Last night, Emily and I joined some of her school friends in attending a reading by noted “humorist” David Sedaris. It was kind of appalling.
It should be noted that I have avoided reading Sedaris, despite recommendations from many of my friends, because he falls into a series of literary categories that I tend to dislike. For one thing, most of his writing is based on his own life, sort of straddling the boundaries of fiction and non, which is one of my least favorite forms of narrative writing (I read almost exclusively fiction for a reason). Perhaps more importantly, he tries to be funny.
There is some genuinely comedic writing out there, but I would argue it is almost a prerequisite that one be British before attempting to execute it. P.G. Wodehouse is hysterical, Gordon Korman (Canadian is close enough, eh?) can inspire truly bellowing laughter, but most American writers, especially of a more recent age, are unable to find what is truly humorous about human interaction. Most of them instead rely on scapegoating, stereotyping, and making people uncomfortable. This is unsurprisingly also my objection to stand-up comics and the entire genre of American comedic films with very few exceptions. Making fun of people, especially by caricaturing them (and often for attributes beyond their control), simply doesn’t interest me.
Moreover, my whole interest in the genre of “let me tell you about my crazy weird childhood in humorous tones” pretty much uttered its last breath by the time I got done watching the film “Running with Scissors,” which may be one of the ten worst movies I’ve seen in my life. As far as I can tell, Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris may be exactly the same person, trotting out their own childhood in warped dark comedy while being unable to write about anything more accessible or universal.
At this point in my story, you may be wondering why on Earth I subjected myself to a reading from someone I was fairly predisposed against. For one, the tickets were free, through Em’s Princeton student status. For another, I was ready and willing to be proven wrong. Investing an evening in a reading is far less onerous than committing to reading a whole book. Finally, I had a real interest in watching an author ply his craft orally. As someone who envisions a future not only as a writer, but also as a speaker, I was highly curious to see how writers who are of the stature where they can do tours execute them. I think writers should be a lot more like rock stars (sorry, Salinger and Pynchon) and have thought long and hard about doing reading tours, speaking tours, and almost concert-like prose performances. Really, if I spent all the time I spend thinking about being a writer actually writing, I’d be in somewhat better shape.
So I was ready to embrace Mr. Sedaris with an open mind, watch him woo the audience with only a lectern and a microphone, be drawn into his autobiographical world amid uproarious laughter.
Instead, I was greeted by one of the most grotesquely inaccurate caricatures I have ever heard/read. And that was just the opening piece.
Some context should perhaps be provided to illustrate my overall mindset, beyond the open-minded but slightly trepid approach I was taking toward D. Sedaris. I had just eaten a fairly fancy Japanese dinner with Emily and some of her school friends who were to join us. All three friends are New Yorkers and all three seem to desire varying levels of the implied accompanying sophistication. Most all of the dinner conversation thus consisted of comparisons of wines, wineries, eats, eateries, and blocks within the city of New York. There was also extensive discussion of detailed aspects of the program everyone but me present was attending.
I feel I must tread with caution here, because I like all of Em’s friends and I enjoy their company for the most part. But there is something about being party to a discussion of various fine dining establishments in New York City that makes me want to move to Bhutan and go on a lifelong diet of brown rice. New Yorkers have a way of talking about New York not only like it’s the center of the universe, but as though it’s simply obvious to everyone that it’s the center of the universe. And fine dining is somewhere between NASCAR and modern art in my general esteem, both as far as my personal interest and the extent to which I feel it adds value to the world at large. So not only was this conversation a somewhat deadly combination (it’s a bad sign when the thing one relates to most is a discussion of classes one hasn’t attended with professors one hasn’t met), but it put in sharp relief how different Emily and I are from much of the New York consciousness that envelops this distant suburb of same.
Back to Sedaris, reading his first work, which is a lampoon of the worst aspects of the Republican anti-Obama movement, combining the tea-baggers, birthers, and people screaming at town-hall meetings about healthcare. What the lampoon lacked was a shred of compassion, an attempt at understanding, an effort to infuse the slightest humanity in the characters being lampooned. As a result, it fell utterly flat, criticizing nothing by failing to engage a real person. It was the worst kind of straw-man argument, one so self-evidently flimsy that it failed to even stand up as a half-decent scarecrow before falling under its own weight. In an era where most sophisticated writers have at least gotten into explaining why their villains are villainous (bad childhoods, traumatic experiences, etc.), this spoof of Republicans was horrendously amateurish. In fact, the piece inadvertently elicited my sympathy with such people (with whom I in no way agree on the subjects discussed), simply because I was so horrified at what short shrift Sedaris gave them.
Most alienating of all, however, was the crescendous din of hilarity surrounding me on all sides, bouncing off the walls and into my ears like some misplayed note. People certainly came primed and ready to laugh, but at least some of what I heard must have been sincerely elicited by Sedaris’ words. How could anyone find this funny? With each passing phrase and punchline, with its correspondent roars of approval, it became more and more clear to me why Will Farrell is considered a superstar in our culture. The people around me, these were the real idiots.
Of course, sitting through hours of affirmation of a viewpoint one finds insane has a wearing effect over time. I suspect this is what rational Germans must have felt like at Hitler rallies in the 1930’s (not to compare Sedaris and Hitler, but it’s a dramatic analogy, so hey), first horrified by what others found compelling and eventually turning the glass inward on themselves to wonder if there was something wrong with them for questioning what so many others clearly found to be true and right. Ultimately, it comes down to the strength of one’s personal convictions… if one feels sure of one’s own moral compass, the impact is to feel completely alien, almost dehumanized. If one wobbles or has doubts, one ends up giving in to the masses.
I didn’t give in, for I was pretty sure that horrifying stories of people being heartlessly ghastly to each other with no redeeming value or message other than a cheap gag was not something I was ever going to laugh at. The best story by far was one about the slow deterioration of sea turtles captured on the beach by an ignorant boy and their eventual starvation as they refused to eat raw hamburger in a fresh-water tank that was too small for even one of them. This was redeeming only because there were paragraph endings that were not punchlines, but actually offered some lasting value or message about people who are not cartoons. The story was still horrific and still drew out laughs which I couldn’t share, but at least it involved 2.5-dimensional people. Admittedly, however, the only person to which one could really relate was the author’s own avatar, which perhaps illustrates what I fundamentally disrespect about autobiographical fiction.
It was a bit of a relief to leave the show and confer with Emily and friends and find that few to none of them had been among those doubling over in fits of laughter during the performance. (Our seats had all been scattered as we acquired tickets late.) Despite their New York myopia, they were wise enough to see that poking empty shells of alleged people with sticks and chortling at the pain is neither art nor humor. And I felt reassured that while I may be an alien, I am not alone in being one. At least, not in that regard at that particular time.
Still, significant questions loom for me as I contemplate the McCarter Theater poster dubbing Sedaris as “maybe the funniest man alive.” As I labor over my own writing and its long-term goal of helping humanity save itself, the nagging question of whether this species is worth it resurfaces. Or were most of the people pre-programmed, told by enough friends and hearing enough laughter that they amoebically responded with their own throes? Do most crowds cede control of their own judgment mechanisms, looking to experts on stage and affirmation in their accompanying mob?
If nothing else, I must be further driven, if only to offer an alternative that attempts to provoke intense thought about real people rather than automated laughter at scarecrows.