Starting with his deadpan, disarmingly funny pieces on NPR and continuing with his collections of short fiction and essays, David Sedaris is one of the best, sharpest humorists writing today. His quirky history and family are rich material, but he's also just as hilarious simply satirizing Christmas cards or mocking his own vices.
According to Time Out New York, "David Sedaris may be the funniest man alive." He's the sort of writer critics tend to describe not in terms of literary influences and trends, but in terms of what they choked on while reading his latest book. "I spewed a mouthful of pastrami across my desk," admitted Craig Seligman in his New York Times review of Naked.
Sedaris first drew national attention in 1992 with a stint on National Public Radio, on which he recounted his experiences as a Christmas elf at Macy's. He discussed "the code names for various posts, such as 'The Vomit Corner,' a mirrored wall near the Magic Tree" and confided that his response to "I'm going to have you fired" was the desire to lean over and say, "I'm going to have you killed." The radio pieces were such a hit that Sedaris, then working as a house cleaner, started getting offers to write movies, soap operas and Seinfeld episodes.
In subsequent appearances on NPR, Sedaris proved he wasn't just a velvet-clad flash in the pan; he's also wickedly funny on the subjects of smoking, speed, shoplifting and nervous tics. His work began appearing in magazines like Harper's and Mirabella, and his first book Barrel Fever, which included "SantaLand Diaries," was a bestseller. "These hilarious, lively and breathtakingly irreverent stories…made me laugh out loud more than anything I've read in years," wrote Francine Prose in the Washington Post Book World.
Since then, each successive Sedaris volume has zoomed to the top of the bestseller lists. In Naked, he recounts odd jobs like volunteering at a mental hospital, picking apples as a seasonal laborer and stripping woodwork for a Nazi sympathizer. The stocking stuffer-sized Holidays on Ice collects Sedaris' Christmas-themed work, including a fictional holiday newsletter from the homicidal stepmother of a 22-year-old Vietnamese immigrant ("She arrived in this house six weeks ago speaking only the words 'Daddy,' 'Shiny' and 'Five dollar now'. Quite a vocabulary!!!!!").
But Sedaris' best pieces often revolve around his childhood in North Carolina and his family of six siblings, including the brother who talks like a redneck gangsta rapper and the sister who, in a hilarious passage far too dirty to quote here, introduces him to the joys of the Internet. Sedaris' recent book Me Talk Pretty One Day describes, among other things, his efforts to learn French while helping his boyfriend fix up a Normandy farmhouse; he progresses "from speaking like an evil baby to speaking like a hillbilly. 'Is thems the thoughts of cows?' I'd ask the butcher, pointing to the calves' brains displayed in the front window."
Sedaris has been compared to American humorists such as Mark Twain, James Thurber and Dorothy Parker; Publisher's Weekly called him "Garrison Keillor's evil twin." Pretty heady stuff for a man who claims there are cats that weigh more than his IQ score. But as This American Life producer Ira Glass once pointed out, it would be wrong to think of Sedaris as "just a working Joe who happens to put out these perfectly constructed pieces of prose." Measured by his ability to turn his experiences into a sharply satirical, sidesplittingly funny form of art, David Sedaris is no less than a genius.
Good To Know
Sedaris got his start in radio after This American Life producer Ira Glass saw him perform at Club Lower Links in Chicago. In addition to his NPR commentaries, Sedaris now writes regularly for Esquire.
Sedaris's younger sister Amy is also a writer and performer; the two have collaborated on plays under the moniker "The Talent Family." Amy Sedaris has appeared onstage as a member of the Second City improv troupe and on Comedy Central in the series Strangers with Candy.
"If I weren't a writer, I'd be a taxidermist," Sedaris said in a chat on Barnes and Noble.com. According to the Boston Phoenix, his collection of stuffed dead animals includes a squirrel, two fruit bats, four Boston terriers and a baby ostrich.