So Dark, So Sedaris
As he returns to Carmel’s Sunset Center, David Sedaris only sharpens his commentary’s edge.
Thursday, November 10, 2011
David Sedaris stirred up a ruckus this past July when he wrote an essay for The Guardian in which he scorched Chinese food and Chinese people’s sanitary habits. The piece sparked flurries of comments and charges of racism and xenophobia, particularly from blogger Jeff Yang, who challenged Sedaris on SFGate.com. But David Sedaris don’t care. David Sedaris don’t give a shit. He keeps observing the world around him with meticulous scrutiny and writing about it with merciless humor dispatched in books, articles, talks and radio commentaries. He speaks – in his twangy, droll, gay voice – as he did with the Weekly in advance of his appearance Tuesday, Nov. 15, at Sunset Center, continuing to ravage his victims as thoroughly as a nasty-ass honey badger. Warning: This is Sedaris in the midst of a 41-city/42-day tour, himself ravaged after a 12-hour mangled flight from Miami to San Antonio (he concedes, “I [am not] as cheerful as I normally am”), so if you’re easily offended, turn the page now.
Do you have a favorite comedian?
Lately I like Louis C.K. I like his television show. It’s so shocking. Not the language, but now and then the concepts. It’s surprising that it exists on TV. That and Glee and [zombie series] The Walking Dead.
I think I’m going to watch Glee just to see what all the fuss is about.
Well, if you’re not homosexual you have no reason to watch it. If you’re a homosexual, you’re sort of hardwired to watch Glee. With Walking Dead, I don’t care about the people. Right now this little girl is lost and I feel like fuck it, leave her, let her move on. And you’re supposed to feel for a child lost in a forest full of zombies. “Oh no, the little girl.” Nah. I’m just not convinced.
I imagine that people who make their living from humor and comedy encounter people who don’t get it. Do you know any humorless people?
One thing you get tired of is people who have no sense of humor.
There are people at the elevator who push the button when the door is closing and they say “No, I can wait,” instead of getting in, and the fucking door closes and opens a few times. This lady, I was trying to hold the door for her and the door wants to close on my hand and it’s a real forceful door and I had to push the button. There was ketchup on the door and I said it’s blood from the last person who tried to hold the door. And she said, “No, it’s ketchup.” [Sighs]. Of course it’s ketchup, give me a break. Did not get it at all.
I had someone the other night at a show. I’m reading and look at this woman and think “You whore.” And I say that that’s what I’m thinking and it gets the biggest laugh because she’s so not a whore.
The word “whore” surprises them. At the end of the evening, I’m signing books and this woman comes up and says, “I have a real problem with you calling that woman a whore. It’s really mean.” I didn’t call her a whore, I thought it. “When you call her a whore, you’re calling all women whores.” No, I’m not. Why did you come here? You shouldn’t leave your house. It’s not fair when people hold humor to that standard.
You caught criticism for your China piece in The Guardian. What did you learn from that episode?
I didn’t read that guy’s [Jeff Yang] rebuttal article. I know it exists. My boyfriend read it and paraphrased. It seems so abstract and crazy that it didn’t really bother me. China is covered in spit and human turds. Am I not supposed to mention it? There’s a lot of people who would go to China and write about the long history of China, or the new spirit of entrepreneurship, but that’s not what I do. I write about turds. I don’t see [Yang’s] point.
Let’s say somebody went to some kind of gay club and saw people fisting each other and wrote about it. I don’t think I would be offended by it. Maybe it’s just something I’m not seeing. So what, do I just not talk about it? Do I lie? “I went to China and just loved it.” I disliked Chinese food before and when I went to China I disliked it more.
I liked your China piece. I think we count on writers who observe our world to be honest.
I don’t get offended by much. I was collecting jokes last tour. “Give me gay jokes,” I said one night. Everyone’s afraid but this one guy, and [his joke] was like, really hard. But you got to give it credit because it’s funny. Some people don’t want to be the kind of person who would listen to it or find it funny. It’s different with me.
