David Sedaris is a funny person and the author of numerous books and a zillion stories and essays in publications such as The New Yorker, and is a darling of the Public Radio crowd, via several appearances on “This American Life.” He has a radio program now well into its fourth season on the BBC. His sister Amy is the lady who recently portrayed Pam the apartment broker on Comedy Central’s “Broad City,” so yeah, it runs in the family, whatever “it” is, you know?
In advance of Mr. Sedaris’ April 7 appearance here at Baltimore’s Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, where he will sign books and speak and read selected works, we phoned him at his home in West Sussex, England.
[European phone-ringing sound]
Tiny Faint Distant Voice: Hello?
City Paper: (Silence, panic at the faint sound coming from the iPhone, terror, failure.)
CP: (Tentatively, yet overly loud, in the manner of speaking with the hard-of-hearing or a foreigner) Mr. Sedaris?
David Sedaris: (Tiny, faintly) Yeah, um-hmm?
CP: (Longer silence, until realization that speaker option is not being employed on iPhone. Relief, success.) Hey, this is Joe MacLeod in Baltimore.
CP: Good to talk to you.
DS: (curtly) You too.
CP: (Recovering from terror spike of potential catastrophic failure of interview) So you’re gonna be in Baltimore, Tuesday, April 7, at the Meyerhoff.
DS: Ahh, I’m gonna take your word for it (laughs) for that.
CP: Very good. Well, you are, and your show starts at 7:30, just in case you need that.
CP: Do you do the VIP ticket experience, or anything like that?
DS: No, I like to sign books before the show. I’ve signed books before and after. When you sign books before the show, it gives you an opportunity to meet people in the audience, and kind of say, “OK, I’m gonna read that story to you tonight.” On this tour I believe I’m going to 43 cities in 44 days
CP: Oh boy.
DS: So, understandably, let’s say you’ve been at it for like a month already, and sometimes it’s time to go to the theater, and you think “I don’t wanna go to the theater,” but then I sit down to sign books beforehand, and all I have to do is meet that first person in line, and I’m just there, loving it,and can’t wait for the show to start, and I find it really satisfying, and also these people want their book signed, it’s good for them to know that I’m gonna be there an hour beforehand. I love it when you’re signing books before a show, and you meet somebody and they say, “we drove three hours to get here.” And you think, that’s great, now you can go home right after the show, I’m so glad I got you first.
CP: Are you irritated by questions about your family?
DS: Sometimes I feel people can be too familiar, you know? They’ll say “What’s Gretchen [one of Sedaris’ siblings] up to?” It makes it seem like they know her, and I think that they think that they know her, because I’ve written about her. When someone says “what is your sister Gretchen doing” that’s completely different, to me, than “what’s Gretchen up to.” Every night on tour, every night, someone will say, “what does your family feel when you write about them,” and it’s interesting to me, I would say 99 percent of the time that question is asked—and again, it’s asked every night—the person phrases it in such a way, that he or she can get a laugh for themself. Like, “how on Earth can your poor family even stand to talk to you,” or “your family must run when they see you coming,” it’s always phrased so the question can get a laugh. And that’s so interesting to me. There are other questions I get every single night, but for some reason people try to get a laugh from that question, I’ve never understood it. When I feel people are being too familiar (laughs)—I’ve done this so many times, oh my God—they’ll say “Where’s Hugh?” Hugh is my boyfriend. And I’ll say “Uhm Hugh was killed in a car accident (choking up) about two weeks before I started my tour. Next question?” Every member of my family is dead (laughs).
CP: “They were all murdered by another family member,” yeah.
DS: Yeah! And for some reason I absolutely love doing it, and a woman came up to the front of the line, and she slapped a note on my table, and stormed off, and it said “For your information, joking about people dying is never funny.” I have such a problem with that, when people say “‘Blank’ is never funny,” I’m really amazed sometimes at the things I laugh at. I mean, there’s something to be said for giving something a little time, you know, if a tragedy happens, but I mean, Sarah Silverman has said some really funny things about rape, really funny things. Someone less skilled than she is might not be able to pull it off, but I’ve seen it done. I’ve seen people say things about 9/11—I mean I’ve heard them—so anything’s possible, I just don’t ever see the point in cutting yourself off for that. A couple of years ago on tour I collected jokes. I said when you come to get a book signed please tell me a joke. I’ve heard a lot of jokes over and over again, and I’ve heard jokes that were lame, you know, I don’t like to fake laugh, but you don’t want to embarrass anybody, you know, they’re putting themselves out by telling a joke. Jokes with three things, you know, there’s a priest, there’s a rabbi, a witchdoctor, those jokes take forever. I said to people, I want you to tell me gay jokes. Everyone’s afraid to do it. Gay jokes would be like, “what does a gay horse say: ‘Hayyy.’”
