an earlier boyfriend. Somehow a recollection of a spontaneous call from Roseanne Barr to Sedaris works its way into the story at this point and then moves seamlessly to a reflection he undertakes with his sister Amy (Sedaris) who often acts as his complicit foil, and her response to his therapy: Oh, I hate feelings. Too funny. It goes on and on, but cleverly and wonderfully, with Sedaris talking about how good looking his boyfriend was and how even the therapist acknowledged that he was gorgeous. Here is where Sedaris gave a little extra insight into his life as a writer, and talked a bit about how strict his own writing schedule is: I stayed home and wrote and he went out. He then observed that his current and long-time boyfriend Hugh was also very good looking but had a novelist father and was used to being around people who wrote, which worked better.
His revelations about writing expanded with a piece that started with describing his move to New York City in 1990 and taking a class at the Y on comedy writing. His teacher there – whom he also referred to as Frieda – corrected Sedaris’ early misapprehensions about what humor entailed and it seems to have stood well by him: the only rule of comedy is to be as tasteless as possible. That is only partially true of Sedaris, who manages to get enough zingers out there to unsettle the crowd, but who also has a touching and sweet way of doing it.
Somehow this morphed into Sedaris talking about people who were too delicate for their own good – who are these hothouse flowers? People whose parents never hit them – and took off into a whole thing about getting slapped as a kid. The coup de grace was his describing how his mother – it was a family of six children – came in at one point and hit his sister Gretchen who was stunned and asked why did you hit me? to which their mother replied oh, wrong kid!. This is classic Sedaris, merging together some difficult revelations about his own past with a seasoned amount of appreciation for what, in some of its dark but funny aspects, made him the kind of writer he became.
For those interested, some of those distinctively darker episodes, particularly related to Sedaris’ relation with his father, are recounted in his recent book Happy Go Lucky. Sedaris, at this reading, did not draw from that nor talk about it.
All the way along there are memorable lines. In talking about how kids are treated with kid gloves these days, he says now children are like animals with no natural predators. So true, so funny. It was a response to being in a restaurant in which parents of young children were letting them run wild without thinking of the other patrons. It was really the parents who needed to be hit was Sedaris’ comment – tasteless, tactless and funny as hell.
Another long piece entitled Friendly Face concerned an encounter – really a pseudo mugging – on a Manhattan street in which Sedaris was pursued by a guy whose attentions he wanted to avoid. After some harassing, Sedaris said he told the guy I need some time along to think through everything you said to me and walked off; he said the guy seemed to buy it. This was followed by an account of a woman – perhaps a prostitute – who was none too shy about saying to Sedaris: want some of this pussy? and then proceeding to fondle, push, and envelop him. She was everywhere at once, like an octopus, he assessed. Again, tasteless but hilarious.
A series of short diary entries formed the next part of the evening, with one hilarity after the next. A couple of these tidbits… At a signing in London, a mother with a child who asks the mother what are those holes? and she responds by describing what an anus and a vagina were. No, I meant those holes in the wall!. Too funny.
In what evidences as Sedaris’ great capacity as a gag writer, he tells a joke from a book event in Tempe, Arizona: a woman tells her husband she’s impressed by the fact that she’s heard about women in the area who get $100 every time they have sex and was thinking of doing it. Her husband responds: well, ok, but I’m interested to see how you get along on $200 a year. Again, hilarious drawing a huge laugh from the audience.
At the very end, Sedaris, in keeping with another tradition he has developed during his readings, highlighted a book of someone else’s that he was reading. In this case it was On Animals by Susan Orlean. After a few funny observations about how a mayor of a town in which he had just been reading looked like a dog – perhaps a pug or something similar – and how camels and alpacas turn out to be assholes, he remarked that he loved this book and also recommended the audio book which Orlean reads.
Both the earlier highlighting of Cindy House’s work and this highlighting of Orlean’s are indicative of a deferent and generous side of Sedaris. That certainly comes through in all sorts of way as a lovely complement to his sometimes mercilessly pointed outspokenness, making for an intriguing and appealing blend.
Sedaris encouraged all who were going to come get his book and autograph to jump in at the beginning of the line if they bought House’s book as well, another indication of this generosity. Indeed, the line that formed later for the signing was immense and snaked through several corridors of Symphony Hall.
Overall: very much worth it to go hear Sedaris in person if you get the chance, and check out the books by Cindy House, who is also very funny, and Susan Orlean.
– BADMan (aka Charles Munitz)
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