With all that lead-up, you have to tell me the joke now.
How are fags like tumbleweeds? They blow and blow and blow and eventually end up stuck to a fence post in Laramie [Wyoming].
Oh no! [laughing uncomfortably] That is rough. That is a powerful joke.
I like knowing that joke exists, that it’s out there. It’s a cultural thing. If I had a time capsule, I would put that one in there. Like when the space shuttle blew up: How did they know [teacher] Christa McAuliffe had dandruff? Because they found her head and shoulders on the beach. They’re historical jokes. I wouldn’t tell [the Matthew Shepard joke] in front of an audience. I don’t want to be responsible for it, to clean up afterwards. Do you know what I mean?
I think I do. But I also admire your fidelity to communication and the wide boundaries you allow it.
That’s what I do. I’ve been keeping a diary forever. I’ve never given it to anyone to read and I would die if anyone got their hands on it. It’s like a teenage girl diary, completely self involved. Whatever it says about the culture in which I live, like jokes, I write down. I use it when I’m writing stories.
Do you take pictures?
I don’t really need a picture. I have a diary. My job is to create the pictures in the mind.
I’ve heard that you enjoy traveling and are good at it. Can you give our readers a travel tip?
Never unpack. That’s how things get lost. Never turn on the TV. Because the dumber a show is the more likely you’re going to get sucked into it. Last night after a signing, I went to bed at one and got up at five. If I had turned on the TV I wouldn’t have slept at all because Toddlers and Tiaras would have been on and I would have gotten sucked in. You know the show? It’s about child beauty pageants.
Do you have a favorite charity?
It’s weird to talk about. In a completely self-serving way, it would be NPR. Another charity trains monkeys to act as slaves for paralyzed people.
If you were, say, a quadriplegic, you would say [to the monkey] “Pick up the phone and call my mother.” You would have a laser beam flashlight in your mouth and you would point the laser beam at the phone and [the monkey] would pick up the phone and push the buttons that you point to and hold up the receiver. Or it would operate the microwave. I did a benefit for them. I did one for the California College of Arts and Crafts. There’s something coming up for ovarian cancer. Just depends on who gets to me. I try to do something every year.
What are your memories of Carmel?
The first couple times I went I wasn’t allowed to stay in town because I was smoking then. I had to stay in a motel outside of town. Then I quit smoking and was allowed to stay. I felt like a traitor to myself for liking it. It’s adorable. It’s an East Coast idea of California. If I wanted [someone] to have a nice impression of California, I would bring them to Carmel.
What do you like least about writing?
Hmm? Gosh. Printing it out. I travel with a portable printer and it seems unfair that you have to have color ink to print in black. Doesn’t that just seem like a fucking scam? Getting the print to come out of the machine is what I don’t like. The rest I love.
What do you love most about writing?
Seeing that I’m right. I started this tour with a bunch of new stories and I change them every night… and when the audience laughs – ah, I was right. Other times, I don’t get why they are laughing where they are. I want to ask them, “Why did you laugh there?”
I have a friend whose daughter is going through a phase where she will only eat white things. I said [to my audience], “[My parents] would probably feed me paste and joint compound.” Eh. It got a reaction. But I changed it and the next time I said, “They would probably feed me paste, joint compound and, maybe if I was good, a little semen.” It wasn’t just a laugh, it was a big noise. Sometimes it can be just an intake of breath. Sometimes at the end of the story you hear the audience go “hmm.” And that’s a nice feeling.
What’s another sound the audience makes?
Coughing. They’re bored. You have to change what you’re doing because you’re losing them. Coughing is bad. It’s like you’re reading at a T.B. clinic.
DAVID SEDARIS speaks 8pm Tuesday, Nov. 15, at Sunset Center, San Carlos between Eighth and Ninth, Carmel. $53-$79. 620-2048, www.sunsetcenter.org