FUNNY, NOT FUNNY
Comic writer David Sedaris explains what makes a joke to
Comic writer David Sedaris explains what makes a joke to Greg Bruce
‘Yesterday,” says the world’s funniest writer, David Sedaris, “I saw these people in London doing that parkour thing — do you have it there? It’s like daredevil jumping. I’d never seen it before and there was a guy around my age who was standing there and he said, ‘That’s so dangerous. They’re fools.’
“And I didn’t feel that way. I was all for it. I was like, ‘I think it’s fantastic’, because they don’t need any equipment and I mean it’s fun watching someone who could die, especially if you keep a diary, because that’s gold. If you can go home at the end of the day and say, ‘I saw someone jump to his death.’ That’s what you’re looking for.”
He laughed. I laughed. It was obviously a joke. But was it a joke, really? What is a joke without truth? How much truth is there in the statement: “David Sedaris really wanted to see someone die while doing parkour?” The fact you’re not sure is, in part, what makes it so funny.
Here is an entry from Sedaris’ just-published book Theft by Finding, which is an edited collection of his diary entries from 1977-2002, when he was between the ages of 20 and 45:
October 25, 1990 New York
“Lili and I saw a dead man on West 11th. He had jumped from a sixth-floor window, landed on a car, and rolled into the street, where he was lying in an ever-expanding pool of blood. You could see that on the way down he’d hit a tree. I wondered if, at the last minute, he’d changed his mind and tried to grab hold of the branches, many of which were broken now. A crowd formed and some boys who’d seen him jump claimed to have heard his skull crack.”
This is obviously not a joke and not at all funny, and nor are many of the other entries in Sedaris’ book. Life is overwhelmingly not funny.
His original plan for this book was to publish a file called “Diary that works”, which he’s kept since he started doing public readings in 1986, and that is made up entirely of things audiences have laughed at, but his editor suggested he also include non-funny entries to help give the book a narrative arc: a sense of him going from the squalor and heavy drug use of his 20s — when a typical diary entry “fuelled by meth” would go on for pages — to the international success of his middle age.
“I just worried that a lot of the non-funny things — I just didn’t know that anyone would care about them or be interested in them,” Sedaris says. “I have zero interest in getting in front of an audience and reading things that aren’t funny.”
MUCH OF what he writes, both in this book and elsewhere, is about himself and his life and the other people in it, most notably his family.
“Usually, I find when I’m writing about somebody in my family,” he says, “it’s stuff that they know is funny. So they’re in control of that laugh. I don’t ever feel like you’re laughing at them, because they know that it’s funny. But, yeah, you are always walking that line.”
That line is the one between being a decent person and being the funniest writer in the world. Last month, in an article in The New
Yorker, Sedaris revealed that his mother, who died in 1991, was an alcoholic. His father was not happy about the revelation.
“I think my father doesn’t understand that I can say bad things — not bad things — but I can say things like that about my mother and it just makes her more real to people and it just actually makes people love her more, because if your version is like, ‘Oh, my mother is wonderful, she’s a wonderful person, she’s a wonderful mother and a wonderful person,’ no one’s going to believe that.”
Sedaris’ sister Tiffany killed herself in 2013, more than 10 years after the period covered by the diary entries in the book. Fragments from her life appear occasionally in the book, and they’re generally very bleak:
November 9, 2000 Greencastle, Indiana
“On Tuesday afternoon she cried while telling me a story she’d recounted a year before. She cries a lot and the episodes generally end with a list of things she’s doing for herself. ‘I get out of bed in the mornings. Do you understand? I get up.’ The accomplishments are tiny, but I guess they’re all she’s got.”
Tiffany doesn’t feature much, in part because she drifted in and out of Sedaris’ life, and the life of their family, but mostly because he felt it wouldn’t have been the right thing to publish most of what he’d recorded in his diary.
“If it was your sister, I would have included it,” he says. “I just knew that she wouldn’t have wanted people knowing that, because it was bad stuff. I mean, it was bad stuff. Really entertaining — it killed me not to put it in there actually.” Almost certainly a joke. IN EARLY 1988, having recently been through a bad break-up, while living in Chicago, Sedaris wrote: Reasons to live: Christmas The family beach trip Writing a published book Seeing my name in a magazine Watching C. grow bald Ronnie Ruedrich Seeing Amy on TV Other people’s books Outliving my enemies Being interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air.
Because of what he’s now achieved, these dreams appear ludicrously modest and quaint, so it’s funny to see them written down. He’s written multiple best-selling books, his name has been in the world’s most prestigious magazines and
I have zero interest in getting in front of an audience and reading things that aren’t funny. David Sedaris
newspapers at the top of some of the world’s funniest writing, and he’s been interviewed many times by Terry Gross, America’s Kim Hill. Even his dream of seeing Amy (his sister) on TV has been almost comically exceeded, as she’s become one of America’s most brilliant and prolific comedy actors.
At the time he wrote this list, though, Sedaris’s life was characterised by poverty and nightly visits to the International House of Pancakes, where he could read and write for long periods, having had to pay for only a single pot of coffee.
He was 31, had graduated from art school the previous year and was working a string of horrible jobs. His boss at the wood-stripping job he’d started the week before had told him one day later that “it just wasn’t working out.”
In 1991, by which time he was living in New York, he wrote, “I’m down to $190 and am starting to panic. In this situation, I have no business buying pot, but that’s what I did. Scotch too.”
Almost exactly one year later, America’s National Public Radio aired a story he had written, called SantaLand Diary, about his time working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s department store, and his life changed. “Yesterday morning my story aired on NPR’s
Morning Edition,” he wrote on December 24,
David Sedaris in the 1980s.