David Sedaris is no stranger to embarrassing encounters: he’s made a career out of them. The most popular American humorist since Woody Allen talks to Nigel Farndale about the tics that make him tick.
I know a lot, perhaps too much, about the slight, gap-toothed American sitting opposite me, dwarfed by a large brown sofa that is as wide as it is deep and tall. I know that he, David Sedaris, once picked up crabs from a pair of underpants he bought at a charity shop, that he has a tendency to let his mouth hang open when bored, and that his Greek grandmother never forgave his equally Greek father for marrying a non-Greek woman who had ‘two distinct eyebrows’.
I know he is lazy and owns a Stadium Pal, an external catheter used by sports fans who don’t want to miss any of the action when they take a ‘comfort break’. I know, too, that when he came out at the age of 21 – he’s 51 now – his best friend said she always knew. ‘It’s the way you run,’ she said. ‘You let your arms flop instead of holding them to your sides.’
What else? I know that he used to wear fake padded buttocks, because he has ‘no ass’, and that he considers his calves to be his single best attributes. When I ask about these now, as we sit in the Thames-side office of his publishers, he rolls up his trousers, stands, turns and stretches up on tiptoes to see over the back of the giant sofa and wave at an imaginary friend in the distance.
‘See?’ he says over his shoulder. ‘They’re almost comically muscular, don’t you think? The equivalent of Popeye’s forearms. It must be genetic because I don’t work on them. I think I should have my calves preserved for the nation when I die.’
I’m not the only one who knows all these things about him, by the way. The four million or so people around the world who have bought his books know them, too. His sixth, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, is published this month. And, as with the others, it is a collection of semi-autobiographical essays, some of which have appeared in The New Yorker. They are all about him, his family and his life, but how much he exaggerates the truth for comic effect is the question, the reason for the ‘semi’.
Did he really have such nightmare neighbours? Such dead-end jobs? Such strange encounters during his years as a hitchhiker? As with those other great semi-autobiographers Bill Bryson and Clive James, it doesn’t really matter – you’re just glad he wrote the books. And anyway, it’s in keeping with his sense of mischief. You suspect he considers it his mission in life to reduce the notoriously exacting fact checkers at The New Yorker to tears.
As a prose stylist he is often compared to that other great New Yorker writer James Thurber – dry, mordant, pitch perfect. As a human being, the most obvious comparison is with the comedian Larry David. Sedaris goes through life unintentionally winding people up, digging himself deeper, creating misunderstandings. His latest volume includes an account of an argument he had with a woman sitting next to him on a plane. When she fell asleep, he inadvertently coughed out the lozenge he was sucking and it landed in her lap. I won’t give away how he tries to extricate himself from this awkward situation, but suffice it to say it is a good illustration of how he manages to identify the absurdist humour that lies just below the surface of everyday life.
While we are talking, I notice there is a MacBook Air laptop on the floor by his feet. Nothing remarkable in that, except that, well, didn’t I read somewhere that he is so technophobic he only recently started using email? ‘I still don’t much,’ he says in a voice that manages to be clipped and prim, yet somehow also wispy. ‘Hugh [his partner of 16 years] bought me this because he was sick of us being stopped at security because of my typewriter. One security guard even asked me to turn my typewriter on. Anything that they haven’t seen a thousand times already that day is going to cause you problems.’
As a child growing up in the middle-class suburbs of Raleigh, North Carolina, Sedaris developed a repertoire of tics and obsessive/compulsive tendencies such as rocking and counting his steps, but the one that truly exasperated his teachers was his uncontrollable urge to lick light switches. He resolved most of them when he took up smoking as a teenager. It gave him something to do with his hands and focused his agitated mind.
He recently stopped smoking (a subject he wrote about at length, of course) and when I ask if any of his childhood compulsions have come back he thinks for a moment then sticks four fingers between the buttons on his shirt. ‘Nowadays, nearly all shirts are made with space for five fingers so I had to ask them to put little snappers between them so that when I bend over people can’t see my stomach…’ He demonstrates. ‘I have grey chest hairs, which no one wants to see. The snappers just make it so much easier.’
He was blessed with an equally eccentric family of one brother and four sisters (one of whom, Amy, is now a comedian), and an insensitive mocking father. But it was his chain-smoking, wisecracking mother who dominated the family. ‘Growing up, we would all sit around the table and talk for hours, six kids… all competing to make my mother laugh.’ His mother would give him cartons of cigarettes for his birthday – when he was in his teens – and once said to him: ‘I don’t know how it happened, but you’re mine. If that’s a big disappointment for you, just imagine what I must feel.’
She died in 1991 – of lung cancer – and, soon after, for reasons that may or may not be ripe for Freudian interpretation, his career took off. He was discovered, in a small club in Chicago, reading the diary he had kept since 1977 (it was his hilarious account of life working as an elf at Macy’s Santaland that really swung it). This led to regular readings on the highbrow National Public Radio. The readings turned into essays, the essays into books and the books become bestsellers.
