David Sedaris: Satirist Ends Convocation '07
At a quarter past midnight early Wednesday morning, writer David Sedaris was as engaging as ever, signing book after book in the lobby of Finney Chapel. Though his reading had ended almost three hours before, a captivated crowd still surrounded the lively satirist.
Eager students began lining up outside the chapel doors around 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday to hear Sedaris, the last speaker in the Oberlin Convocation Series, that evening at 8. Passers-by probably wondered why such a crowd had formed that early in the day. Hours elapsed, filled with anticipation. The doors finally opened at 7; those gathered burst through them to secure the best seats.
When Dean of Students Linda Gates stepped onstage, she could barely get a word out — the crowd could not stop clapping. Sedaris sat quietly to her right, thumbing through a substantial folder, smiling to himself as the masses roared.
Gates gave a brief introduction, interrupted by cheers from the packed audience, before Sedaris took the podium.
“Not every word of tonight’s program is true,” he said, pointing out the “lies” in his essays. This introduction quickly revealed itself to be one such satirical essay, full of its own “inaccuracies.” The piece was also a tongue-in-cheek allusion to James Frey’s 2003 memoir A Million Little Pieces, which disappointed millions with its misrepresentations and threw Oprah Winfrey into a rage.
“Play loose with the facts and people get hurt,” Sedaris continued. “Fortunately, we have the media to help us distinguish between an important lie and an unimportant lie.”
The audience had been waiting all year to hear Sedaris. When tickets became available on March 12 at noon, there was already a winding line that reached the street outside Hall. Central Ticket Service distributed 500 tickets in the first 20 minutes; all tickets were gone within two hours. Although there are only 1250 available seats in Finney, CTS gave out 1350 tickets.
Once CTS ran out of tickets, many students resorted to more creative methods of acquiring admission. The Oberlin online classifieds page was filled with ads posted by students either looking for tickets or offering to give or sell extras. One student held a writing contest, promising a ticket to the author of the best story; others scalped tickets at varying prices, from roughly $15 to $50.
Sedaris has authored immediate bestsellers such as Holidays on Ice and Me Talk Pretty One Day. His essays are also published in The New Yorker and Esquire. He has collaborated with his sister Amy to write several plays.
Dwarfed by the broad stage on which he stood and the expansive interior of Finney, Sedaris talked modestly to the large audience as if telling a story to a few friends. In a light blue shirt accented by a navy blue tie — on which there were only three white polka dots — his attire did not prepare the audience for what he was about to say.
Continuing his opening essay, he recounted an incident in which his wife, “Gail,” lost her uterus, an example of the tragic consequences of lies: “She was undressing one evening and there it was, lying like a still-born puppy in the crotch of her panties.”
It is important to note that Sedaris has no wife, let alone one named “Gail;” he is gay and is in a long-term relationship with a man named Hugh Hamrick.
It seemed like the crowd couldn’t laugh any harder, and then Sedaris said, “I wish I could tell you that the truth is always pretty — and never has blood bubbles or little hairs lying in it.”
Sedaris chose to read two essays, one of which was published in the November 29, 2004 issue of The New Yorker and the other of which was published in the August 2005 issue of GQ.
The first, “Old Faithful,” dealt with Sedaris’s own questions of fidelity and comfort in a relationship.
Having broken up with his first boyfriend of six years, Sedaris said, “I now had what the self-help book called relationship baggage, which I would carry around for the rest of my life. The trick was to meet someone with similar baggage, and form a matching set, but how would one go about finding such a person?”
Most of the sentiment brought up in this story is often shared by others. The expectant audience reacted to his hyperbolic descriptions with laughter, knowing that they possessed some of the same insecurities as Sedaris.
The second selection, “Town and Country,” explored Sedaris’s thoughts on the relationships between classes in American society — both social and economic.
On an airplane, Sedaris encountered a “stately couple” with an aura of sophistication. Sedaris was shocked to hear them cursing between every word.
“Shit is the tofu of cursing and can be molded to whichever conditions the speaker desires. Hot as shit. Windy as shit. I myself was confounded as shit, for how had I so misjudged these people?” Sedaris said. “Why, after all these years, did I still believe that expensive clothing signifies anything other than disposable income?”
Although Sedaris admitted that he could not imitate accents, his reading of a dialogue between himself and a sexual braggart of a foreign cab driver was very effective. He described himself as speaking “proper” English so that the driver would understand. Sedaris’s words, punctuated by the space between them, contrasted with the conversational flow of his prior delivery, grabbing the audience’s attention.
After his stories, Sedaris read a few entries from his diary, which were written mostly while visiting Japan or living in France, where he currently resides with Hamrick.
He found Japan’s mistranslated English labels and signs particularly amusing. A Hiroshima hotel sign instructed occupants how to act in emergencies including, “What to do when you are engulfed in flames.”
For the first time that evening, Sedaris broke into laughter, joining the audience that he had kept laughing all night, while he had been keeping a straight face.
At the end of the evening, an energized and enthusiastic crowd was reluctant to leave.