David Sedaris is a writer. For the past twenty years, he has been publishing hilarious, poignant collections of personal essays—Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim—and doing epic radio pieces for This American Life that are ideal versions of the form. His material is his life—his family, his walks around the neighborhood, his French lessons—and the most amazing thing about him is that he never fails to make it fresh or meaningful. I can think of very few -writers—in comedy or elsewhere—with better timing or sense of the absurd. When he’s not writing or doing pieces for public radio, David is on tour—massive forty-city tours, thousand--seat venues—and his act consists of walking out onstage, standing at a podium . . . and reading for ninety minutes. He absolutely kills. I’ve never seen anybody do this before.
David doesn’t consider himself a stand-up comedian, because he stands at a podium and reads off of a piece of paper. I didn’t want to say this to him during our interview, but he is a stand--up comedian. That doesn’t mean his essays aren’t brilliant and insightful, and it doesn’t mean he’s not one of my favorite writers. But you take that podium away and force him to memorize his material, and he’s one of the great comedians of our time, or any time.
Judd Apatow: How do you define what you do? Do you think of yourself as a performer or a writer?
David Sedaris: I would never call myself a comedian. I don’t think I’ve ever done stand--up. If I had to try, I really don’t even know what I would do. If you said to me, “You have one month to come up with ten minutes of material,” I honestly don’t think I would be able to do that. I read out loud and I enjoy that. And when I go on tour, there’s usually a question-and-answer session at the end of the reading and I don’t have any papers in front of me, I’m just answering questions. Sometimes at the end of the evening, I’ll think, Oh God, that didn’t go well at all. Those were really bad questions. Then I realize: It’s not the questions, it’s me.
David: If you’re in the right mood, you can do anything with any question—even if you’ve been asked that question a thousand times. If you’re in the right mood, and you’re feeling comfortable in front of the audience and not too self-conscious, then you go anywhere you want. But I don’t know much about comedy. Every now and then I’ll look at it on YouTube, but I don’t go to comedy clubs. I don’t have anything against laughter or anything. I just think everything I know about comedy I learned from listening to Marc Maron’s podcast.
Judd: When you’re reading in front of an audience, are you reading things that haven’t been published yet? Is this a way to work on them?
Judd: Your goal, I would assume, is: How funny can I make this? It seems like, in some ways, the process of writing and stand-up is the same, except what you do are more specifically stories. But that’s what most comedians are doing every night, just going onstage and trying to figure out how to make it tighter and funnier.
David: I’m about to start a week’s worth of shows at the Cadogan Hall in London. It’s maybe eight hundred seats. I have eight shows. So I have these stories I’m working on, and I’ll go in and I’ll read them and then I’ll go back at night and I’ll rewrite them. And then the next day—usually, when I’m on tour, I’m taking two planes and then I’m in a car for a couple of hours, and this way, I have all day to work before I go to the next theater in the evening. And that’s what I want. I mean, I made myself laugh today while I was sitting at my desk, and that doesn’t happen too often. I always think that if you make yourself laugh, then it might make the audience laugh. But I’d say, nine times out of ten? No, it’s
Judd: Does that hurt?
David: It makes me laugh.
Judd: But do you enjoy getting a laugh?
David: It means everything to me. When I’ve gone to other people’s readings and—I’ll go see a poet or I’ll go to a bookstore because a friend’s novel is out. And I hear them get up there and read something serious, and I think, Oh, how can you do that? How do you know people are listening if they’re not laughing? You can feel people drifting away from you when you’re reading a story, or telling a story. But nothing’s better than hearing them laugh. Nothing’s better than that.
Judd: Sometimes when we’re doing a movie that has more drama in it than usual and we’re testing it—showing it to audiences to get their reaction—I always find myself wishing there was a noise people made that let me know a dramatic scene is working. There’s no equivalent to the laugh, as far as knowing if a scene is effective. I have no idea. What’s the noise for that?
David: There is a kind of a wistful sigh that people make when they’re touched. Sometimes at the end of a story, I hear that little noise and I think, Ah, that feels as good to me as a laugh. It’s just a feeling of—I don’t know, if I say it’s a feeling of people being touched, that makes it sound like I make greeting cards. But it’s a little sound that people make, just some air escapes their mouth. It’s very quiet, but if you have a couple thousand people doing that, you can hear it. But just barely.
Judd: What about when you’re writing something that is less comedic? You have stories where you talk about people passing and doing very personal things. Sad things. What is it like to read those aloud?
David: Usually what I do is I have, in advance, an image in my mind that I’m going to think about when I read. So I don’t become emotional. Because that would be the worst. It has happened to me twice—my voice cracked onstage when I was reading something, and, oh my God, I was just so embarrassed. I would have been less embarrassed if I’d shit my pants.
