David Sedaris: Comedy Before All Else

Not all authors can pull off reading their own work for  audiobook editions.

Many publishers hire professionals to fill in because the author can’t do characters’ voices justice, come off rigid, or even lack the confidence to voice their own work. For example, in What If?, our current Book of the Month read, actor and geek-culture figurehead Wil Wheaton sits in for author Randall Munroe.

But David Sedaris is the master of reading his own work, what every author or voice actor should aspire to be. Maybe it’s from his years of radio experience as a guest on This American Life and other NPR shows, or the many, many book readings he’s done. Whatever it is, he gets it right. This is especially important because without the right narrator, the jokes in a satirical or humorous book fall flat.

Sedaris’s humor is deeply personal. He has this ability to turn the tables on himself, to make the most mundane aspect of his life into a greater story about the ridiculousness of his situation, has scored him legian fans over the years. In When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Sedaris sets his essays in Paris and an airplane ride between New York and Denver. In Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, backdrops include Australia, London, and Costco. And always, everywhere, his childhood home of North Carolina. You can really hear him dryly poking fun of himself and the world around him as he narrates.

But besides making the exotic mundane and the mundane exotic, Sedaris is a master at self-deprecation. One of my favorite stories of his comes from Dress Your Family in Denim and Corduroy. In it, he recounts a kooky family who lived next door to him as a kid. Out of town for Halloween, the father of the family brought the kids trick-or-treating on November 1st. Though the Sedaris family had given out all of their candy the night before, David’s mother insisted that David and his sisters delve into their own, hard-earned candy and share with the neighbors. In a fit of agony, Sedaris stuffs as many candy bars in his mouth before his mother comes and makes him give some away to the neighbors.

I love this story because of the imagery of young Sedaris, with a mouth stuffed full of chocolate, as his mother enters his room, intent on taking what he feels is rightfully his. He writes:

… as she closed the door behind her and moved toward my bed, I began breaking the wax lips and candy necklaces pulled from pile no. 2. These were the second-best things I had received, and while it hurt to destroy them, it would have hurt even more to give them away.”

While the story is hilarious, Sedaris’s willingness to share it is also incredible. He paints himself in the most atrocious light, a gift to his audience. The whole time he tells it, it sounds confessional, like he’s telling you—personally—this embarrassing childhood anecdote.

This is a pattern with Sedaris. In Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, he explains how he fell into a kind of gross fascination at a taxidermy shop. He went in, hoping against hope to find a stuffed owl and began talking with the store’s proprietor. Believing Sedaris to be a very discerning man of the best taxidermic taste, the proprietor brings out a Pygmy human skeleton from the 19th century, the amputated arm of a sailor his grandfather had met, and the 400-year-old head of a Peruvian teenager. Again, Sedaris is upfront with the amount of his unease, which is only slight, and only because he feels like some modicum of discomfort must be appropriate. He brazenly puts it,

That taxidermist knew me for less time than it took me to wipe my feet on his mat, and, with no effort whatsoever, he looked into my soul and recognized me for the person that I am: the type of person who’d actually love a pygmy …”

I can’t think of anyone, anywhere, other than Sedaris who would have the guts to write this essay, nor the comedic skills to write it so well and the actor’s timing necessary to narrate it.

One of Sedaris’s longest essays, and another that has stayed with me in the years since I first heard it, is “The Smoking Section” from When You Are Engulfed in Flames. In it, Sedaris details his love of smoking cigarettes and his attempt to quit while living for a few months in Tokyo. Overall, When Your Are Engulfed in Flames is Sedaris’s most macabre collection, and book cover echoes that, showing a skeleton smoking a cigarette, a nod to “The Smoking Section” as well as another of the book’s essays. The book’s title also comes from “The Smoking Section,” in a strange phrase Sedaris encountered in Japanese hotel, giving tips for various dangerous situations, including “when you are engulfed in flames.”

Watching David Sedaris perform his work live is a true joy. Sedaris, never quite satisfied with his work, even his long-published essays, will read with a pen in hand, making microedits as he goes. His enthusiasm for his work is apparent from his first words. If you ever have the chance to see him read, don’t turn it down. But until then, fill the void with his awesome audiobooks.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Listen to the clip below, where Sedaris explains his massive collection of owls.

Find David Sedaris’s contributions to This American Life.


What’s your favorite Sedaris story? Let us know in the comments, and be sure to check out our David Sedaris author page on Libro.fm.