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Monday, Nov. 4, 2013

Recap: David Sedaris Shared Funny Essays and Dirty Jokes at the Pabst Theater

david sedaris at the pabst theater 2013 milwaukee
Photo credit: Benjamin Wick
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“Humorist” is a rather ill-defined word, but it does have certain highbrow connotations. In contrast to “comedian,” which still comes with a faint hint of nightclub sleaze, “humorist” suggests someone whose output is more literary, more long-form and less jokey, which aptly describes that of author, essayist and regular NPR contributor David Sedaris, whose autobiographical tales, usually centering on life with his talented, eccentric family, possess a thoughtful, formal approach, but still manage to be uproariously funny. Yet while books, like his new Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, which debuted at number one on the New York Times Bestseller List, are his bread and butter, Sedaris’ revealing tales work even better when told by their protagonist in his own distinctive voice, as he did with a flair rivaling any standup Friday at the Pabst.

After a brief introduction from Mitch Teich of WUWM’s Lake Effect, Sedaris took the official-looking podium and opened with a joke, one that he explained had bombed at a fancy fundraiser a few nights before and which started out innocently enough, but quickly wrapped up in a punchline involving a grandmother with a fist up her ass. You could tell the upscale, almost exclusively white audience wasn’t expecting something so blue, especially just minutes into the show, with some audible gasping mixed in among the laughter, but almost immediately saying something you’d never hear him utter on NPR, as if to say, “this is most definitely not Prairie Home Companion,” proved a disarming ice-breaker and Sedaris had the crowd hanging on his every word as he progressed on to reading a few pieces.

The essays were diverse, like the lesson in American English for foreign business travelers which mostly involved exchanging meaningless pleasantries with airport cashiers and hotel clerks, but often came back to some central themes like aging, dying and, as usual, dealing with his family. In one, he finally submits to his father’s insistent demands that he get a colonoscopy, and, thanks to a dose of Propofol, Michael Jackson’s drug of choice, finds it an all but spiritual experience and in another attempts to have the perfect holiday gathering for his sisters, including the equally funny Amy, but soon realizes having houseguests presents a host of awkward challenges. Whatever comically unexpected situation the well-travelled Sedaris stumbles into though, he manages to find the human angle, retelling it in a way that’s vivid and witty, but unvarnished and relatable.

Between stories there was plenty of extemporaneous banter and off-the-cuff observations, along with segments where he read short, one-liner like entries from his diary or provided an extended, passionate, but still hilarious, book recommendation on behalf of Barbara Demick’s grim nonfiction selection Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. Despite the book review and the lively question and answer session that finished off the show, it was, in many ways, much like an average standup show, especially since most comedians’ material is as pre-determined as Sedaris’, only in a more conversational style and with the flexibility of not having been published. Whatever you’d ultimately call him, “humorist” working as well as anything else though it’s hard to say why (is it the podium?), all that really matters is that he’s extremely funny.