David Sedaris goes off book, shines at Pabst Theater
Colonoscopies, guest rooms, and genuinely apologetic Q&A.
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On the surface, paying good money to watch some guy read excerpts from books he's written seems a bit silly; why not just read the books yourself? But in the case of David Sedaris, you’d be hard pressed to read them without hearing his distinctive voice narrating in your own head. Of course, Friday night’s show at the Pabst wasn’t just about reading text. Sedaris’ off-the-cuff observations and anecdotes in between compositions were some of the most endearing moments of the night. Sure, he’s not as spontaneously clever and smooth as his narratives would have you believe, but his genuine humanity shines much more brightly when he’s forced to improvise.
The This American Life and New Yorker humorist broke ice with his audience by opening with one of the filthiest jokes imaginable, thereby making any further cursing or sexual imagery seem tame by comparison. It’s not as though Sedaris’ image is squeaky-clean, but it’s unlikely that anyone in the crowd could recall an evening peppered with more instances of the word “cunt” outside of a Trainspotting screening. Sedaris isn’t out to shock, however; his tales are extremely personal, and they’re crafted with the intent of bringing levity to grave matters, exposing injustice and ignorance, and above all, making us laugh. He even took a few minutes to sing the praises of a book he’d recently read, Barbara Demick’s Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives In North Korea, adopting the mortifyingly American attitude that because the tragedy of it is so far away and he can’t do anything about it, he doesn’t feel guilty reading about it.
As one might expect from the 56-year-old writer, concerns about aging took center stage. “The Happy Place,” from Sedaris’ new collection Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, hilariously detailed his father’s tireless pestering that eventually led to David’s first colonoscopy. “Company Man” concerned one of the few joys of middle age—the acquisition of guest rooms—and a visit from his sisters, whose remarks about the oddities of growing older were as funny as David’s commentary. He rounded out the performance with several brief blurbs from his diary—a practice that first got him noticed by fledgling radio host Ira Glass in 1992—and the zingers derived as much from fans at book signings as from Sedaris’ own razor-sharp observations.
But it was the brief audience Q&A that preceded what must’ve been hours of autographs that brought out Sedaris’ natural warmth. After decades of public life, he still seemed utterly unprepared for mundane questions like “What’s your favorite restaurant in Milwaukee?” and genuinely apologetic for not having a better answer. By just responding honestly without the mask of a joke-teller, Sedaris was able to reconcile his published persona and his actual self, a feat most writers never have the chance to achieve.