Serious Clowning: Satirist David Sedaris on life, death and his latest collection of essays
By Lou Fancher
When humorist and writer David Sedaris and I talk about his new collection of essays, Happy Go Lucky (Little Brown), two expected but nonetheless delightful things happen. First, we laugh a lot, and second, it’s impossible to tell if he’s dead serious or clowning.
Our laughter comes most often at his expense and involves stories from marathon-length book signings he conducts while on tour nearly 200 days annually or descriptions of his fervor for shopping or the attention-grabbing fashion fetishes on display during Sedaris’ television and speaker circuit appearances. I’m liberated from my dilemma about whether or not tales he tells are grim-true or merely jester-joking when I realize no choice is necessary. Sedaris in conversation is both nakedly honest and hilariously outrageous. Like a one-man circus, his humor offers the ferocity of (untamed) lions, the jaded darkness of seen-it-all ringmasters, the danger and daring of high-wire trapeze artists translated into language, and the ghoulishness and giggles of clowns—all delivered in sparkling tones that mesmerize like sequined, feathery or in all ways over-the-top costumes.
Which means the eery black-and-white jacket image on his new book that features a clown mirrors the yin yang of Sedaris’ writing. The 18 Happy Go Lucky essays are expectedly entertaining, but also were written largely during recent years when his 96-year-old father died, the coronavirus pandemic and variants raged, Black Lives Matter protests erupted on the streets, and he and people around the world suffered shelter-in-place lockdowns and unpredictable re-openings for months and months.
The archival photo taken by Joseph Steinmetz shows a clown, poodle and an androgynous child. To explain how it came to be used, Sedaris tells me the book title’s origin story. “The book was originally going to be called ‘The testicle of an old sparrow in winter,’ which is something I saw written on a jar in a national history museum in Scotland. It was a sparrow in a jar of formaldehyde and handwritten on the label. Isn’t that just poetry? I saw it eight years ago and thought, ‘That’s going to be a title for a book,’ and then the problem was big chain stores. I think Walmart was the first one, said they wouldn’t carry the book if it had the word testicle in the title.”
Sedaris wasn’t married to the testicle title and so chose instead the title of his favorite essay as an alternative. “I decided I wanted a creepy clown. They kept sending me these fake creepy clowns or happy clowns. So I found this clown. And they said yeah, but that’s creepy! I said exactly, that’s why I want it. The clown, the child and the dog are all looking in different directions. His hat looks like it’s made of rubber, painted. I love everything about that clown. I’d wear what he’s wearing.”
When Sedaris says Happy Go Lucky is “the best thing I’ve ever written,” that’s saying a lot, considering his track record: 13 published best-selling books with over 10 million copies in print; three Grammy award nominations for spoken word and comedy albums, plays written with his sister, Amy Sedaris, an Obie Award-winner among them; several wildly popular, original radio pieces he made on the public radio show, This American Life; decades of high-visibility regular essays in The New Yorker and other prominent publications; and a tidy stack of literary awards, including the Thurber Prize for American Humor.
The new essays touch on the politicization of masks, advice to people graduating from college, his generously spaced “summer teeth,” the way white people shouting “Black Lives Matter” at protests horrifically reminded him of the “singsongy way a fishmonger” announces the catch-of-the-day; adventures with fellow clothes hounds (especially his sister, Amy), and the people he encounters at book signings.
The most impactful essays slam open the door on families and his thorny relationship with his mercilessly brutal, acerbic father, or essays baldly addressing savage subjects such as American gun culture and the many school shootings that happen in the United States. Set in an otherwise jovial story in which he recalls a gun safety class during which he learned how to fire a Glock and a .38 Special, he notes it happened a short time before the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012. Impossibly, gun violence stinks like a rotten egg, even as a reader laughs at Sedaris’ armed antics.
There’s a lot of death in the essays, which is where our conversation finds its centerpiece. When I tell him how relieved I was to read “died” instead of “passed” or “departed,” Sedaris says not everyone he met on his recent 42-city book tour felt the same. “It was interesting. When a parent dies and it’s a complicated relationship, people get uncomfortable when you don’t grieve in a traditional way, but in a way in which it means you don’t care, basically. I think it’s all of our worst fears; that we’re going to die and people aren’t going to mourn us. But then, you have an opportunity to fix that by the way you live. You can be a good person and people will miss you.”
Sedaris says unlike with his father, when his mother died, “it was horrible, horrible horrible.” But immediately, he finds a laugh-at-yourself angle. “On the plus side with my father, I didn’t have to go through that kind of grief twice.” He says that for all the longer pieces in the new book, the one that summed up his feelings best is the four-page story, A Better Place. “I’m listening to people speak clichés at the funeral; people saying he must have been such a wonderful person to have lived such a long life. At the end of the essay, I say nobody wants to be in this stupid restaurant, especially not me. I’m only eating because I need to keep my strength up, because I’m grieving. It seems the truest. That’s the closest I come to crying, when I read that line out loud. Someone can be super difficult—and still, it’s not traditional grief. Traditional grief is just much cleaner than what I’m experiencing, which is kind of a lingering anger, lingering resentment.”
