David Sedaris charms listeners with dark humor

Amy FIshbien/Courtesy

Last Thursday night, David Sedaris talked pretty all over Berkeley. He started in the Berkeley Art Museum at a fundraiser-turned-cocktail party for the California College of the Arts, where the writer met with Stephen Beal —  president of CCA and Sedaris’ former art professor at School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  He chatted with other invited donors for a little while longer before heading out to his sold-out reading down the road at Zellerbach Hall. In the short interim, Mr. Sedaris spoke with me.

“You can cheat when you read things out loud. You can get laughs unfairly by looking up or making a face,” Sedaris said, en route down Bancroft Way.

He’s definitely right. His deadpan prose, if left to be read on its own, has the potential to suggest that the writer is a rather bleak and weary misanthrope.

In reality, Mr. Sedaris appears to be the furthest thing from a threatening cynic. He speaks with the ingenuous honesty of a young kid, boasting a tiny frame and even tinier voice to match. It is with this childlike wonder that he is able to charmingly tackle the human condition.

Of course, at age 55, Mr. Sedaris is far from being a kid. He is a prolific humor writer, having begun his career by reading his personal essays on NPR before establishing himself with New York Times Best Sellers like “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” and  “Dress your Family in Corduroy and Denim.” Now, with his newest sardonic story collection, “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary,” there are a total of seven million copies of his works in circulation, translated in more than 25 languages across the globe.

It was 30 years ago, when living in Raleigh, North Carolina, that he decided to pursue writing professionally.

“I didn’t tell anyone else,” Sedaris continued. “I just said it to myself. And sometimes that’s scarier. When you announce to yourself that you want to do something, you also set yourself up for failure.”

Mr. Sedaris certainly has not let down his internal cheerleader. Within the course of his extensive writing career, he has witnessed publishing migrate from print to e-books and the experience of reading rapidly change. Sedaris speaks from the other side of the digital screen:

“As a reader and a writer, I don’t have romantic ideas of a page,” he stated, “because words are more important to me than a piece of paper.” Sedaris, being the natural storyteller that he is, proceeded in his quiet, nasal voice, with an anecdote about a friend who bought a Kindle for his wife:

“I recommended him some books to get her. But he got them all downloaded illegally. That’s my only problem — that once something is on a computer, someone will figure out a way to distribute it illegally. And it’s hard, because people are entitled to them.”

Sedaris’ reading, that followed moments after the chat, is an experience impossible to duplicate — neither in a Kindle nor a traditional book.

He began the night with “Understanding Understanding Owls,” a story about his quest for the perfect stuffed owl for his boyfriend. But before the plot took a disturbing left turn towards mummified body parts and one morbid taxidermist, Sedaris coyly warned to never mention you like something, like an owl, because you will end up with a different owl cozy for every holiday for the rest of your life. The crowd erupted in laughter, still chuckling even as he described a young girl’s head thrown in a trash bag, and Sedaris artfully showcased the paradox that is “dark humor.”

The night ended with a Q&A session, where Mr. Sedaris confessed his love for “Breaking Bad,” and accredited his huge family — and how easy it was to get engulfed and unheard in there — as the reason why he talks so quickly.

The captivating power of Mr. Sedaris’ performance comes from his ability to slip in and out of the animated voices of his characters, and just as swiftly return back to the sweetness of his natural voice. He narrates his macabre journeys with an innocent perspective — much like exploring a contaminated world through the eyes of a marveling child — and casts a revelatory light to even the most overlooked corners in life.