Talking hysterical

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It all started with an elf — a 33-year-old, green velvet-clad Christmas elf named Crumpet, to be precise. In 1992, David Sedaris went on NPR to read — in his deadpan, nasal, but ultimately endearing voice — an excruciatingly hilarious account of his gig as a Macy’s Christmas elf.

“Even worse than applying is the very real possibility that I will not be hired, that I couldn’t even find work as an elf. That’s when you know you’re a failure,” he observes near the beginning of the now-legendary “SantaLand Diaries.” Fortunately, Sedaris got the job and irreverently detailed his daily experiences:

“Interpreters for the deaf came and taught us to sign ‘MERRY CHRISTMAS! I AM SANTA’S HELPER.’ They told us to speak as we sign and to use bold, clear voices and bright facial expressions. They taught us to say ‘YOU ARE A VERY PRETTY BOY/GIRL! I LOVE YOU! DO YOU WANT A SURPRISE?’ My sister Amy lives above a deaf girl and has learned quite a bit of sign language. She taught some to me and so now I am able to say, ‘SANTA HAS A TUMOR IN HIS HEAD THE SIZE OF AN OLIVE. MAYBE IT WILL GO AWAY TOMORROW BUT I DON’T THINK SO.’”

Listeners were enchanted, publishers clamored and four books (to date) have followed, along with regular contributions to NPR, Esquire and a number of plays co-written with sister Amy. Exhausting book tours ensued, like the one that brings him to Detroit’s Opera House on Oct. 14.

In interviews, Sedaris has noted that once his writing was published, various groups stepped forward to lay claim to him: Greek-Americans (his family is of Greek ancestry), gay Americans (he’s openly gay) and North Carolinians (when he was young, Sedaris’ family moved from New York to Raleigh). But the writer’s appeal has proven too contagious to be marginalized.

Chief among Sedaris’ comedic charms is his penchant for locating pee-your-pants hilarity in the mundane, twisted and even pathetic aspects of human experience. His evil, sardonic wit melds with impulses of surprising tenderness, making his stories feel vibrantly alive and unpredictable. One of his favorite subjects for fun-making is himself, and he doesn’t seem to hold back much, laying bare both his dreams of grandeur and his insecurities.

In “A Plague of Tics,” from Naked, he describes the agony of his bizarre childhood compulsions to lick light switches and retrace footsteps. If you’ve ever checked the stove one too many times or stepped warily over pavement cracks, you just might cringe in recognition as he describes a moment in elementary school when “… my shoe was calling. Take me off, it whispered. Tap my heel against your forehead three times. Do it now, quick, no one will notice.”

Or later, when his teacher comes to talk to his mother about this weird behavior: “Because Miss Chestnut was here in my home, I knew it was only a matter of time before the voices would order me to enter the kitchen and make a spectacle of myself. Maybe I’d have to suck on the broom handle or stand on the table to touch the overhead light fixture ...”

Sedaris also possesses the soul-saving ability to ferret out bullshit and all manner of pretentious posturing (and what’s funnier than pretentious posturing?). Take, for example, “Twelve Moments in the Life of the Artist,” a tale (from his latest book, Me Talk Pretty One Day) about his art-school drop-out days and subsequent career as a performance artist and crystal-meth addict:

“… my dealer introduced me to half a dozen hyperactive brainiacs who shared my taste for amphetamines and love of the word manifesto.”

His newfound friends congregate at the home of their artistic ringleader, a man Sedaris terms the “nest builder” because he has constructed (“carefully as a wren”) a giant nest made of human hair.

“Other group members stored their bodily fluids in baby food jars or wrote cryptic messages on packaged skirt steaks. Their artworks were known as ‘pieces,’ a phrase I enthusiastically embraced. ‘Nice piece,’ I’d say. In my eagerness to please I accidentally complimented chipped baseboards and sacks of laundry waiting to be taken to the cleaners.”

Other gems from Me Talk Pretty One Day include Sedaris’ trademark family anecdotes and descriptions of his life in Paris, where he has resided with his boyfriend, Hugh, for the past several years. The book’s title essay explores the author’s attempts, at age 41, to learn French:

“Huddled in the hallways and making the most of our pathetic French, my fellow students and I engaged in the sort of conversation commonly overheard in refugee camps. ‘Sometimes me cry alone at night.’

“‘That be common for I, also, but be more strong, you. Much work and someday you talk pretty. People start love you soon. Maybe tomorrow ok.’”

It’s impossible not to love David Sedaris. In that wonderfully warped mind of his, nothing — not even elves, art, mental disorders or dead grandmothers — is safe. Thank God.

David Sedaris performs at 7:30 p.m., Monday, Oct. 14 at the Detroit Opera House (1526 Broadway, Detroit). Call Ticketmaster at 248-645-6666 or the Detroit Opera House at 313-237-7464.

E-mail Christina Kallery at [email protected]
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