Meanwhile, his readings began selling out the Carnegie Hall, with fans mouthing along to their favourite passages. Among guests on the David Letterman chat show, he alone gets to read from his own script, standing at a lectern as if giving a lecture. The comedy is partly to do with his delivery – he has the timing of a Woody Allen – and his lispy voice. He can’t stand it. ‘My voice turns my stomach,’ he says. ‘It used to be much more excitable, though, a much more girlish pitch.’
He divides his time between Paris, Normandy and, his home at the moment, London. But he is not sure whether his observation of London life will be funny enough to perform. ‘I just can’t do the accent,’ he says. ‘And so much of the humour of the English relies on nuance of delivery. Also there is much more of a language gap than people imagine.’ For example? ‘Well words like “fanny” and “pants”. They are innocent words in America, but here…’
I imagine that his neighbours in London don’t provide him with seams of comedy as rich as the ones he mined in New York for seven years. Take his elderly neighbour Helen, the star of the story overleaf. She died in 1998, the same year he and Hugh moved to France. ‘If someone is as unhappy and angry at life as Helen, your disapproval isn’t going to make any difference to her,’ he says. ‘She was a product of her time. The casual racism. Alan Bennett called people like that “urban peasants” because they never left their block. I admired her ego because I am so plagued by self-doubt. I like the fact that she didn’t mind confrontation. I would always avoid it.’
Example? ‘I went to Harrods and there was a guy next to me at the urinal and the attendant said: “You didn’t flush the toilet.” I mean, this guy’s job was to be pleasant to customers, yet there he was taking them on. I made a point of flushing and also made a point of not using too many towels, and all because I wanted this guy to like me.’
Although there is often kindness and affection in Sedaris’s portraits of the strangers he encounters, they also reveal that he has that thing that Graham Greene said all good writers must have: a chip of ice in his heart. He is quite ruthless in the way he brings Helen to the page, for example. ‘Really? You think? I thought I was giving the best of Helen! She was really like that. Her daughters, too. One was busy and couldn’t come to the funeral. When Helen was in the hospital dying, there were things I saw in that room which I wouldn’t record because she was a vain person. So there I held back.’
I ask if he is unkind to himself as a form of self-defence: if he says it first it takes the edge off it? ‘That’s a hard thing to navigate in Britain because you guys are harder to impress. There is a code to it. You say the opposite of what you mean. Americans are better at being positive and selling themselves. I don’t think it’s deliberate self-deprecation on my part. I just try to be upfront. Anyway, if you are going to write about other people then you have to be mean to yourself. ?You have to be prepared to tell the world what your scrawny ass looks like.’
You suspect that, as a young man, he took on strange jobs such as working in an autopsy centre because he knew that one day they would make good copy. He protests that this wasn’t the case. ‘It was more a matter of my always having been fascinated by death. I don’t know why you don’t hear more about these places. It was unbelievable, especially the autoerotic asphyxia cases. They would take crime-scene photos of the dead men: in a closet or a shower dressed in their wife’s clothing. The wife would have gone on vacation and come back to find him. He would have been dead for three or four days. I would look at those photos for hours to pass the time. Now, whenever I see an obituary of a man who died young and they don’t say why he died, I always assume it is autoerotic asphyxia.’
I get the feeling that Sedaris is quite passive aggressive, getting what he wants by putting himself down. Besides, for all his callousness, I have heard that he is a secret charity worker. True? ‘I did some stuff with Age Concern, yeah. I can’t do much. I can’t drive a car or fix anything. All I can do is clean.’ Inevitably, his charity work led to misunderstandings. ‘There was one old woman who had all these jars littering up the place and I helped her get rid of some of them, then the next thing I know she is complaining I stole them. She called my supervisor and complained. Said she might have needed them one day for picnics. I wanted to say trust me, her picnic days are behind her. I liked that job because it meant I could get to go in other people’s houses. See inside.’
Sedaris is the master of the poignant ending as, for example, when he describes in one essay how Hugh always loses him in crowds. He finds himself cursing his boyfriend as he tries to keep up, and plotting how he is going to leave him. He then takes the reader through his thought processes as he realises that he couldn’t live without Hugh. ‘”There you are,” I say. And when he asks where I have been, I answer honestly and tell him I was lost.’
‘I really would be lost without him,’ he says now. ‘He looks after me. He’s always up at dawn hewing logs and drawing water. And like in the house at the moment there is a pile of unopened mail and he will sort through it all when he gets back at the weekend. I just couldn’t do that.’
So what does he, Sedaris, bring to the relationship? ‘I can’t figure out what Hugh needs me for. I don’t bring anything to the relationship.’ He pauses before delivering one of his poignant, vaguely melancholy endings. ‘I guess I make him laugh.’