Judd: (Laughs) Why is that? I always found it touching when, you know, Johnny Carson’s voice cracked when he said goodbye at the end of the run of his show.
David: Maybe if it were somebody else, I would find it charming or moving or something. But I don’t know. My dad was in the audience one night and I read something that was about him—it was sort of about him dying but, you know, he’s not dead. He’s in his nineties and he’s still alive. It was about how I hoped to remember him after he was dead. And because he was in the audience and I don’t—we don’t talk in my family. We don’t say things like, “Oh, I love you.” We don’t say stuff like that. So reading this would really be the closest I would ever come. And the word love is not in the entire story. But . . . and he was in the audience and . . . ugh. There was a story I wrote in 2004 that really kind of tore me up when I would read it. And so my boyfriend, Hugh, and I were looking for an apartment at the time in London, and as I was reading the story, I would just wonder what the front door of that apartment would look like. At the very last paragraph, I would just think of that. So I wouldn’t really be there, you know. I mean, of course I would be there reading it, but emotionally I wouldn’t be there. I guess it’s about not wanting to lose control. But I don’t know. It’s all just an illusion?
Judd: When your dad is there, and he’s a guy who doesn’t express himself that way, it seems like a conscious choice to read that on that night when he’s attending. Did he react afterwards in any way?
David: He said that he appreciated it. And I didn’t expect anything more than that. I don’t know that my dad reads anything I write. He pretends to. But if I were him, I wouldn’t read it, either. If someone were to write something about me, I wouldn’t read it. I’d say, Oh well, I know it’s out there. No need to actually sit down and read it.
Judd: It seems like there are different kinds of parents of writers and performers. There are the parents who just soak it up, and then there are the parents who don’t seem like they approve or show interest.
David: We were at dinner one night and I overheard my dad saying to somebody, “Well, David is a better reader than he is a writer.” And I thought, Where did you get that from? Like, I know my dad has a book that he’s read about golf, right? But other than that, I don’t think he’s ever read another book in his life.
Judd: His entire life?
David: He was parroting somebody. But I just thought, Who says that? My dad gets a double dose because I have a sister, Amy, who is an actress, but he likes the attention. He likes the attention, but the couple times I have had to go on TV—like, if a book comes out and I have to go on TV, I’m just not comfortable. There are some hosts who make it easy, like Jon Stewart. He’s really nice. And Jimmy Kimmel comes into the dressing room and sets you at ease. He says, “Hey, we’re just gonna go out there and have fun, so don’t feel too much pressure.” You know? It helps a lot. If you’re not an actor, it makes a big difference. And every time I’ve ever gone on television, I go back to the hotel and the phone rings and it’s my father. “You looked terrible. I can’t believe—white socks? You went on television wearing white socks? That jacket doesn’t fit you. You look like a goddamn clown.” But when Amy goes on TV, it’s different. She gets home and the phone rings: “I didn’t laugh once.” He gets off on it but at the same time, he—
Judd: But is that his love language, in some way?
David: I don’t know.
Judd: But your mom was the opposite, right?
David: She died before things started happening for me. I think I got my first book contract a year and a half after she died.
Judd: So she didn’t see any of that part of your life?
David: No. But you know, I would be in this play in New York—and it was just a play. It was like monologues based on some stories that I had written. This was the year before she died, and she sent me a check for a thousand dollars. I mean, that was huge. That was a huge amount of money to me. And I didn’t ask her for it. She was really good that way. She didn’t make you ask. But she wasn’t a big reader, either. She would read Harold Robbins novels and beach books every now and then. But this whole sense of my dad’s judgment doesn’t mean anything. It sounds bad, but it doesn’t mean anything to me. You know what I mean? Because he doesn’t read. He doesn’t have anything to compare my writing to. I mean, it’s nice if he likes something I write, but it doesn’t—I feel bad for people whose parents were writers. Or people whose parents were big readers. I feel bad for them. The last thing you want is a father saying, “That reminds me a little bit too much of that Philip Roth novel.” That’s the last thing you want to hear from a parent. So I’m fine with having parents who don’t understand what I do. My mom was generally supportive of whatever artistic endeavors my siblings and I were interested in. I really consider myself so lucky to have had the parents I did, but my entire career is based on taking whatever advice my father has ever given me and doing exactly the opposite. It has all gone in opposition to him. If he had been supportive and encouraging and said, “Let me read the first draft,” then I would be nothing.
Judd: It’s like you got the best of both worlds. You got the supportive mom and the dad you rebel against by trying to prove him wrong.
David: It’s the perfect combination. I think if you have two discouraging parents, that might be too much. And if you have two supportive parents, that might be too much, too.
Copyright © 2015 by Judd Apatow. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.