No man who comes to fame via elfhood can claim to be cursed with bad luck. Indeed, to hear him tell it, David Sedaris—author of bestsellers Barrel Fever and Naked, a contributor to NPR’s This American Life, and best known for his brilliant account of working as a Santa’s elf at Macy’s—is a talentless schmuck who, but for the surprising grace of God and Little, Brown & Co., would be loitering about on Paris street corners spouting a bizarre pidgin French while plucking Alka Seltzer jingles on a child-size guitar.
In Sedaris’s most recent essay collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day, we hear about our narrator’s gross ineptitude in field after field of endeavor—including speech, music, science, sports, painting, performance art, teaching, computing, foreign language acquisition, crossword puzzles, and finally IQ tests—until we are awestruck at his imbecility. The ploy is so diverting we forget that the moron depicted in the stories is the one making us laugh in spasmodic outbursts of snorting. But presently it strikes us, not unlike a bolt of lightning, that this man is not, in fact, as incompetent as he pretends. He is merely highly specialized, and cleverer than we’ll ever be.
Still, Sedaris suggests implicitly through his unrelenting self-deprecation, were it not for the serendipitous charity of the book-publishing industry, he would be cast adrift on the ocean of his own rampant inadequacy. In an impoverished developing nation, for instance, with little or no reading public (or “bourgeoisie”), he would surely be relegated to the grub hatcheries, where as a humble maggot farmer he would live out his days engaged in simple yet honest manual labor.
A professed liar by trade, Sedaris plays the fool to disarm and charm us, of course; but he is funniest when he’s not slapping himself so directly in the face. I laughed hysterically at several passages in Me Talk Pretty One Day. Among my favorites are an anecdote about a subway ride in Paris during which Sedaris is grievously insulted by a couple of xenophobic American tourists who mistake him for one of the “froggies”; a piece about David’s father’s penchant for squirreling away rotten food; an excellent characterization of a strangely vengeful French teacher; and a passage about a B&D video. Writes Sedaris of a movie clip sent to his sister by e-mail:
There, on the screen, was a naked man lying facedown on the carpet. His hair was graying and his hands were cuffed behind his doughy back. A woman entered the room. You couldn’t see her face, just her legs and feet, which were big and mean-looking. . . . The man on the carpet shifted position, and when his testicles came into view, the woman reacted as if she had seen an old balding mouse, one that she had been trying to kill for a long time.
For the most part, though, Sedaris shines brightest when he moves away from the somewhat well-trodden turf of his zany relations. His talent for fetishizing the idiosyncratic American family is reminiscent of that of Gilbreth and Carey in Cheaper by the Dozen—complete with obsessive, absentminded engineer father, down-to-earth mother, and plucky misfit kids—but begins to wear thin through repetition, mostly because this nuclear unit seems just a little too cute. Not that the Sedarises, as David writes them, are whitewashed and Cleaveresque; his redneck brother speaks entirely in gangsta lingo, while he himself goes through a speed freak/Karen Finley period. All the same, the family is so humorously quirky, their foibles so perfectly interlocking, that we can’t help but feel we’re getting the Disney version.
That said, this is a very funny book, and very funny books are rare. The remarkable thing about David Sedaris’s humor is that it appeals broadly and it appeals to people like me—more-critical-than-thou readers who haven’t liked a bestseller since puberty. There’s almost nothing on NPR I can stomach besides the occasional installment of Car Talk or the BBC World News. And somehow—though the Michael Feldmans and Garrison Keillors who epitomize Public Radio humor make my skin crawl with their Old School and down-home preciousness, respectively—Sedaris feels like a breath of fresh air.
Sensibilitywise, he has more in common with Mark Leyner, George Saunders, or even Steve Martin than with his fellow NPR humorists. It may just be that Sedaris, at 41, is closer to my thirtysomething cultural moment than, say, the 58-year-old Keillor; after all, laugh-aloud humor is a highly zeitgeist-specific medium. True, smirk-inducing satire like A Modest Proposal and sly, bawdy verse by Chaucer have aged fairly well over the centuries, but I can’t recall when I last laughed aloud raucously at something penned in ancient Greece. Quiet cleverness may remain clever across the eons; the belly laugh has a shorter literary shelf life. Personally, I’ll opt for the involuntary snort over the witty turn of phrase any day of the week, and Me Talk Pretty One Day often goes beyond wit. There’s nothing quite like losing yourself in hilarity.
But great humor is also social commentary, though this is rarely its primary function; and chances are that if you don’t like the comment that’s being made, you won’t be busting a gut. Sedaris—arguably a middle-of-the-road voice by sheer dint of the fact that he’s an NPR regular and a bestseller, and despite the fact that he’s openly gay—has made a fine art of balancing gentility and crassness, obvious embellishment and apparent honesty. A delicate, polite sentence will be brought up short by the sudden appearance of a word such as anus; a gentle description of a sunny Easter day will be interrupted by the phrase absolute biggest turd. The element of surprise is as important in humor as in war, and the best humorists deploy it mercilessly. Sedaris plays dead with his ego, so that we feel comfortable drawing near; we may even feel inclined to kick the corpse. But far from being master of no domain, as he pretends, David Sedaris is a powerful strategist—a virtuoso of the unselfconscious laugh.