Before he landed his popular monthly spot on National Public Radio, published two bestsellers and penned scripts for productions at Lincoln Center, David Sedaris’ r?sum? looked like that of a high school dropout: House cleaner. Restaurant dishwasher. Fruit picker. Paint stripper. Furniture mover.
Honest, unromantic and laden with dirt, Sedaris’ writing is much like his work history. His stories are characterized by an unrelenting humor that is colloquial, smart-ass and brilliantly understated. His style complements his knack for spinning sex and fecal matter into story lines, touching on all that is politically incorrect and socially taboo. Sedaris will read at Lisner Auditorium Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.
Sedaris premiered on NPR’s Morning Edition in 1993 reading excerpts from personal journals. His first segment, which elicited a huge listener response, lifted vignettes from SantaLand Diaries – reflections on Sedaris’ stint as a Christmas elf named Crumpet at the Macy’s store on 34th Street in New York.
“There was a line for Santa and a line for the women’s bathroom, and one woman, after asking me a dozen questions already, asked `Which is the line for the women’s bathroom?'” Sedaris told listeners. “I shouted that I thought it was the line with all the women in it. She said, `I’m going to have you fired.’ . I wanted to lean over and say, `I’m going to have you killed.'”
On the air, 42-year-old Sedaris, who spent much of his childhood in the South, sounds like a New York teenager with a perpetual cold. His voice weaves story and commentary together. He draws from his close observation of daily experience and portrays life’s depressing and hilarious aspects as inseparable.
During one radio segment, Sedaris recounted a scene of divorced fathers talking to their children while looking at the polar bear display at the Central Park Zoo.
“They (the fathers) say `Did you see that! The mother bear is saying to her husband get away you! I’ve got problems of my own. All he does is try to make her happy and she doesn’t appreciate it because she’s too caught up in her own little world to understand that he has problems too.'”
A slim portion of Sedaris’ radio work appears in Barrel Fever, his 1994 published debut. The collection of stories and essays written in the first person ventures into crudely explicit territory that is less suited for radio. Darker and denser, this small volume established Sedaris as more than a witty comic – as a kind of twisted sociologist.
“Parade,” Barrel Fever‘s opening piece, assumes the voice of a loud and flamboyant homosexual man who has dumped Charlton Heston, turned down Bruce Springsteen and just walked out on Mike Tyson. After accidentally swallowing Tyson’s dentures one night, the couple waits for days, hoping the false teeth will pass. “Mike said, what the hell, it wasn’t like his teeth hadn’t been up my ass before,” the narrator remarks. “But it was the principle of the thing that got me down.”
“The Last You’ll Here From Me,” a suicide/instructional note from teenager Trish Moody, proclaims, “you’re probably shaking your heads and thinking there’s plenty of people a lot worse than Trish Moody. There’s her former excuse for a boyfriend, Randy Sykes, for example. The boyfriend who, after Trish accidentally backed her car over his dog, practically beat her senseless. He beat her with words, but still, it might as well have been with his fists.”
Whereas Barrel Fever has Sedaris mouthing the idiosyncratic and insane tales of fictional characters under the visage of the first person, his collection of stories in 1997’s Naked is autobiographical. Reliving his childhood in the South, Sedaris’ work captures a uniquely abnormal youth experience that is strangely familiar in its deviance and dysfunction. Before giving out Christmas presents a couple of years ago, the author made his family members sign a waiver stating they wouldn’t sue him over the book’s material.
Naked includes accounts of Sedaris’ sister’s first period on a golf course and his mother’s death from lung cancer. Cyclops tells of the fear Sedaris’ father instilled in his children about potentially dangerous tasks and games. He once told young David of a friend who caught his leg on a lawnmower blade and drove 20 miles to the hospital with his foot in his lap. “Regardless of the heat, I mowed the lawn wearing long pants, knee-high boots, a football helmet, and a pair of goggles,” Sedaris quipped.
The stories in Naked twist into real-life fables with Sedaris imparting some wisdom in each concluding moral.
In addition to his radio appearances and two best sellers, Sedaris writes regularly for The New Yorker and has a collection of Christmas-inspired stories entitled Holidays on Ice. More recently he collaborated with his sister under the name The Talent Family and wrote several plays that were produced off-Broadway and at Lincoln Center.
Sedaris will read new work Wednesday at Lisner Auditorium. Tickets cost $19.50 and $9.50 for students with a valid GW ID.