When word of David Sedaris’s return to Champaign’s historic Virginia Theatre began spreading back in August, the typical reaction seemed to be enthusiasm tempered with annoyance. Tickets, it soon came to be known, were going for a pretty penny. It’s hard for most of us to imagine what one person could do in the Virginia Theatre over the course of an hour and fifteen minutes that might be worth the $42.50 to $55 price tag he was asking.
Hell, it was hard for me to understand, and I’ve seen him before — the last time he was in town, when tickets went for around 30 bucks a pop. His performance that time around was great, as I recall. Intense, well organized and immensely funny, he made it seem normal that we had all dressed up and convened in a common place to hear him read out loud. Sedaris is, after all, a literary phenomenon. One of the only authors in the world today with mass market appeal and literary relevance, he gives a live audience something that cannot be adequately conveyed on the page: an actual voice. And yet, even in light of this, I found myself judging this most recent performance in relation to an exorbitant ticket price that I personally did not have to pay.
This is not a fair way to evaluate an artist. I appreciate that, so I’ll do my best to compartmentalize the implicit insult of such a rattling cost of admission with my otherwise very pleasant experience as a member of Sedaris’s audience. This is an experience that cannot be compared to that of hearing his recorded voice in your car or your kitchen, in part because his live performances are not as polished as his radio pieces. He coughs, laughs and stumbles on his words from time to time making it seem as if, beneath the massive cultural cache he lugs around with him, there might actually be a real person up there. But being in Sedaris’s audience is more than sharing the room with him. This was never more evident than when he read his fable “The Turtle, the Toad and the Duck,” a story that deals with culture, cruelty and customer service. Sedaris’s reading here was so wry, so wrought with subtle vocal insinuations that the audience was in stitches over some rather terrifying prospects.
It is important to point out here that Sedaris knows cruel — he knows how to explicate it in its most cynical of forms while presenting it as if it were the funniest thing in the world. The result of which on Friday was an audience, filled with mostly rational people, laughing hysterically at the prospect of the three aforementioned animals beating, burning and stuffing a variety of shit-smeared melons down the throat of a moderately rude customer service representative — a snake, of course. Then, at the height of our demented glee, Sedaris admonished us with a most unexpected narrative twist that invoked a collective and embarrassed glottal stop from nearly the entire audience. Indeed, this is what Sedaris’s work does best: it puts our habits and our culture in a different context, forcing us to see ourselves as we are seen. Indeed, it exposes us to the parts of our brain we are unaware of with such a clean aesthetic, we are powerless but to appreciate his admonishment, his criticism, his vision. By using the fable, he is in essence asking us to do what he has done so well throughout his career, for Sedaris is perhaps best known for scrutinizing himself, his family and his friends in order to illustrate instances of strangeness, folly or moral hypocrisy.
He has gone about this differently as of late. On Friday, he read only new, yet-to-be-published work. As you might expect, his family, his sexuality and his social attitudes were still featured, but never with the vividness of his older work. Perhaps this is a response to the most common criticism of his earlier work — that it is exploitative — but I’m not convinced of that being his only motivation. During the question and answer session, it became increasingly evident that he was not all together comfortable with the strange sense of familiarity many fans seemed to have with him and his loved ones. The separation between David Sedaris the artist and the person seemed evident in his response to several queries over his family. Always gracious but never very expository, Sedaris engaged each of these questions with a polite smile and a specifically vague response.
Ironically, there were other times in the performance that he came off as being extraordinarily intimate. For example, after reading two essays in a row — one delving into his own coming of age, the other about an “almost near death experience” — he let the audience know that both pieces were works in progress. In my experience, it is a very rare thing for a writer to share an unfinished piece with someone outside their circle of trust, let alone a whole theater full of strangers. If that wasn’t enough, he then went on to read from his own diary, a segment that contained some of the funniest moments of the entire night. His observations and imitations were cutting, often reflecting the surreality of the banal. Upon being filtered through his mind, images of gaseous airplane attendants and self-entitled restaurant patrons seemed at once common and outrageous. He even introduced many of us to a new vocabulary word (writers note: if you don’t know what the phrase “crop dusting” means outside of an agricultural context, ask someone who attended the reading to explain it for you).
After the show, while wading through the masses, I began to think of the first time I ever read David Sedaris. I was nineteen, and my roommate at the time let me borrow Holidays on Ice, a book of short stories and essays that polemicize things like family and Christmas and holiday cheer. Naturally, I loved it. (Loved it so much that, while reading it at Merry Ann’s Diner and laughing out loud more than once, I was asked by a waitress if I could keep it down.) I was having a beer with that very roommate around the time Sedaris announced his return to C-U, and we both decided that we wouldn’t be attending: tickets were just too damn expensive. In the end, she didn’t go — and judging by the islands of empty seats scattered about the place like little archipelagos of frugality, she wasn’t the only one. Which is a shame, really. Honestly, had I not been given comped tickets for writing this very review, I wouldn’t have gone, which would have been unfortunate, because after all was said and done, it was a hell of a good show.