Comic writer David Sedaris ex­plains what makes a joke to

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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.

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