David Sedaris turned me down for an interview, and I've got a list of small-skulled epithets I'm burning to throw his way. Shortie! Whiny expatriate! Black lung! Mensa reject! Tourettes boy! Fag!
Or, I could just point this out: the now-famous, No. 1 best-selling American humorist used to clean people's shitters. That's right-before he was regaling National Public Radio listeners with sarcastic, self-deprecating tales of working as Crumpet the Elf at Macy's Santaland, Sedaris was basically a maid, waging war against dead skin cells and hunting cat hair with a Hoover.
You could call the man an insufferable, pint-sized homo with the voice of a midget and the IQ of a third-grader, but I'm betting nothing-nothing-would piss Sedaris off as much as mentioning his short career as someone who waxed the fake hardwood of haughty Manhattanites.
But in order to really get his goat, you'd have to say it in a positive way. Let him overhear you telling your friend at his reading that, "Yeah, Martha. He is funny. And get this-he used to clean apartments for a living!"
Treat him as though you've just discovered a typing monkey.
Dec. 23, 1992 was the day the world first heard hero-monkey Sedaris. His congested, nasally voice relayed a different sort of Christmas tale on NPR's Morning Edition-an autobiographical vignette of working at Macy's as an elf. It was the pessimistic underbelly of Norman Rockwell's America. Sedaris described himself dressed in green tights, ushering NYC borough brats to Santa's lap. When one mother said she'd have him fired, he whispered back, "I'll have you killed." The image of a disgruntled mall elf imparting death threats to Macy-moms totally shattered the good-cheer ruse of Christmas. The cultural façade broke into a thousand shards of laughter.
NPR was immediately flooded with calls for tapes and transcripts of what the writer called The Santaland Diaries. It was the most-requested piece in the station's history.
Months earlier, NPR producer-anchor Ira Glass had discovered Sedaris at a small New York club, where the 30-something Greek-American was reading his material. Over the next few years, Glass would help turn Sedaris into the nation's largest literary funnyman since J.D. Salinger. Sedaris wrote and read his material; Glass edited it and sent it out across the national airwaves. The creative duo rivaled that of Bernie Taupin and Elton John or, more correctly, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld.
In fact, the producer of Seinfeld asked Sedaris to write for the show, but later deemed him "too idiosyncratic." Sedaris chose to keep his job as a house cleaner, which NPR proudly announced every time he would read on air. He wasn't a writer-he was a house cleaner who could write, the greatest literary discovery since SOS pads.
The radio eventually killed his cleaning gig-listeners would call and order his services, but he'd arrive to find a clean apartment and a fan who just wanted to chat (they would pay his cleaning rate, which was nice). So Sedaris heeded the advice of his book publishers and quit to become a full-time writer. The effort has resulted in four collections of essays-Barrel Fever, Christmas on Ice, Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day, the latter two spending quality time on the best-seller list.
The stories are largely about his family-tell-all mockeries of his parents and five siblings in which no one comes out looking normal or really very sane. His late mother was a chain-smoking realist with an apparently short-but-sweet vocabulary. His father is a tragically boring computer engineer known for intricate diatribes on mathematics and storing perishable food for abnormally long times. His brother is a foul-mouthed hick, too lazy to use his intelligence for much beyond creatively conjugating the word "motherfucker."
And then there was Sedaris himself. As a kid, he'd shown a Tourettes-like propensity for licking and touching everything in sight. He's a two-time dropout, one-time college graduate who once conspired with his paraplegic roommate to steal things because, as he explained, no one suspects people in wheelchairs. A neat freak. A soap opera junkie. An unrepenting chain-smoker. A taxidermy hobbyist. A recovering speed addict. A recovering New Yorker who moved to France with his boyfriend but is scared to death of speaking French (even though he took classes and understands the language).
Now, everyone from Tourettes specialists to Greeks to gays has claimed Sedaris as their own. Though his greatest attribute is not leaning toward any one cultural identity, the gay community stands to benefit the most from Sedaris' work-specifically, the normalization of gay culture.
From Bird Cage to Will and Grace, American media is flooded with images of gays flaunting, cavorting, sashaying, prancing and gossiping. Sedaris, on the other hand, is a relatively normal, boring gay guy who shows no proclivity for proclaiming "Oh, Mary!" in public.
Through humor and a very human vulnerability, Sedaris is able to weave the queer experience into his American narratives without giving heteros the heebie jeebies. Right now, he stands as the most influential gay writer in America-one who is just as flighty, superficial, judgmental and caddy as you.
Only, he's funnier-much, much funnier.
David Sedaris reads at Spreckels Theatre, 8 p.m. on Oct. 22. $22.50-$33.50. 619-220-8497.