Make Me Laugh

Author David Sedaris turns the page David Sedaris might well be the most patient man on earth. The bestselling author whose frequently hilarious and often insightful stories, about everything from an ex-patriot living in France to watching the housekeeping habits of a spider, have entertained millions in print and on NPR. His appearances frequently sell out and his signings are packed. Yet Sedaris is exceedingly generous with his time, spending hours talking to fans and signing books — his record is 10 and 1/2 hours at the signing table. Monday he’ll be at the Holland reading selections old and new. His readings can be interactive. He has sometimes asked audience members for input on quirky surveys or polls, such as whether President Barack Obama is circumcised. This time he’ll be asking for jokes. Whether they’re keepers depends on how well they stand up to what Sedaris calls “The Willie Nelson Test,” a gauge of whether the new joke stands up to his current favorite: “What’s the last thing you want to hear when you’re giving Willie Nelson a blowjob? ‘I’m not Willie Nelson.’” They’re not always funny. Calling from a hotel in Cleveland, where he’d perform later that night, Sedaris recounted a very awkward moment when an audience member misunderstood his call for jokes a few nights prior. “This guy raised his hand and his girlfriend was trying to stop him, but he pushed her hand away. He said, ‘If telling everybody you’re gay is coming out of the closet, then telling everybody you’re Jewish should be called coming out of the oven,’” Sedaris reports, then pauses for a moment as the awfulness of the joke sinks in. “I sort of admire people who are full of confidence and completely wrongheaded at the same time. He was thinking ‘Stand back, everybody, while I get the biggest laugh of the evening.’ And nobody laughed,” Sedaris says with a chuckle. “So I thought I’d help him out and tell another Jewish joke to take the pressure off of him, so I said ‘What’s the goal of Jewish football? To get the quarter back.’ But that didn’t work too well.” Sedaris regularly receives gifts from fans at his appearances. They’ve ranged from the thoughtful — postcards are a favorite, as were the tongue depressors that said ‘I was born on a pirate ship’ (hold your tongue and say it if you’re unfamiliar with the joke) — to the odd, such as an entire filet of smoked salmon. If you’re considering bringing him a book of jokes, leave it at home. “Somebody gave me a joke book early on this tour and I gave it right away,” he says. “I don’t believe in finding jokes in books or on websites. I like to get them organically. Whenever I get a joke I write it down in my diary. But sometimes it gets buried. I go through an old diary and I’ll find a joke and I’ll revive it for a couple days. Every morning I write down the best jokes that I heard the night before.” Sedaris is touring in part to support Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary, his latest book of short stories. Unlike previous essay collections that have focused on Sedaris’ family and other events, this one is a collection of stories about the animal world — a mouse that makes the poor choice of having a snake for a pet, Irish setters who commiserate on the awfulness of scented candles and lab rats comparing notes. Some of his choices for animals that populate his stories arose from assignments. Ira Glass’ “This American Life” on National Public Radio, to which Sedaris is a frequent contributor, had themed shows called “Cat and Mouse,” and “The Parrot and the Potbellied Pig” which were the genesis for Sedaris’ stories of the same name. “Other ones, like ‘The Cat and the Baboon’ — baboons groom each other, so if you wanted to get yourself groomed, I guess that’s who you’d go to. So sometimes our expectations of the animal’s behavior had something to do with it,” he says. In other cases inspiration came from the strangest places, such as an article Sedaris read in the New York Times about a certain kind of leech that only lives in the anus of a hippopotamus. “So I knew I wanted to write about that,” he says of what became “The Grieving Owl.” As for “The Crow and the Lamb,” Sedaris’ neighbor in France told him that it was important to make sure lambs were born in the lambing shed because lambs born in the pasture would routinely have their eyes gouged out and eaten by crows. “So, you know, a lamb made sense there.” Some are based on real people. “I stood behind the toad, the turtle and the duck in Denver when a flight got canceled one time,” he says. “‘The Vigilant Rabbit’ is a grandmother that works at the security scanner in Wausau, Wisconsin. She was just horrible to me. So I pulled my notebook out then and there. And it’s not against the law to pull your notebook out of your pocket and stare at somebody. And write. Just stand there and write. Not against the law,” he says, clearly still irritated at the thought of the woman. “But I’m such a coward that I waited until I’d gone through security,” he quickly admits with a laugh. He gets a lot of young writers coming up to him at readings and book signings asking how they can get their stories published. “I always tell them they shouldn’t even be thinking about that. I say ‘This is your time to suck,’” he says plainly. “It’s your time to learn and make mistakes and imitate other people. You need to just get that out of your system before you start thinking about publishing.” He’s the first to admit he got lucky, and for him, fame happened at just the right time. “I was 35 when I had a piece published in Harper’s. That seemed to be a good age [to get published]. If it had happened a lot later it’s very likely I’d be bitter, thinking ‘Why does that person have a book? I don’t have a book.’ But I never felt that way. I was fortunate that I never looked at the world that way. Because when you do I don’t know how you get that enthusiasm back,” he says. Sedaris grew a little wistful. “My last book debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for eight weeks,” he says. “So what do you do after that?” He’s not boasting or gloating about his success; merely commenting on it. The thing about the New York Times Bestseller list, he explains, is that the paper decides how your book is classified. That’s pretty cut and dried when it comes to fiction, thrillers and chick lit, all of which are clearly fiction. But humor books are classified as nonfiction by the Times. “So the Zombie Survival Guide is considered a nonfiction book,” he says. “Which, to me, suggests that zombies really exist.” That might not seem like a big deal until you learn that it’s much easier for a nonfiction book to get onto the Times’ bestseller lists. If you sell 30,000 books in a week there’s a good chance you’ll be number one on the nonfiction list, but that’ll only get you so far — midway at best — on the fiction list. Fiction books simply sell in greater numbers, so the competition’s more intense. “I think that Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk has its moments, but I don’t think it’s that funny,” he says matter-of-factly. “I didn’t mean for it to be. Plus, because I pulled it out of my ass, goddamit, I want it to be listed as fiction.” Sedaris got his publisher to call the Times and demand that the book be listed as fiction. It was and Sedaris was number five on the fiction list during its first week of release. “I don’t feel let down, because this was a different category for me. I’ve never released a book in the fall before. James Patterson always puts out a new book in the fall and there are lots of thrillers and mysteries, so it’s a whole different crowd for me. I’m thrilled.” As for his next book, well, he’s not sure. He’s still writing the occasional essays for which he’s known — five have appeared in the New Yorker since When You Are Engulfed in Flames came out — but can’t say what the future holds. “It feels really good to try something new,” he says thoughtfully. “I don’t read interviews, I don’t read reviews. I don’t read anything about myself. For all I know, people don’t like [the new book]. I don’t know. But it feels good to have tried something else. It feels good to know that I don’t have to worry about a squirrel calling me on the phone saying ‘Thanks a LOT, asshole! I told you not to repeat the thing about chipmunks and you had to go tell everybody.’” Our conversation grew a little more contemplative as we wrapped up. “One more joke. One more joke,” he pleads, brightening. “My publicist told me this one this morning: What’s the difference between an erection and a Camaro?” he asks, before answering in a stage whisper, “I don’t have a Camaro.” We both laugh hard at that one. “I think I’m gonna try that one out tonight.” An Evening with David Sedaris is Monday, Oct. 25, at 7:30 p.m. at the Holland Performing Arts Center, 1200 Douglas St. Visit omahaperformingarts.org.

posted at 12:52 pm
on Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

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