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How I Made It in Comedy: David Sedaris

"In the great scheme of things, the way I exaggerate in a story is the way I exaggerate in life. It’s no different. That’s just the person I am and always have been."

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In the late 80s and early 90s, David Sedaris was an Art Institute graduate living in Chicago, trying to figure out what to do with his life. After seeing him read at a Milly's Orchid Show, Ira Glass, then with NPR, asked Sedaris if he had any Christmas-themed essays. As it turns out, he did: the soon-to-be-legendary "SantaLand Diaries," which chronicled his experience as an elf at Macy's.

Sedaris became a regular on NPR, a relationship that continued when Glass launched This American Life in 1995. Sedaris began contributing to magazines, such as Harper's and Esquire, and not long thereafter he was signed by Little, Brown, which led to several critically acclaimed and best-selling essay collections.

There have been a few attempts to discredit Sedaris—a March 2007 exposé in the New Republic asserted that he fabricated or exaggerated many details in his stories—but he remains as popular as ever. The only person who may not buy into the David-Sedaris-as-comedy-superstar hype is Sedaris himself. The author, who now lives in England and France with his partner Hugh Hamrick, had to be talked into quitting his day job as an apartment cleaner in the mid–90s, apparently unimpressed with his skyrocketing book sales. Even today, he occasionally admits to missing the minimum-wage grunt work.

You began writing somewhat later in life. How old were you?

I started writing in a diary when I was 20 years old, but I didn't write a story until I was 27. I recently spoke to my first writing teacher about that story, and he said, "I remember that piece! That was such a great parody of Raymond Carver!"

You know, it wasn't meant as a parody. I worked on that first story so hard that I just thought, Well, no one will be able to tell how heavily influenced I am by Raymond Carver.

Where did this sudden interest in reading and writing come from? It just suddenly appeared when you hit your 20s?

It just came one day. When I was in high school, I would read the assigned books, but it never meant much. I remember having to read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I hated it. I had to force myself through that book—just awful.

Years later, when I was picking apples in the northwest, I found myself with time on my hands. There was no entertainment. Absolutely none. I was just living in these fruit camps and was constantly working—that was it. And it was at this point that I started to read Kurt Vonnegut and other authors. If I liked a book, I'd look at what author blurbed it, and I'd go and read their book. One book led to another, which led to another, which led to another.

I think that it was helpful for me that I dropped out of college at 19 and took some time off from school. I had gone to Western Carolina for a year, and I then made it through two-thirds of a year at Kent State. I ultimately left college, and I didn't come back for seven years. So when I finally returned to school, I was a lot older than the other undergraduates. I had had some experience by that point, and I think that helped with the writing.

To be honest, though, I can't read any of my early work now. Actually, I can't even read what I wrote ten years ago, I'm so embarrassed by it.

Ten years ago? Does that include your book Naked?

Oh, yeah.

What about it bothers you?

It's too densely written. It's trying too hard. The way that the sentences are put down on paper just bothers me.

I was lazy in certain ways. Years ago I wrote a story about my French teacher ["Me Talk Pretty One Day"]. I described how she threw chalk at her students. She used to get up in our faces and mock us. I wrote a story about her, but it never occurred to me that she would actually read it. Someone at the French school read the story when it was published in Esquire and showed it to the teacher—and it became my worst nightmare.

I really did like this teacher; all of the students liked her. Even though she threw chalk, she did care about us. But it was much easier to turn her into a monster. To have made her human would have been more complicated for me, and more difficult. It would have just contradicted most readers' ideas about French people. It was easier to make her a cliche—it was less work.

What was her reaction?

She felt betrayed and really hurt. I cringe every time I think about it. If I could take it back, I would. She contacted me, because the school was giving her trouble. So, I had to write a letter to the head of the school and say that she was a really good teacher and I was just kidding and so on.

I don't even go into that neighborhood anymore, I'm so afraid of running into her. And if I did run into her, she'd have every right to spit in my face.

I used to exaggerate a lot more than I needed to. So when I needed readers to believe me, they didn't. Again, it was easier.

Specifically, what do you mean by "exaggerate"?

I guess that's what I meant by "trying too hard." Just this feeling that every character in a book, every little character that I ran across in my life, had to be of equal size and importance to each of the other characters.

