On the shelf
By David Sedari
Small, Brown: 272 pages, $29
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Author and comedian David Sedaris loves his job, which after all involves making people laugh for a living, but that doesn’t mean he cares too much about offending people. Though the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to take the longest touring break he’s had in his decades-long career, Sedaris, 65, has returned to theaters across the country since last fall. He admits that he likes to have “a mix of laughs,” including the particular kind that comes out of shock: “It’s a laugh that doesn’t sound like any other laugh. I love listening to it every night.”
When I spoke to the writer on the phone about his new collection, “Happy-Go-Lucky”, my laughter spanned the entire spectrum; I could build an entire taxonomy of laughter and giggles just from the call. The topics themselves didn’t seem inherently funny: family deaths, Black Lives Matter, Twitter fights, Balthus paintings, waiting in line at Starbucks. but you will sedate it is funny, invariably. That’s his gift.
It’s hard to have it right now. Comics are being attacked on stage (Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle) or accused of “bashing” vulnerable populations (Ricky Gervais, Dave Chappelle again). The alleged right to offend is highly subject to debate.
“Happy-Go-Lucky” is a snapshot of Sedaris’s life in the final years of the Trump administration, rendered in shadow and light. Even amid the overwhelming darkness of the pandemic, a summer of unrest, and the death of a father for whom she still has complicated feelings, Sedaris never loses her wits or opportunity. She shared her thoughts with The Times on the latest pandemic tour, generational shifts, her own Twitter backlash and whether any topics are off limits.
How does it feel to be back on tour?
I went to 74 cities in the fall and felt very different than now. In the fall, many movie theaters started a shot check, so conservatives said, “Fuck you, I’m never going back to your theater!” Then, in the spring, many of those same theaters canceled their shot checks, causing liberals to say, “Fuck you, I’m never going to your theater again!” I mean, the poor theaters were just trying to survive, and they’ve managed to piss everyone off.
What do you like so much about touring?
Attention. I also think it allows me to be my best self. I am my kindest, most attentive, alert and kind self when I am on tour. I know it’s weird to say those things about you, but I feel like that’s when I’m at my best. But it’s also a great way to talk to people.
You are known for interacting with fans for hours; You seem to have a genuine interest in people.
Yes. But more than that, I just remember what it’s like to be on that side of the table. I remember going to get a book signing, and they don’t look at you, they don’t talk to you, and you feel a little betrayed. Here you invested yourself in this person and the writing of it, and they didn’t even bother to acknowledge that you are a person. I think about it. I don’t want anyone to feel like this.
And yet, things seem jumpy out there. Dave Chappelle was attacked during a set.
Someone ran onto the stage after my commencement speech. [included in the book as “A Speech to the Graduates”] and tried to attack me. But he was apparently the father of the only conservative student in the school. He didn’t like the priest’s joke. All these security people were holding him back while he was still struggling to get to me.
You traffic in a pretty dark mood. With lines always shifting on what’s acceptable, do you worry about offending people?
I just have to allow myself to be the judge. The fact that one in a thousand people does not like something is not enough consensus to get rid of it. He had a story about a woman who went on a date with this guy. He had never been married. She asked him why. He said, “I think you could say I’m afraid of the c-word.” He leaned across the table and said, “H-?” He said, “No, engagement.” So to me, that’s a good use of the word.
Well, a woman came up to me and slapped a piece of paper on my book signing desk and said, “Here’s the address where you can send my letter of apology for using that word on stage.” I thought, “I’m not going to write you an apology letter and I’m not going to stop reading this.” The theater burst into laughter, but one person doesn’t like it, so I’m going to get rid of it? It’s not like he told a joke about people with no legs, and you don’t have legs, so it made you feel singled out.
“Fresh-Caught Haddock”, from his new collection, focuses on the Black Lives Matter protests. Was there a part of you that cared to address that?
Many people would say that the last thing we need is a middle-aged white man speaking out on Black Lives Matter, but we all live in that summer. Everyone has a story to tell about it. I am not telling a story from the point of view of a black person. I’m not talking about the discrimination I faced. I’m not trying to make it about me. But everyone lived through that period, and we all have a story to tell, and I insisted that mine was just as valid as anyone else’s. And there are many things to make fun of. It is like fruit that fell from a tree and rotted on the ground. Is no one going to pick this up?
Do you think there are topics that are not suitable for humor?
No, not really. I think time is a problem. But now I have a real problem with this “hitting” idea. I don’t think anything should be off limits to humor if it’s funny. But then again, there’s a way to do it, a time to do it, and you have to think about those things.
