Review of David
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/17/06
I have listened to some of David Sedaris’s work on public radio, seen him on several occasions on PBS, and once saw him in person at a Twin Cities outlet for comedians. And one thing always ran through my mind. Given that he was, at best, marginally funny, in that way that Big Gay Al from South Park is, was whatever humor was gleaned from his arid observations a thing innate within the work, or merely a product of his personae?
Having now read Naked, a book of so-called essays, although ‘autobiographical fiction’ is a better term, I have my answer. Sedaris is just not a funny writer. Yes, a mild teehee might escape every twenty-second page, but humor is not his forte. He is no Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, Jean Shepherd, nor even a Kurt Vonnegut nor Woody Allen, much less a Dave Barry. His pieces are remarkably dull, and uneven. And, if you are wondering why I believe the term ‘autobiographical fiction’ better applies to his work than ‘essays’ it is because in any number of the seventeen published pieces within the details of Sedaris’s life do not cohere. They are made use of in ways that contradict the claims of other pieces. This is not a flaw in the work as a whole, nor any of the individual pieces, but does point up a shortcoming in the marketing of his work.
As for that work, ho hum. Here is what passes for humor in the beginning of the book’s first piece, Chipped Beef:
I’m thinking of asking the servants to wax my change before placing it in the Chinese tank I keep on my dresser. It’s important to have clean money- not new, but well maintained. That’s one of the tenets of my church. It’s not mine personally, but the one I attend with my family: the Cathedral of the Sparkling Nature. It’s that immense Gothic building with the towers and bells and statues of common people poised to leap from the spires. They offer tours and there’s an open house the first Sunday of every October. You should come! Just don’t bring your camera because the flash tends to spook the horses, which is a terrible threat to me and my parents, seeing as the reverend insists that we occupy the first pew. He rang us up not long ago, tipsy- he’s a tippler- saying that our faces brought him nearer to God. And it’s true, we’re terribly good-looking people….
Now, no point emerges from the tale. It’s just an excuse for Sedaris to prattle on self-consciously. And, given a high-pitched, fey voice, there can be some humor found in what is said. But, just lying flat on a white page, this is not good writing. The first two sentences set up the speaker as gay, with an almost obsessive-compulsive like disorder (which Sedaris claims to suffer from). This is supposed to be funny, but humor requires something familiar put into a different context, and one that makes a bit of sense. In short, to paraphrase from the Woody Allen film Crimes And Misdemeanors, ‘If it bends it’s funny, if it breaks it’s not funny.’ This reference breaks, and is just odd. The third sentence tries to expand on the initial attempt at humor, while also slyly digging at organized religion. I’m all for this, of course, but bad religion jokes do not serve any purpose, save reveal their humorist’s lack. This leads into the next sentence, which, with Sedaris having failed to make funny on the opening, nor extrapolation, only exacerbates the grating attempt at humor. I guess ‘the Cathedral of the Sparkling Nature’ can be enunciated in a funny way, or is a sly shot at New Age beliefs, but it puizzles, more than amuses. The next reference, to suicides, comes out of nowhere. So, the piece has some poorly connected and unfunny notions and images that when juxtaposed, are supposed to be funny. Imagine me saying ‘wombat, Ronald Reagan, telekinesis, Mission: Impossible, Truman Capote’. Are you giggling yet?
He continues by starting, ‘They offer tours and there’s an open house the first Sunday of every October. You should come!’, with emphasis added by the exclamation point. I guess a high-pitched whine could be funny read aloud, but the words themselves have little humor. Why is it funny that the New Age church of suicides offers tours on a specific date? Perhaps one should be thankful this didn’t go to Looney Tunes length, in Rube Goldbergianly describing describing the open house being held on every fisrt Sunday of October when swallows flock to Monterrey and an old Mexican scratches his ass in view of a goat! Then, we get another asides, and a drunken priest’s revelation, which allows for Sedaris to add a stereotypically ‘gay moment’ of self-congratulation.
In truth, this portion of the opening piece’s opening paragraph sets the tone for the whole book. You needn’t really read on. Yes, there are the strained catholic jokes- like later in the first piece:
‘You have how many children in your family?’, the teachers would ask. ‘I’m guessing you must be Catholic. Am I right?’
A real gutbuster, ain’t it? Not that there are no good premises for stories. In Cyclops the piece opens with two accidents, Sedaris’s father shooting a BB gun at a boy, causing him to lose one of his eyes, and Sedaris’s suister nearly blinding him with a sharp pencil to his eye. But, nothing is really done with this set up, save to allow Sedaris’s father to be portrayed as a paranoid maniac who makes scenes, such as this one:
I cower as he marches into posh grocery stores, demanding to speak to the manager. ‘Back home I can get this exact same cantaloupe for less than half this price,’ he says. The managers invariably suggest that he do just that. He screams at waiters and cuts in line at tony restaurants. ‘I have a friend,’ I tell him, ‘Who lost his right arm snapping his fingers at a waiter.’
‘Oh, you kids,’ he says. ‘Not a one of you has got so much as a teaspoon of gumption. I don’t know where you got it from, but in the end, it’s going to kill you.’
Still not rolling tears down your cheeks? If you sense that Sedaris is one of those snobby brie eaters whose idea of humor is merely pointing at an overweight construction worker and sighing knowingly, you’re correct. In C.O.G. he picks apples and meets born-again Christians in Oregon. In A Plague of Tics Sedaris rolls out his strange behaviors as a child: such as licking lightswitches, and hitting himself with a shoe. Something For Everyone is an extended whine about being unemployed and watching too much tv, which is not so much funny as sad, despite Sedaris’s obliviousness to the fact, while I Like Guys and Ashes seem to find humor in merely being gay. Ashes opens:
The moment I realized I would be a homosexual for the rst of my life, I forced my brother and sisters to sign a contract swearing they’d never get married. There was a clause allowing them to live with anyone of their choice, just so long as they never made it official.
It gets no funnier, people- not in that piece, nor the whole book, despite Sedaris’s attempts to leaven that piece with the death of his mother. And there is no depth to the observations. It’s sort of like the many PC writers whose only claim to ‘originality’ is that they’re the first person from some particular group to write the same old boring tale about lovers in trouble or a trip with a stupid relative. Sedaris should actually be a gag writer for late night tv, not a published, and lauded, author. Perhaps he deserved his Obie Award as a playwright, but his essays, autobiographical fiction, or what not, is flat as a day old opened can of store brand cream soda. Get my specificity? (wink, nod) Part of the problem with Sedaris is that his humor is never cruel. It is always glancing, and shallow. The best of humor flows from the humorist’s deep need and/or desire to be cruel, but in a socially acceptable way. Twain and Mencken loathed their enemies, but made them buffoonishy lovable, to a degree- as does Woody Allen , at his best. Sedaris is simply too nice, and, most likely, simply not talented enough a wordsmith to do so. Thus, his need to flame their delivery to garner any laughs.
Rather than a published author he should be pitching third rate sitcom ideas to twenty-five year old smart-ass Hollywood producers. That is his true Peter Principled level, for he is a tiresome, repetitive writer, with little talent for boiling down moments to their essentials- be they funny, deep, or tragic. And there is no need for me to elaborate any further. Is there? I said, ‘Is there?’ [Cue the canned laughter]
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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