Can you give me an example?

I wrote a story called "The Incomplete Quad." I did hitchhike from Ohio to North Carolina with a quadriplegic. But did the quadriplegic ask my father for his belt? No.

So, just little things like that. And if I had to write that story again, I would not exaggerate so much.

The word "exaggerate" might be the one that bothers certain critics.

In the great scheme of things, the way I exaggerate in a story is the way I exaggerate in life. It's no different. That's just the person I am and always have been.

I'm reading a book now called Foreskin's Lament by Shalom Auslander, who's such a good writer. The book is very funny. There's a scene in which the main character is walking with his family to synagogue on a Saturday afternoon, and the character describes a brown Impala passing them.

After I read this description, I imagined that some readers might ask, "How did the author remember that it was an Impala? And how did he remember it was brown?" There are people to whom that's a big question. Now, me personally, I don't give a fuck. I don't care if the car was brown, I don't care if the car was an Impala, I don't even care if it really happened. It's a good story that I'm caught up in. I just don't tend to think in that way.

If the author were to write, "I think the car passed us, but I don't remember what it looked like," well, you can only write that so many times before the reader or listener is going to think, What is all this?

It's like telling a story to friends and saying, "God, what's that person's name? I don't remember that person's name. Shit! I just don't remember his name! Anyway, so I introduced him to, Oh damn it! She's the one who works at the movie theater." You can't hold an audience by telling a story like that.

The New Republic also implied that because you're now writing for the New Yorker, and being fact-checked by their notoriously exacting standards, you no longer feel you can get away with some of your crazier details.

I definitely don't insert as many crazy details. And, in a way, that's good. Most of the time, the truth is so unbelievable that adding to it only makes readers think, Wait a minute—OK, I don't believe this anymore. If a reader is stopped by that, well, then you've got a problem.

But I have no problem with fact-checkers. In the case of the New Yorker, the fact-checkers work with me and not against me. They're not sneaking around behind my back and calling my elementary-school principal. It's done in a different spirit.

But to be fact-checked too much . . . well, sometimes that ruins the humor. I wrote a piece for the New Yorker about my family collecting art ["Suitable for Framing"]. I had a line about a painting costing as much as the average person pays in car insurance. The fact-checker asked, "How much does the painting cost?" I told him, and he called back and said, "That's more than the average person pays."

And I said, "OK. Then insert, 'The average epileptic.' " He called back and said, "You'd have to change that to 'epileptics in Connecticut,' because Connecticut has the highest rate of insurance for epileptics."

Then it becomes a paragraph about car rates. To me, it was just a throwaway line. And there goes the humor.

Do you write differently for the page, as opposed to writing for radio or for a live event?

That's one difference between me now and ten or 15 years ago. I'm just about to go on tour for a month, and I have about 50 new pages to read out loud. After each show, I'll go back to the hotel and rewrite. I'll do this throughout the tour. With Naked, or any of the books or stories before that, I wasn't reading out loud—and I paid the price. When the Naked book tour happened, I read some of those stories out loud, and I remember thinking, Man! When did I expect myself to breathe? Why did I not listen to my editor? Why did I not cut that part out?

I suppose I was terrified that I wouldn't have enough pages for the book.

You now edit your stories in a live setting?

Sometimes the biggest laugh can come from saying nothing—from just a pause. You can learn a lot by reading your stories to a live audience. When I hear myself reading out loud, I hear things I don't hear when I read to myself.

What do you attempt to achieve with your endings? When I reread your work—even going back to Barrel Fever—there seems to be a consistent, almost melancholy tone with the endings. The stories wrap up beautifully.

When you reach the end, you just know. You think, I don't have to write any more. That's how I felt recently with a story. I kind of looked up and thought, Oh my god, that's finished. There's nothing more to be written. It just felt right.

Every now and then when I'm reading a story to an audience, I'll reach the end and the audience will make a little noise. I always want that noise.

What's the noise?

It's as if something was suddenly pulled out from under them—but they landed well. It's like showing someone a puppy, and they say, "Aaaaaaaah." The puppy is cute, but there's also another layer. It's as if to say, "Where the fuck did that puppy come from?"   v

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