David Sedaris came onstage wearing a black sweatshirt and bottoms to match. Granted, his sweatpants looked more upscale than my torn-up cotton Kirkland pair, but they were sweatpants all the same.
His luggage was lost in a confusion of cancelled flights, he explained. He had an outfit all picked out but was stuck in the outfit he had flown in. He was more underdressed than the woman who had introduced him, looking as though he could have walked onstage from the audience. Nonetheless, without any flash or sparkle, Sedaris managed to bring the house down through the triumph of a performance that reminded me of a few of his greatest qualities: being an extraordinarily talented writer, performer and being a really nice guy.
I’ve seen Sedaris perform three times now: twice at The Orpheum here in Galesburg and once this summer in a small, local bookstore in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. What I am always struck by is his ability to keep his shows dynamic. Keeping in mind audiences like me who have seen him read out loud several times (but probably mainly for the sake of his own sanity), Sedaris spices up what essays he reads to his audience.
There might have been one or two overlapping essays between the Saturday reading and the one I went to in the summer, but Sedaris impressively cranks out essays at warp speed. I recognized the commencement speech that he read at Oberlin College this past spring, but not much else. Sedaris read a few short opinion pieces that he writes weekly for PBS, along with lots of pleasant anecdotal off-the-cuff (although I’m sure he has the whole tour down pat at this point) humor.
The essay that stood out to me was one that was recently published in The New York Times. It reminded me of how Sedaris’s essays can be five things in one; this particular essay went from talking about his father’s old age to Dave Chappelle to bratty kids to turtles. It’s almost like Sedaris lets the essay control where it goes when it takes a turn toward another topic, he goes with it. Just as I thought he had completely abandoned the initial topic of the essay (time) for good, it all ended back where it started: a genuine and heartfelt look at what it means to be human and to grow old, set to the beat of quiet and steady humor.
Many of his anecdotes and essays revolved around what it means to be old, what it means to be young, what it means to connect in the world nowadays. Sedaris seems to be an old-fashioned type of guy, wanting to connect with people in authentic ways as opposed to through a screen or behind his books. He doesn’t portray himself as a larger-than-life celebrity or better-than-you in any way. He stumbled over words, poked fun at himself at every turn and offered up thoughtful answers and advice to the questions he received. He is a genuine human person, just an insanely successful one (which he reminded us of several times over).
My own experience with him shows just how much he cares about his fans after writing him a thank you letter for giving me a birthday present over the summer at a book-signing, I received a hand-written postcard from Sedaris himself, telling me that I have lovely handwriting and that my letter made him laugh. There isn’t anything much better than that.
Why can’t all successful people be like this? So willing to give young writers advice, so willing to forget how big and exciting their life is for one moment to sit down and write a fan a letter. Compared to the majority of today’s male comics, Sedaris’s actions reflect positively back onto himself and his image. His talent does not overshadow his ability to be a good person he is funny and not an asshole, proving you really can be both.
Sedaris’s readings always leave me laughing, but they also leave me thinking about what’s next. Whether that be thinking about my own graduation during his commencement speech, thinking about my own parents’ old age, thinking about my own writing career and whether it will ever be as funny, as true or as wide reaching as Sedaris’s. Will I be able to capture characters as perfectly as he does? Not just that, but will I meet anyone half as interesting as the people Sedaris surrounds himself with? Will I be able to turn my writing into as much of a performance as his readings are? Will I take the time to sit down and write to fans, pick out small trinkets to give to people who wait in line to see me? I doubt I will, but only because I doubt any writer, comic or entertainer has as much sheer talent as Sedaris, not to mention as much innate kindness.