DS: Which, anyway. Finally this woman comes up and says, “you’re gonna hate me.” And I said, “I swear to you that I am not,” and she told me her joke, and it’s: “How are fags like tumbleweeds? They blow, and they blow, and they blow, until they wind up stuck to a fence in Wyoming.”
DS: (Laughs) Oh my goodness, that is such a good joke.
CP: Oh, that’s horrible. (laughs)
DS: Just shocking. It’s good! You gotta give her credit, it’s a good joke! More and more I find people want to confront me with absolutes. It’s never funny to laugh about, you know, dot-dot-dot. I have a show on the BBC. I recorded half a new season in December, and I’m gonna record the other half next week. I sent a new essay to my editor—I sent two new essays—and one of them had the word “pussy” in it. So he wrote back and said, “good news, BBC is fine with you saying ‘pussy.’” (Laughs) They had something on not long ago, a comedian, and he was on television, on the BBC, and he was talking about the Queen, and his line was, “I’m so old, my pussy is haunted.” And people complained that he was being ageist. (laughs) They didn’t have a problem with that word.
CP: Selective outrage!
DS: Yeah, he said that’s fine, that you used the word “pussy,” he said in the other story, though, look what you’ve got. You’ve got a woman being set on fire and thrown off a bridge, another woman being punched in the face, you’ve got a drunk person throwing up on the head of a newborn baby (laughs). You’ve got, somebody being stabbed, and you’ve got somebody being shot by the police for no reason, and you celebrate that person’s death. And I said, “Yeah, but you make it sound (laughs), you make it sound like a bad thing.” I mean, if you’re gonna do a certain kind of writing, if you’re gonna get people’s attention, you kind of need to go big, and this whole essay, it wasn’t condoning any of that behavior, it was saying how once you get a cause and you’re fervent in your cause, then you’re able to overlook all sorts of things. Like, it was making fun of me, not making fun of those things. Anyway, I’ll be curious to read it on my tour and see if I can get it to work. It makes me laugh. I have a cause now. Really all I care about is litter. England is filthy. Filthy. People just throw everything out the car window.
CP: Oh jeez, don’t look at the streets in Baltimore too hard.
DS: I really will, because I bet you anything they’re nothing compared to England. I know driving across the United Sates, when I’m out in the country, I’m driving on the highway or something, it is nothing compared to what it’s like here. You wouldn’t believe it here. I spend hours every day picking up litter. I spent five hours today, picking up litter on the side of the road. It occurred to me a couple of weeks ago, I am against the death penalty, except for littering (laughs).
CP: You’re out there all day picking up litter and thinking who threw this out there and what you’d like to do to them.
DS: There’s certain things you find, and you don’t trust their weight. I found a paper bag, a couple months ago, and I thought, what is in here? I was on a bad curve, a dangerous place. I look inside the bag, and it’s a rat. It’s a big rat, and it’s dead, but it’s not stiff or anything, it’s like it just died minutes before I picked the bag up. Then, a couple weeks ago, I found a plastic bag, with a rat inside it, and also a baby rat, the size of my little toe, in the same plastic bag. I dunno if they crawled into the bag, and died, or, I dunno how that happened. Today I pick up a McDonald’s bag, and I think, hm, there’s something about the weight of this bag, I wonder what’s going on in here.” It was a latex glove filled with urine. Somebody had peed into the glove, and tied it off,.
CP: Right, it was a “trucker bomb,” right.
DS: Right, (laughs) a “trucker bomb,” is that what you called it?
CP: Yeah, in the United States, people do it into pop bottles, and throw ’em on the side of the road.
DS: Yeah, I find a lot of trucker bombs. Sometimes people here will defecate into a plastic bag, or a styrofoam takeout tray, and throw that out the window.
CP: How do you even do that?!? If you’re in a car?
DS: I wonder if it’s a passenger that does it? I figured it’d be hard to do it if you’re driving.
CP: Well yeah!
DS: I figure it’d be pretty hard to tie off a latex glove while you’re driving, too.
CP: Oh my god.
DS: It’s pretty rare to find anything interesting. I found that glove today, but there’s not another thing I picked up today that would intrigue me in any way. It was all candy wrappers and potato chip bags, and Red Bull cans, the same stuff over and over again. I try not to think about it and I try not to get angry, I listen to books on tape, or podcasts of something, and every now and then it pisses me off. When I do a stretch of road, especially if it’s a dangerous stretch of road, and this woman who lives next door said “Oh, I saw someone threw a McDonald’s bag, down at the corner,” and I said “Goddammit, I just cleaned that road!” I would want for people to say “Oh, look, this is so clean, I’m not gonna litter here,” but the kinds of people who litter, they don’t notice that. I think they should set up a roadblock, and fine anyone with a clean car. Don’t you think that’s a good way to do it?