David Sedaris has a mean streak. I guess I should have been prepared for it from having read his books, but somehow, what comes across as a wicked sense of humor on the page sounds downright cruel when it’s said out loud. The final straw came at the end of a charming essay centering on village life in Normandy, France, where Sedaris now lives. Having described in detail the fate of Francis, a local war veteran imprisoned on pedophilia charges, shunned by his fellow villagers, and finally dying of cancer, Sedaris closed the piece with a sucker-punch joke about the cancer increasing Francis’s train discount.
In Britain, there’s a great slang phrase, to “rip the piss” out of someone, which means to ridicule them in such a way that the effect is shocking, reducing them temporarily to a kind of dry husk. When the Brits do it, they follow it up with a hearty slap on the back and buy you another lager to replace what they’ve taken from you. Uptight Americans have two choices in the face of such taunting; to get defensive and self-righteous, or learn to laugh and knock back a rejoinder, or another beer. Sedaris has a starker style. He takes down his subject with a kind of cold satisfaction, pauses to make sure everyone noticed, and moves along.
It’s not like I spent the evening sitting ramrod straight with my lips pursed. I enjoyed plenty of guffaws and even a brief coughing attack when I choked on my own spit. But I thought Sedaris’s funniest moments had nothing to do with humiliating other people-and the mean jokes didn’t seem to amuse him much either. Only once did he laugh out loud at his own writing, and it was when recounting the ludicrous English wording on an emergency pamphlet in a Japanese hotel.
In contrast, hunched-shouldered, nasal-voiced nerd Sarah Vowell poked fun at her subjects in a way that left them their dignity, even in an odd sense exalted their idiosyncrasies, their blunders, and their faults. In Vowell’s writing, the complaints of prissy 19th-century cartographer Charles Proyce elicited affection as well as teasing, and her advice column responses had the sting of sharp humor, with plenty of heart thrown in.
It’s not that humor always has to be nice. Say what you will, but I like it best when David Sedaris talks pretty.