Radio commentator and author
Addresses: Agent—Steven Barclay, 321 Pleasant St., Petaluma, CA 94952. Home—New York, NY; Paris, France; and Normandy, France.
Worked variously as a moving company worker, an office worker, an elf in SantaLand at Macy's department store, and an apartment cleaner. Has taught writing at School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Also author of commentaries for National Public Radio, 1992—, and of satirical plays, co-written with Amy Sedaris.
Awards: James Thurber Prize for Me Talk Pretty One Day, 2001.
Humorist David Sedaris does not pull any punches when he writes about his family's quirks, but he also "mocks himself and explores cross-cultural absurdities," wrote People's Sean Daly. Sedaris (pronounced seh-DAR-iss) once took an IQ test to see if he could join the ranks of Mensa. As he reported in his essay collection Me Talk Pretty One Day, Sedaris did not really give those heavyweights a run for their money: "There are cats that weigh more than my IQ score." But as many reviewers have pointed out, it is humor and not brains that sells Sedaris' work.
Sedaris is the master of spin, turning the quotidian into the stuff of laugh-out-loud humor. His wry and insightful observations about daily life, tales of growing up and the alienated angst of feeling different have won radio audiences and book readers alike. He talks of his foul-mouthed younger brother, of family foibles and foils, and of his own misguided attempts to adapt to his adopted home in Paris, France. As Bob Hoover noted in an article in the Post-Gazette, Sedaris is an "elfin figure" with a "faintly nasal deadpan delivery." Hoover also noted that Sedaris is "one of life's true outsiders, a Northerner transplanted to the South, a gay man in a society of male role models, a sensitive soul in a dumb culture." Sedaris uses painful bits from his family history as well as the flotsam he finds all around him. "I'm just the friendly junk man," Sedaris told Hoover. "I take pieces of junk and make my stories out of them."
Born in New York, the second of six children in a Greek-American family, Sedaris grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. Neva Chonin, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, described him as an "obsessive-compulsive child [who] spent his days licking light switches and hitting himself over the head with his shoe." He dropped out of Kent State University in 1977 to travel around the country, working for a time as a field laborer in California. He moved to Chicago while in his twenties, where he attended the Art Institute, and performed readings from his diaries for audiences. After his move to New York City in 1991, Sedaris began reading excerpts from his diaries on National Public Radio (NPR), where his "nicely nerdy, quavering voice," in the words of Newsweek commentator Jeff Giles, delivered monologues praised for their acerbic wit and dead-pan delivery. His "SantaLand Diaries," recounting his misadventures as an elf at Macy's, was an instant hit and ensured further appearances on NPR. John Marchese commented in the New York Times, "In the five radio pieces that he has done, Mr. Sedaris has shown remarkable skill as a mimic and the ability to mix the sweet and the bitter: to be naive and vulnerable and at the same time, jaded and wickedly funny." Entertainment Weekly contributor Margot Mifflin remarked, "Sedaris is a crackpot in the best sense of the word."
Sedaris' comic, and often satirical, monologues draw primarily on his experiences in the odd day jobs he held before his work with NPR heated up his artistic career. Of his long-standing position as an apartment cleaner, Sedaris told Marchese in the New York Times, "I can only write when it's dark, so basically, my whole day is spent waiting for it to get dark. Cleaning apartments gives me something to do when I get up. Otherwise, I'd feel like a bum." As a result of his appearances on NPR, Sedaris has received numerous job offers, both for cleaning and for writing—as well as a multi-book contract with Little, