David Sedaris takes Zellerbach Hall by storm

Illustration of David Sedaris
Olivia Staser/Staff

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Tail of the Yak Trading Company, a small antique shop in the Elmwood district, received its proper accolades from humorist David Sedaris last Saturday. Atop a stage in Zellerbach Hall, Sedaris praised the shop for an eccentricity that mirrored his own. He himself had purchased a set of silver Belgian crosses during a previous day’s visit. Announcing proudly that they came engraved with a nun’s name, Sedaris paused briefly in considering a descriptor: “It’s really indiscreet … I mean, you could crucify a hamster with it.” 

The crowd shrieked with laughter. Sedaris’ brand of humor — macabre, misanthropic and more than a little weird — has long been a trademark for the author of six bestselling essay collections. Now 15 years since his Yuletide adventures as a mall elf, “Santaland Diaries,” first aired on NPR, Sedaris has amassed a dedicated following. His latest book in the works is a series of diary excerpts that read like stand-up zingers, some of which he shared with the audience. “A woman came up to me after a reading and said … ‘For a moment there on stage, you turned your head and you looked just like Ruth Bader Ginsburg,’ ” he read. 

It was a fair comparison. 

The Sedaris who appeared in Berkeley was well past his elf days but no less delightfully strange for it. He arrived in tattered culottes — “they’re a pair of shorts sewn over another pair of shorts and shredded,” he explained — and a similarly gaping suit jacket riddled with holes and the words “retire early” in Japanese. He also brought along several brown folders full of working drafts and read aloud to the audience with a performative disdain for the world and its subjects. 

For all his fun and funny energy, the evening began on a strange note as Sedaris harangued against politically correct and indirect language. Some of the wordplay was humorous enough. But the euphemistic material, which seemingly leaned into the territory of slurs against minorities, was criticized by George Carlin three decades ago and Dave Chappelle two months before. Whatever edge the argument “words don’t mean the same things anymore” once had can now be succinctly rebutted with “OK, boomer.” 

Nevertheless, the rest of the night was more inspired. Sedaris is at his comedic strongest when writing about his loved ones. Readers need to look no further than his essay “Why Aren’t You Laughing?” that portrays the passing of his mother to see his range in uniting poignancy and hilarity. Two new essays he debuted, “Hurricane Season” and “Highfalutin,” were similarly respective tributes to his partner Hugh Hamrick and his sister, comedian Amy Sedaris. “I don’t like seeing my relationship through her (my sister’s) eyes,” Sedaris read from one passage. “That said, I do like seeing my family through Hugh’s eyes. To him, we’re like dolls cut from flypaper. Each one of us connected and dotted with foul corpses.”

In a way, the evening — shredded shorts, brown folders and all — was an extended metaphor in perspectival performativity and achieved appearances. Sedaris amped up hamster-killing personas for effect and to elicit reactions — mostly smiles, sometimes outrage — but at the heart of it all was a desire for a society in which we can all cut the crap. He has been criticized in the past for indirectly presenting his stories as nonfiction when they were, by his own admission, only “real-ish.” But perhaps it is a question of priority — his audience absolves him of comedic exaggerations because they resonate with his encoded, genuine love for those who really matter amid the laughs. 

In response to an audience question on his confessional writing style, Sedaris recalled how he felt the need to include a truthful personal detail in an essay regarding his sister’s suicide — how, the last time he saw her alive, he had closed the door in her face. 

“I find that the worst things you can admit are things most people can relate to,” Sedaris said. “I think … we might as well be honest about things like that. We might as well.”

Contact Anna Ho at [email protected].