Friday, May 17, 2013

Funny ("Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls" by David Sedaris)

I don't remember when or how I first discovered David Sedaris, but I know that I was young, he was on the radio, and I laughed my ass off. There was something so strangely refreshing about him--assured but self-effacing, unabashedly gay and joking about it long before that was even thinkable, with a nasal voice and so-dry-its-almost-a-desert sense of humor--that I instantly had to read everything he ever wrote...which, thankfully, included dozens upon dozens of essays in both books and online magazines. And the more I read, the more I realized he was one of those rare people who manages to confront some incredibly difficult topics--racism, sex, death, and even varied bodily functions--with an oppeness that makes you realize he's more normal than any of us, simply because he's willing to embrace how abnormal he is. He understands that we are strange, off-center people living in a world of other strange, off-center people pretending to be on the straight and narrow, and that epic fantasy of ours is a never-ending punchline.*

At the time I began reading his work, Sedaris was in his mid-thirties and early forties, though some of his essays had been written when he was even younger. I followed him as the years went on--one of the few staples of my youth who didn't become boring or passe--and keep up with everything he did:  his New Yorker stories; his appearances on NPR and Letterman; and his book of modern fables, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, which many of his admirers panned but I found funny enough to include in my freshmen English class.

As the years went on, though, I began to notice a change. The humorous, laugh-out-loud punch that typified his early essays--"The Youth in Asia," "Six to Eight Black Men"--drifted away, and his newer writings were funny in a less ostentatiout, more thoughtful way. Hence, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, his newest collection, which I read over two days while walking on a treadmill. Had this been one of his earlier books, this would've been a risky endeavor: one unexpected witticism about urine, dogs, or bathroom phone calls would've sent me falling off the machine, probably into a nearby piece of furniture, severely injuring myself. With this book, however, the most I mustered was a few hearty chuckles at certain places.

But that doesn't mean Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls isn't funny. In fact, it's just as sharp, insightful, and satirical as anything he's done. What's changed is something that cannot be avoided: all of us--Sedaris, his friends and family, his readers--have grown older. Humor is an artform in the right hands, and just like any skill--painting, sculpting, acting, singing, storytelling--humor changes with time. Nothing is constant, especially when wielded by someone who creates:  they gain new experiences, new insights and outlooks; their attitude towards their topics change; their  understandings mature. Sedaris has undergone the same kinds of changes, which is most notable in how he approaches stories about his father. Where the elder Sedaris used to be portrayed as an honest but quirky patriarch--"The Youth in Asia" is perhaps the best example--he's now presented as a man who loves his children but doesn't seem to know what to do with them parent-wise. In Sedaris' newest recollections, his father is a brutally honest family man who seems to feel put off by the intricacies of parenting, to the point where he swoons over a child on his son's swim team rather than David himself, sits down to dinner in his underwear, and harasses his children into getting colonoscopies. It's as though he views his children as adults-in-training rather than growing adolescents, and he can't seem to understand why they don't see the world in the same way he does. (These scenes with his father are also this collection's heart: Sedaris understands, even as he puts his father on humorous display, how much the old man has shaped his own outlook and attitude towards the world.)

Added to the mix are a few monologue written, as he points out in a very short introduction, for Forensics students. This is funny on the surface, considering how frequently Sedaris' pieces are used by high school students in competition, and even more so when you begin reading them: each is written from the point of view of someone who is repulsive, violent, and/or idiotic--a Tea Party activist, an anti-gay suburban husband, a fundamentalist grandmother--and in such a manner that it could never be read in a Forensics competition because of its harsh language and a deep satire that doesn't translate well in front of audiences.

At first, I shrugged off these short pieces as filler--after all, they're hard to identify until you're a paragraph or two into them, and they seem ill-fitted and dropped haphazardly into the book--but came to realize they're probably the most interesting parts of this collection, not because they're funnier or manage to elicit from-the-gut chuckles, but because they're Sedaris as his most blatant:  where the rest of his book--his essays--are delivered straight-faced and with nary a glance towards the subtle, these monologues are Sedaris winking at us. Yes, he's saying, we may all be strange and abnormal people trying to function as a society...but at least we're not this bad. These characters--the gullible anti-Obama activist, the hypocritical Christian, the callous and vengeful sister--are caricatures taken to hyperbolic extremes to make a point about those around us. They're wholly ridiculous and unbelievable, sure, but Sedaris knows that a caricature cannot exist without some element of truth...and sometimes, the truth about ourselves is more than we want to admit. Sometimes.

*For what it's worth, my favorite Sedaris essay is, and probably always will be, "Six to Eight Black Men," in which Sedaris highlights the ridiculousness of an entire culture's Christmas celebrations simply by describing them...and, in turn, highlights the ridiculousness of any and all Christmas celebration.