Carnegie Music Hall was packed last Monday night — a few bodies short of maximum capacity, the crowd neared 2000. Tickets for the event were selling on craigslist.org for upwards of $50, more than double the $20 box office price. It’s rare for the Drue Heinz Lecture Series to fill an entire venue, as Scott Hamley, director of WDUQ 90.5 FM, mentioned before the podium. It takes a lot for a single lecturer to fill a music hall, and David Sedaris was just the person to do it.
Sedaris is perhaps the most accessible of the writers who have spoken as part of the lecture series. A pop culture icon in the world of words, his humor and straightforward writing style attract fans both literary and not. Though he has authored a number of best-sellers, including Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, Naked, and Me Talk Pretty One Day, it was evident on Monday night that Sedaris is as much a performer as he is a writer.
Sedaris’s introduction gave everyone a chance to adjust to his perhaps unexpected voice. Though he’s a consistent contributor to NPR and has sold recordings of his readings, his distinct, slightly high-pitched voice still punctures the eardrums a bit more than anticipated. Once he gets going, though, his voice is an obvious fit to his personality, which comes through with clarity in both his writing and speaking. Sedaris spoke of “truths” in his writing, a popular topic for many literary journalists and creative nonfiction writers. Satirically, he confessed to the audience of some of his published inaccuracies (the color of a station wagon in one story; an incorrect quote in a line of dialogue). Sedaris provoked a steady stream of laughter until, in classic Sedaris style, he pushed his humor to its limit, evoking both nods and groans of disgust with his vivid description of a disconnected uterus’s “blood bubbles” and “little hairs.”
Following this introduction, Sedaris read two stories, beginning with the sentimental “The Heart is a Lonely Menagerie.” In the narrative, Sedaris poked fun at his own youthful affinity for all things antique, however gaudy. From this premise, the audience followed Sedaris into a wacky boarding house in Chapel Hill, N.C., which he chose for its ’30s decor. Sedaris’s timing was impeccable, including even his water breaks, which doubled as cues for the audience to pause and laugh.
His next story was “All the Beauty You Will Ever Need,” an essay recently published in The New Yorker, which he claimed to be reading for the first time. In the story, Sedaris visited a trailer park with his brother to buy marijuana. The key to his writing is how he understands the comedy of standard conversations: In recalling a dialogue with the drug dealer’s wife, Sedaris touched on the misguided fascination many heterosexuals have with the sex lives of homosexuals (“Which one of you is the woman?” the wife asks).
Sedaris ended with book recommendations. His pick of the evening was Max Brooks’s The Zombie Survival Guide, a book he said is hilarious because it doesn’t try to be. While answering questions from the audience, Sedaris sometimes fumbled his replies, struggling to be witty on the spot. The words would have come easier, Sedaris explained, if he hadn’t quit smoking in January. “I didn’t quit for health reasons.... I think that’s a myth,” he joked. Rather, Sedaris claimed it was the Ritz-Carlton’s ban on cigarettes that finally got him to quit. The audience chuckled in amusement. With David Sedaris, even tobacco is something worth laughing about.