Friday, 19 August 2011

David Sedaris

So today I had the privilege of going to see David Sedaris at the EICC, on break from the Forest Fringe malarky. I've obviously heard him several times on "This American Life" and it always sounded like he had great control and ease in front of a crowd from the recordings, so it was very exciting to see him in person.

It was a strange experience - I wasn't disappointed - it was probably what I was expecting. He read stories, he bantered wittily with the audience, he very kindly opened the floor to questions at the end of the gig. But I have to admit that something about it did rub me the wrong way. Now I am the last liberal to accuse other liberals of elitism, but Sedaris, despite his intelligence and wit, did seem to give off an air or privilege in his stories and descriptions that made me a little ill at ease.

From his chat, he seemed to be a real citizen of the world. He flies constantly. He lives in London now and has had stints of living in Paris and Tokyo. So along with New York, I guess he's got all the major cities covered. He told us he'd just moved to a house in West Sussex with his partner where he has become the resident bin man because of litter thrown along the side of the highway. I remember once hearing about Jerry Seinfeld making a joke when he was trying to get back into standup where he said, "Being rich isn't the greatest. My life is still hard. But it's probably a lot easier than your lives, so at least I've got that."

If you live this kind of high flying existence, I think a little bit of perspective on how high flying it is becomes necessary or else the audience begins to quietly resent you. But what really got me was that he made a couple of jokes about service people who worked at jobs in London where they had to explain non-sensical product names but couldn't speak English very well. "Why did you hire the one person who couldn't pronounce the word Yoghurt at a Yoghurt stand? Was there really no one else to take this job?" And it was with that joke that I couldn't help but wonder how well he understands the political situation in the UK. Anti-immigration is so rampant in this country and a lack of consideration or patience for people earnestly trying to learn the language is so endemic, I just can't imagine he would knowingly poke fun at them if he were aware of its danger. This is some of the scariest and most dominant rhetoric going around the country at the moment.

When asked if people often came back to him to complain when he wrote his trademark arch portraits of them in magazines he said, "I don't really target readers." What I'd never realised about David Sedaris from listening to him on the radio but took from seeing him live, is that his style is unbelievably vitriolic, focussing on the tiny irritations of being human and having to deal with other humans. At points he would bring this across with an inspiring degree of accuracy, and just like a well written episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" I would laugh at both of our character flaws. But nestled among the gems were moments that seemed to lack perspective or self awareness. I'm all for a comedian offending absolutely everyone, as long as they know they're being offensive - but there were times during the Sedaris show where I felt that he was quite out of touch with how sickeningly glamorous descriptions of his life sounded, and with how many readers are also Eastern European grocery clerks. In a country so poor that people riot for a pair of jeans, it was irritating to hear Sedaris muse about whether he preferred Tokyo to Paris.

And yet, asked if I enjoyed the gig, I'd say I did, very much, thank you. Asked if I'm glad that I saw it, I'd say that I genuinely am. I just don't want to feel guilty about liking it, dagnamit! I don't want to think that an American democrat writer could actually be guilty of what republicans tell us they are guilty of. That they could be out of touch with the people. I mean, am I seriously talking about "The Folks?" The mythical "folks?" And yet I thought about them. And worried about them. And didn't think they deserved to be mocked for not being able to pronounce the word "Yoghurt."

But. If we're being reasonable here. I'm not going to speak for "The Folks." I'm going to speak for myself. When Sedaris hit on a universal, which was often, the show was a delight. When he mentioned his ex-pat jaunts coupled with criticism of people who don't speak English, I felt alienated by his sense of humour and his observations. In all fairness, he did couch these comments somewhat, mentioning that the fact that he is fluent in this country's language is simply an accident of birth, and telling a sweet anecdote about his very strict former french tutor. But maybe it's just that I've found a line where my sense of humour loses priority. Maybe it's just that I think that making any immigrant joke in the UK today that is not unbelievably self aware is nearly equivalent to a white comedian making a racist joke without being self aware in the 1960s. It's lazy and it's dangerous and there are real and violent opinions and movements that would relish hearing a woman mocked for mispronouncing "Yoghurt." The ideological machinery is heavy. Operate with caution, care and a lot of perspective.

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