Unpacking what was funny and not in David Sedaris’ show at Kennedy Center

Afterthoughts on an act in which some of the humorist's most memorable stories framed women or people of color as individuals we’re supposed to laugh at.

I saw David Sedaris at the Kennedy Center in mid-October, and the performance has been simmering in my head. The performance has been a unique challenge to write about, both in terms of its medium and in terms of its content. This show’s premise is an unusual one for a night at the Kennedy Center for the “Performing Arts”: a figure primarily known for his dry-witted essays and radio work reads aloud from his work on stage. It wasn’t a poetry slam, and it wasn’t stand-up comedy — it was something entirely different, but certainly still entertaining. Also, as someone who thinks a lot about the convolutions that come when someone who calls themselves a comedian attempts to use irony, contrast, parody, and/or satire to comment on deeply complex and sensitive issues (I focused on how political comedians with big platforms can ethically explore complex topics in my Georgetown English Honors thesis last year), and as someone who is new to David Sedaris’ work, I was surprised and confused by core narrative elements of his presentation. I am eager to better understand his core ethos as a humorist, and one of the most popular and successful humorists working in America today. I want to give him credit where credit might be due, while also pointing out major issues that appear to be inherent in prominent elements of his storytelling.

The show was a one-night-only stop on his tour promoting his new collection of personal essays about life during the pandemic, Happy-Go-Lucky, his first personal essay collection since 2018. This performance consisted of Sedaris reading several essays and a few short passages, and taking some questions from the audience. Many of the stories he presented had to deal with recent experiences he’s had while traveling and working recently, dealing with unpleasant, frightening, or otherwise thought-provoking people with different sensibilities. 

David Sedaris. Photo courtesy of Kennedy Center.

For those who may not be familiar with his work — you are. You’ve seen that book of his in Barnes and Noble with a painting of a skeleton smoking a cigarette on its cover (that one is titled When You Are Engulfed in Flames), or that other cover featuring a piece of wood with a face (that one is Sedaris’ collection of semi-autobiographical essays entitled Calypso). You may have also heard of Sedaris’ other bestselling titles like Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary, or Me Talk Pretty One Day.

Sedaris’ particular “comedic” style feels like a bittersweet coffee sipped at a quiet university coffee shop, or stories told among friends in which frustrations and anxieties are expressed with honest, quiet dignity and staunch opinions. He is undoubtedly funny, but offers a different palette of definitions for what “funny” can be. His is a unique brand of humor you don’t typically find outside of the comedic essay genre. His work isn’t a laugh-a-minute generator, which sitcoms, The Onion–style satire, late-night comedy, and Twitter comedians have trained many of us to expect from things that market themselves on their humor. In long moments without a joke, sometimes you’ll wonder where the humor was in a Sedaris story — but sitting and thinking about the core issues at play will eventually lead you to the realization that yes, modern life is indeed inherently confusing, and many of the cultural conceits we have come to abide by are inherently absurd.

It is odd, for example, to expect young children to endure blatant personal disrespect from adults simply on account of their age. It is also odd to expect that everyone ought to fall into line believing that “formalwear” should constitute a narrow set of specific clothing items, under a rigid set of gender norms — and Sedaris played with this concept in his own ebullient fashion selection for the performance. Whether or not you agree with his specific conclusions about issues with particular conceits, he makes the act of hearing him out quite entertaining. Sedaris’ most frequent subject across his work seems to be frustration with unspoken societal demands for propriety when something demands what he views to be “common sense”; he explores this subject with a subtle, confident wit that doesn’t seem to care whether you disagree. If there ever were a cat person — and I don’t know if he has cats, but I stand by that assertion — or a person who reminded me of a cat, it’s Sedaris.

If you fancy yourself a fan of “comedy,” “humor,” and ha-has generally, it is worth investigating Sedaris’ work to broaden your palette. He comments on social issues and the mundane in such a subtle way that you forget he’s writing “about” something while you’re reading — or listening to, in a theater or on the radio — his work. In this way, Sedaris feels like the introvert’s Larry David. Instead of being upset in the moment about the trope as it is being inflicted on him, he smiles and waves while it’s happening and then waits until he’s in front of an audience to complain.

I have to say: some of Sedaris’ commentary on cultural issues left a bitter taste in my mouth. One “joke” was him asking why when a person of color commits a crime, “we” are terrified of mentioning their race, but when a person of color does something admirable, “we” are eager to revel as much as possible in the fact they were in fact a person of color. End of “joke” (a paraphrase, but barely). That line felt like something Charlie Kirk might say. I was surprised to hear commentary like this from Sedaris that seemed so willingly blind to key social contexts, especially as someone who writes for highbrow literati and presents himself as one, if an offbeat, funny one. Some of the most memorable stories Sedaris told on stage framed women or people of color as the individuals we’re supposed to laugh at, for what Sedaris perceived as their inability to abide by particular norms — all while he, the comedic straight-man, attempted to deal with their “antics.” In one extended story, he described how during a visit to a city a woman of color who may have been mentally ill sexually harassed him. He described in depth how he had to duck into an apartment building and pretend to be a resident in order to get the doorman to help him evade her. Sedaris did acknowledge explicitly as part of his narrative that he felt the weight of his privilege as a white man who would not immediately be barred from using the building to escape, but this caveat was not enough to counteract the core ethos of Sedaris’ interpretation of the anecdote. He also addressed the fact that it is odd to joke about sexual assault but continued to tell the story anyway. Why tell a story like that? Who does that help? Why is it worth our time to laugh at the mentally ill, or the impoverished? Why frame a story like that in a way that makes light of any part of it? 

I may need to listen to the story again to attempt to gather more of the nuance of Sedaris’ humor — but self-satire is unlikely, and the bulk of the story was spent describing this woman’s outlandish behavior. It is hard to know what purpose that kind of story serves besides punching down. While I don’t think his more concerning stories during this performance were intentional satire of those who lack a sense of nuance and compassion toward underprivileged groups — given that his style’s key rhetorical technique is analytical, even overanalytical thought — maybe there is something I’m missing.

I am interested in looking into more of Sedaris’ work in order to better understand his approach, which would be fascinating to write a paper on. I think he’s somewhere on a political-incorrectness-whether-you-like-it-or-not spectrum between Wanda Sykes and Philip Roth. I was entertained by an enormous amount of the show, and apart from that, anyone interested in fodder for rich “what is the responsibility of comedy?” conversations with friends should definitely spend time in Sedaris’ work.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.

David Sedaris performed on October 14, 2022, in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. 

The David Sedaris program is online here.

Information about future comedy performances at Kennedy Center is online here.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional in all Kennedy Center spaces for visitors and staff. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. See Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan here.

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