The stress of midterms and last minute pre-Thanksgiving break to-do lists seemed to fade as David Sedaris stepped on stage in the Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center (PAC) on Nov. 14.
When the lights dimmed, Sedaris walked out wearing what looked like a plaid skirt.
“This is not a skirt,” he said. “It’s a culotte.”
Sedaris is a humor essay writer and has been crowned by numerous reviewers as one of America’s best satirists. He has sold more than 10 million copies of his work and is a regular correspondent for The New Yorker. In between writing books, Sedaris also tours.
Sedaris started his Cal Poly show by reading “Letter from Santa’s mailbag,” a story he wrote for his BBC Holiday Special this December.
The story focused on Kirk, a seven-year-old boy whose mother married an abusive recovering drug addict named Cornelius. Kirk wrote a letter to Santa to thank him for his Christmas present. The letter seemed to be full of wholesome holiday spirit straight from the heart of a child.
That is, until Sedaris revealed that Kirk met “Santa,” an old, fat man with tattoos and a piercing, who offered Kirk a ride home. During the ride, Kirk shared his feelings of hatred for his stepfather with “Santa.”
The story ends with Cornelius dead on the floor and Kirk saying that “He could’ve tried harder to breathe, but that’s what Cornelius was. A quitter.” Kirk thanked “Santa” for the best Christmas gift he could have ever received.
Sedaris usually writes memoirs and satire about his life experiences, so it was interesting to hear a simple comedic story in which he wasn’t the protagonist.
Next, Sedaris returned to familiar territory, simultaneously mixing humor with sentiment in a story about his family at their beach house in Emerald Isle, North Carolina. He fondly named the house “Sea Section.”
The story started with David Sedaris describing his sister Amy Sedaris and her interest in astrology. Whenever she met someone, she would ask them when their birthday was and say things like, “Ah, Gemini. That makes sense.” Her interest in astrology encouraged her to see a psychic, which is where the story took a sorrowful turn.
Amy came back from seeing the psychic and told David that she had seen Tiffany Sedaris, their sister who had committed suicide years earlier. Amy told David that Tiffany wanted him to know “she’s not mad anymore” and that “she’s been working on herself.”
“She’s not mad?” David said, indignantly. “I’m the one who should be mad!”
David then segued to a question someone on his radio show asked him: “If Tiffany was in front of you right now, what would you ask her?”
There was pin-drop silence in the room as the audience held their breath, waiting for a punch line they knew he was about to deliver.
“Can I have that $6,000 I loaned you?”
Beneath all the humor in the story lies the denial and self-realization that David can skillfully portray.
“The psychic only tells us what we want to hear,” he said.
David said that he partly blamed himself for his sister’s death. When she was alive, he would think, “She’s not my problem. Not when she was raped. Not when she was hospitalized after trying to kill herself the first time.” David’s family helped reassure him by claiming that this behavior was typical of Tiffany.
When David talked about this, his voice invited the audience into his innermost thoughts and his deepest regrets at what seemed like the exact time he realized them himself.
Each of his essays, no matter how comical or satirical, holds a sense of vulnerability that followed him throughout his life. Reading his self-awareness in his books is a completely different experience from hearing it through his voice. Something about the little catch in his throat as he ended the story brought heart-wrenching emotion into a story that was otherwise filled with belly-aching laughs.
The highlight of the night was the end of David’s performance when he was reading a few of his diary entries, which he started writing in 1977. He talked about everything, from a one-handed man folding laundry at a laundromat to advice he gave a young Muslim boy in Texas: “Accept Jesus as your savior.”
“I heard something completely fucked up and realized it was coming out of my mouth,” David said about the exchange.
Though the audience mostly consisted of people older than 30, David’s work is so diverse in his juxtaposition of humor and sorrow and so attuned to human nature that it could appeal to the younger generations, too.
David’s work is characterized by his two selves, his personal self and the one he allows people to see. His second self is one he controls; he can make his drug addiction seem “cute” and can describe his sister’s suicide light-heartedly. Beneath his wit, humor and satirical tone is an understanding of and a compassion for human nature: the good, the bad and the ugly.