Nearly all of us can cite fortuitous media moments when we witnessed history as it happened. It was my good fortune to be listening to Morning Edition on December 23, 1992, when National Public Radio first aired a then-unknown performance artist’s droll reminiscence of the humiliations of working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s. It was a direly needed tonic to the saturation in treacly holiday spirit and desperate consumerism in which we tend to find ourselves at that time of year. Like millions of other Americans that morning, I was transfixed by that snarky/deadpan voice, that subversive sense of humor, that skewed way of perceiving the modern world – and became an instant fan of David Sedaris.
SantaLand Diaries propelled him to stardom, and also served to secure his discoverer, local Chicago radio host Ira Glass, his long-running gig as host of Public Radio International’s This American Life. Since then, whenever Sedaris publishes one of his collections of essays that teeter on the brink of autobiography and fiction, it shoots to the top of The New York Times’ best-seller list. His pieces – which calmly dissect the absurdity of such situations as growing up gay in North Carolina, controlling obsessive/compulsive disorder with cigarettes and then trying to stop smoking, coping with daily life in France when you don’t speak French, discovering that some people leave human feces in unexpected places – appear regularly in The New Yorker and have twice been included in The Best American Essays. Seven million copies of his books are in print, and they have been translated into 25 languages.
By 2001 he had already won the prestigious Thurber Prize for American Humor for Me Talk Pretty One Day. That book was about to be made into a movie by the great indie director Wayne Wang when Sedaris backed out – realizing, as he recounts in his essay “Repeat after Me,” that his five siblings were already having to put up with the reputation for weirdness that his exaggerated descriptions of his childhood experiences had brought them. His sister Amy has gone on to become a noted comedic actress and author in her own right – partially attributable to the notoriety conferred by her brother’s stories – but onscreen caricatures beyond his artistic control would have been too much to ask.
Sedaris’ books sell phenomenally well because they are hilarious, skillfully written, laceratingly insightful about contemporary cultural norms and deeply appreciative of the brave souls who challenge them. But it’s in the verbal performance of his stories that the author shines most brightly, and his self-narrated audiobook versions of his works have thrice been nominated for Grammy Awards in the Best Spoken Word and Best Comedy Album categories. There’s no one like David Sedaris to deliver the works of David Sedaris with the gently satirical tone and timing that best do them justice – and make us laugh ourselves silly, shaking our heads at how bizarre life can often be.
Luckily for the Hudson Valley, Sedaris seems to like performing at the Bardavon. He makes a return visit on Saturday, October 11 – his first to the Poughkeepsie landmark since the April 2013 publication of his last essay collection, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. It’s a fair bet that he’ll be test-marketing some new material in advance of whatever strangely titled opus he plans to publish next, so here’s another opportunity to catch cultural history in the making whilst having a truly entertaining evening out. Comedians are a dime a dozen, but great humorists are a national treasure and great monologists an even-rarer phenomenon.
The performance begins at 8 p.m. and will wrap up with a question-and-answer session, followed by book-signing in the theater lobby courtesy of Oblong Books of Rhinebeck. Tickets cost $48 general admission, $43 for Bardavon members and are available at the Bardavon box office at 35 Market Street in Poughkeepsie, (845) 473-2072; the Ulster Performing Arts Center box office at 601 Broadway in Kingston, (845) 339-6088; or via TicketMaster (no member discount available) at (800) 745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com. For more information, visit www.bardavon.org.
David Sedaris, Saturday, October 11, 8 p.m., $48/$43, Bardavon 1869 Opera House, 35 Market Street, Poughkeepsie; (845) 473-2072, www.bardavon.org.