Arts Beat: David Sedaris from the sublime to the ridiculous

Weekly thoughts from the inside.

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The Martha's Vineyard Concert Series presents "An Evening with David Sedaris" at the Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, July 30. — Ingrid Christie

David Sedaris has a sublime appreciation of the ridiculous. If you ask me, he’s playing the lead role in his own personal theater of the ridiculous. Not that he’s ridiculous. But he sure can write about things that strike him as, well, ridiculous. 

Sedaris returns to Martha’s Vineyard on Tuesday, July 30, as part of the Martha’s Vineyard Concert Series. In a recent phone conversation between Paris and Martha’s Vineyard, Sedaris told me he does not think of himself as a satirist, a philosopher, commentator, or a standup, but has come to grips with the term “humorist.” 

“The word used to conjure up an old guy in a cardigan sweater. I’ve grown into that label. I have gray hair now; I’m the old guy in the sweater.” 

Sedaris has been coming to the Vineyard for a number of years, often following up with a gig on Nantucket. This season, it’s just the Vineyard, and Sedaris is glad, as he won’t have to hear multiple versions of “Ugh, Nantucket. The Vineyard is so much better.” 

Sedaris has over 10 million books in print, which have been translated into 25 languages, and his essays appear regularly in the New Yorker. He tours the world regularly, reading from already published writings or trying out new material, the latter of which is what he’ll be doing at the upcoming Vineyard gig. 

Talking of his writing process, Sedaris says, “I always think about the rhythm of the writing. I mumble the words as I write them, looking for a certain flow, how I’m going to say certain things.” He writes for both the written word and the way words sound out loud.

Sedaris mentioned some uninvited, annoying advice he received about his radio stories, being told he didn’t use enough “expressive” delivery. He had recently listened to some John Cheever audio books read by Meryl Streep. “She differentiated the characters by simply changing their rhythms. I thought it was great. It’s the sort of sound I like my work to have.” 

Yale recently acquired Sedaris’ papers, which include his early diaries. Sedaris had them transcribed into digital format, claiming he’d “have to shoot the woman who transcribed them,” as they are filled with “page after page after page of material sounding like they were written by somebody on crystal meth, and that somebody was me. Too much emotion. Now I never talk about emotion.” 

Sedaris may be a “humorist,” but he’s serious about his humor. He writes in his diary every morning, wanting it “to read well. I think of it as practice, a warm-up, before I go to write my own stuff.” His unique view of the world provides the substance of what he wants to say, but there’s disciplined craft in the writing itself. Sedaris can get cranky about writing that isn’t up to his standard — his own writing and that of others — and diligently works on his pieces, saying “with me, it’s a compulsion.”

I wondered if Sedaris had any hobbies, something he did regularly, other than writing. Bingo. “Fitbit. It fits my particular mental illness perfectly. I walk like crazy. I’ve walked 24 miles in one day. On a day I walk only 10 miles, I hang my head in shame. I absolutely have to make 10,000 steps a day.” It started because Sedaris was annoyed at the roadside garbage around his English countryside home. He walked and picked up garbage. Now he walks, appropriately illuminated, litter-picking, dreaming, working on whatever he’s working on, and making notes. Provoked by seeing people walking and texting, he does no such thing. He stops walking and “writes with a pen and paper; it somehow doesn’t seem as bad.” 

Disaster almost struck one day on tour. Sedaris got in 3,000 steps first thing in the morning, and headed to the airport, figuring he’d get to his remaining 7,000 before that evening’s performance. “But the flight was delayed, so we rented a car and drove seven hours, arriving just in time to go onstage.” At the book signing following the performance, Sedaris enjoyed speaking with a fan, and asked her what she was doing next. “She probably thought I’d invite her to dinner or something. Instead, I gave her my Fitbit and asked her to get in my missing 7,000 steps. She did.”

Sedaris was once asked what he would do when he ran out of material, answering, “Never happen, I’d be dead first.” It’s because he’s inspired by life, from the mundane to the extraordinary. He believes it’s more difficult to write well about everyday events, rather than life’s more colorful moments.

We laughed a lot during our call, and at one point I said, “There you are laughing at your own joke again.” Sedaris giggled, saying, “Thank you for pointing that out. I always think it’s so annoying when other people laugh at their own jokes.” But there we both were, laughing. 

Sedaris doesn’t think he’s “a very good representation of the human race.” But his humanity is real, portrayed as it often is through the ridiculous. But it’s not just funny. Sedaris’ gleeful compulsion to bring us along finds us sighing at the inevitable and grinning at the absurd. If you enjoy a bit of serious thought, an open question, or just a good laugh, “An Evening with David Sedaris” is for you.

 

“An Evening with David Sedaris,” Tuesday, July 30, 8 pm, presented by the Martha’s Vineyard Concert Series at the M.V. Performing Arts Center, Oak Bluffs. Tickets are $50 to $60. For box office and information, visit mvconcertseries.com/events.