His father set a number of things in place so that after death “there would be little bombs that would explode upon me,” Sedaris tells me. “Like when I graduated from college, he said he’d set up an IRA for me and talked for years about it. You know, he never set it up. And he left me the minimum amount of money you can leave somebody so they wouldn’t contest the will. When I found out about it and confronted him, that was his big disappointment, that I’d found out before he died. It was also in his will that I would get any boats or cars that he owned. We’d never had a boat and I don’t even know how to drive. My father took pains to sell his 1964 mint-condition Porsche a year before he died just so I wouldn’t get it. It’s nasty things, hurtful things. I’m not hurting for money, but it’s not about that. It bothers me that I’m allowing him to hurt me. Everyone else in my family is getting two-and-a-half million dollars. If he had left me that two-and-a-half million dollars, I’d probably be thinking, you know, he’s not so bad, maybe I just misunderstood him. But to have been treated that way in life and then in death as well? I feel pathetic being a 65-year-old man whining because his father wasn’t nice. And then it bothers me that I’m being pathetic.”
I ask Sedaris about anxiety and grief expressed as anger in our culture. He names two primary drivers. “During Covid, a face mask turned into a campaign button. In New York City, where everybody votes the same, everybody had a mask on. And then you get on an airplane in Houston, Texas, every airplane ride I took until the mask mandate was lifted was a confrontation. Someone would say to a flight attendant, ‘Let me get this straight. You can catch Covid from me when I’m sitting without my mask on, but you can’t catch it when I take my mask off to sip a Diet Coke?’ There was anger in the air every day. A lot of that went away when the mandate went away, because you could look at somebody and you couldn’t tell by looking at them who they voted for.
“It’s social media too. It used to be that if you were upset about something, you’d write an angry letter. Then you’d go to your stamp drawer and see you only had one stamp left, and you would think, do I use that stamp for my gas bill, or to complain that there wasn’t enough ice in my Diet Coke? Social media encourages dissent, anger, complaints. Because I’m not on Twitter, nothing makes people angrier than if you don’t have a platform to receive their rage. I just got sacks of mail from my publisher and I’m getting letters from people who would normally tweet stuff.” Sedaris reads aloud one from someone named Patricia. She writes that his new book is “mediocre at best,” along with personal slams, then tacks on a P.S.: “You were funnier when you were poor and a nobody, and now you write about being a rich jerk and you aren’t funny anymore. You’re just a rich jerk, the worst kind. Jerk.”
Sedaris ponders why letters like Patricia’s stick in his craw. “The 40 letters I answered before that were all delightful. They said they loved it, laughed, read the book to their sister out loud over the phone…. Why does the negative letter from this woman who wrote to say she hates me stick?”
It’s likely stuck because Sedaris writes from vulnerability—writing uncomfortable truths that frequently reveal his darkest thoughts, like while mourning the tragic loss of over a million people to Covid in one essay, he remembers objecting to (and writing) why he didn’t get to choose any of them. “I didn’t mean to say that, but then I thought, I think everybody feels that way, you know? Why did this person die and not that person over there?”
He works without outlines and likes it when a truth pops up unexpectedly. One essay, Bruised, had festered for decades until suddenly, its realness arrived. “It had presented itself to me. All I had to do was pick up these pieces and arrange them.” It’s well-known that many of his stories circle around people he meets at book signings. He considers it “my job as a gentleman” to play the host, put people at ease, chat and most importantly, listen. “I just try to get a sense of people. It makes me think of this one young woman I met whose hair was in fantastic braids. She’d just gotten her driver’s license, so I drew one of her braids dripping with blood and hanging on the branch of a tree. I told her that if she wasn’t a safe driver, she was going to lose one of her braids in a car accident. But if you’re a safe driver, this won’t happen to you. She laughed. It was a really good drawing; what else could she do? When you go to a book signing, you expect ‘best wishes’ or some banal thing like that. People just laugh because they assume that everything I say or draw is supposed to be funny. It’s sort of frustrating, but liberating at the same time.”
Sedaris is most liberated when he’s shopping. He never buys anything online and says, “During Covid, my sister Amy and I went over 100 days without shopping and it was awful.” He’s fully aware how pitiful that sounds in light of larger losses endured, but turns his energy into a vow to support shopkeepers and “be right there at front doors the day they reopen.” He admits shopping will never fill the crater gouged in his soul by his father, but concludes, “I still love stores: how they’re laid out, talking to shop clerks, walking out with something. I just love shopping.” The purchases are not always to fill his own closets. He recently participated in a billboard project for the clothing store, Valentino. “All I had to do was give them an essay about love I’d written 20 years ago. They gave me $15,000 worth of clothes. I brought (partner) Hugh, my sister Amy and my editor Cristina to the store and said get whatever you want. It was the kind of thing you always dream of doing, taking people on a shopping spree.”
We talk a long time about people whose fashion creativity he admires—top among them, people living on the streets who might sculpt garbage bags into headdresses or pin kitchen towels worn like skirts over a pair of jeans. He says people think he should wear only “65-year-old man clothes” that make him invisible, but a typical, yet-to-debut outfit he put together for an appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert (he tested positive for Covid and had to cancel) is far from “invisible” fashion. “I was going to wear a pair of lavender pants, with a pink shirt, with a black sport coat that looks like I have a black and yellow checkered coat tied around my waist. It’s a coat sewn to a sport coat. With white clown shoes. I thought it looked wicked. It was like a bumblebee in spring.” Or a bumblebee stuffed into an Easter egg, I suggest, considering the pastel pants and shirt. Together, we laugh, but I wonder if he’s just being polite. And of course, Sedaris is doing it all: sharing a laugh and dead serious about being polite.