A couple of years ago I would ask the audience for jokes. He said, “I don’t listen to gay jokes, and I know you have them. You’re just not telling me. someone said: [He retells an audience member’s tasteless joke that we, admittedly, both laugh at.] That’s horrible, but it’s a good joke. I always feel like if it’s a good joke, you have to take your hat off.
You mention in “An Address to the Graduates” that you should “choose one thing to be terribly, terribly offended about, this instead of the dozens or possibly hundreds that many of you are currently juggling.” Why do you think we are juggling so many?
The Internet. If I said something on the radio in 1992 that you didn’t like, you would write me a letter. But then you went to the stamp drawer and realized you only had one stamp left. You’d think, “Am I going to use that on my electric bill or am I going to complain that this person just said ‘retarded’ on the radio?” You would go with the electricity bill. But now it’s free to complain.
A Twitter mob came after me a couple of years ago for something I did on “cbs sunday morning.” She had written about atrocious customer service. It was pretty clear that it had happened 10 years ago. I never read the comments, but my editor told me that he was saying that he was trying to lay off essential workers during the pandemic. How essential are you if you were selling cups and saucers in a gallery in London 10 years ago? Or if you worked as a lifeguard at the YMCA for eight years? But he asked me, who are these people who comment? Although I didn’t wonder enough to look at anything they had written, and I certainly didn’t wonder enough to answer them.
How would you respond to someone who said that in early books like “SantaLand Diaries” you have more of a working-class sensibility, siding with the retail worker, while in “CBS Sunday Morning” you show the privilege of your now richer? life?
People said, “You’re so entitled,” but these were two egregious cases of lousy customer service, and anyone would have recognized them as such. I have every right to call them. How much money I have or don’t have has nothing to do with it.
You also say to those graduates in the speech, “However, don’t ask to have a Balthus painting removed of the Met because you can see the subject’s underpants. The goal is to have less in common with the Taliban, no more.” If you think our culture is becoming more repressive, how do you think we can overcome that?
Make it compulsory for 12 and 13 year old girls to appear naked in public all the time, and then we’ll get used to it. I mean, I don’t know.
One of the undertones of his work is honesty. You really can’t run from your thoughts, no matter how evil they may be. We all have these bad thoughts, I think.
I am convinced that everyone is like that in their head. When I’m at Starbucks and there’s someone at the front of the line who hesitates. Or they have a child and say, “Well, what your wish?” “Oh you do I know what a cappuccino is! No one in that line is like, “Oh, I wish I had a kid so I could do that.” Everyone is thinking, “This horrible bitch needs to hurry up.” We don’t say, but…
Like today, my plane landed at 3 o’clock. I thought I’d be home at 3:30 but I didn’t get there until 4:30 because there was an accident. When we went through that accident, I thought, “Fuck you for having an accident and leaving me sitting in traffic for an hour!” But I don’t say it!
One thing I love about your work is that it allows our inner lives to be mean, messy, or complicated.
Part of me thought I needed to end the book with the “Happy-Go-Lucky” essay. My father dies, and it’s kind of a lovely essay, it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. But, as you say, it’s complicated. So I go ahead and write another essay where I say, “I think I’m going to miss him the same way I missed colds during the pandemic.” People say, “Wait a minute! You just said you wanted to see him again, but now you feel that way? Yes.
You seem to be in conflict with many things in the book.
I always feel like the right person could challenge my way of thinking about anything. If I sat next to the right person, maybe I could listen to them as they explain why Trump was a good president. Of course, this has never happened, but I’m not going to close myself off to the right person to make a good argument. If someone is in my face about something, then I’m going to shut down. But I want to be able to listen to people. To be honest, I’m not convinced I’m right about anything.
I also think that selfishly you don’t want to finish things. There are certain things you want to finish. If someone was poking you with a sharp stick, you would want to end it. But once I got into a car and started talking to the driver. He said, “They told me I’m not allowed to talk to you.” I called my agent and asked, “Did you say that?” He said, “Well, you were complaining about a driver you had a few days ago.” I said, “You can’t legislate this kind of thing.” I was complaining about the other driver, but I got a nice diary entry. It was annoying, but not so annoying that I wanted to stop it. I don’t want to end things.
Malone is a writer in Southern California.
Sedaris will talk about “Happy-Go-Lucky” at vroman’s house in Pasadena on June 6 at 6 p.m.