David Sedaris Talks Travel, Trash, and Tumors At Jones Hall

An Evening with David Sedaris
Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts
November 7, 2015

Ever since he came to America's attention with The SantaLand Diaries back in 1992, David Sedaris has made a comfortable living from the comedy of discomfort. No topic is off limits, including his own family and the withering ravages of time. What better way to spend a Saturday night, courtesy of the Society for the Performing Arts?

Before getting to his own material last Saturday, Sedaris had a few introductions to make. First up was the Waltrip High School Jazz Band, who played a set at Jones Hall  earlier in the evening. Sedaris commented that the last few times he'd been to Houston, a band had opened, and he had the entire ensemble (along with directors) come out to introduce themselves. It was a nice gesture, highlighted by the author's continued exhortations to the audience to "give money to teenagers."

He then gave the stage over to author Akhil Sharma, reading an excerpt from his new book about emigrating to the United States from India and growing up in New Jersey, A Family Life. Sharma joked about the length of time it took to write it (13 years), and if the glimpse we received was any indication, it's definitely worth the wait.

Sedaris then took the stage, resplendent in baggy blue shorts ("Culottes," he told us) and exhibiting the vigor one associates with a guy who spends an inordinate amount of time on speaking tours. Having never heard him before, I was slightly taken aback by his voice. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but "goy Alvy Singer" wasn't it.

None of this matters, of course, because the stories are what count, and the ones he presented Saturday night (including "Calypso," an unpublished sequel to "Leviathan," which appeared earlier this year in The New Yorker) discussed subjects as diverse as playing Sorry with his cutthroat niece, collecting trash on the side of the road near his home in West Sussex, England (where the local district named a garbage truck after him to honor his efforts), and detailing his efforts to have a non-malignant tumor removed so he could feed it to the snapping turtle living near his family's North Carolina beach house.

In short, typical Sedaris.

One of the other things you might glean from a David Sedaris performance is how well-traveled he is. The latter part of his set involved reading diary excerpts from the diary he's kept since 1977, with entries written in everywhere from Missouri to Scandinavia. But even though the locales may change, Sedaris' own unfailing eye for absurdity and mordant sense of humor is universal ... and popular, if a packed Jones Hall and his upcoming seven-night stand in London is any indication. *Seven* nights. That's like, Springsteenian.

Watching Sedaris, and the ease with which he relates these stories and converses with the audience (the final part of the show was a Q&A); it's easy to overlook how accomplished he is in tying all his stories together. He's also constantly evolving as a writer and performer, taking notes throughout his performance, presumably to improve on future efforts.

It's why he says he doesn't revisit old material, and while he could have easily grabbed a half dozen random diary entries and a handful of essays from Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls (his latest) and given a perfectly acceptably performance, one of his key strengths as a storyteller lies in his ability to bring everything back to a common thread, and to indict all of us along with him.

More than that, it's his ability to extricate humor and meaning from the seemingly unremarkable. Body horror aside (didn't know what a lipoma was before Saturday night, so thanks for that, Dave), Sedaris speaks to universal themes like self-doubt, misanthropy, and naming your beach house "the Sea Section" to annoy pun-enamored neighbors. I've been a fan of his writing for years, but can definitely recommend experiencing his wit in person. 

Just don't ask him to read The SantaLand Diaries again.
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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar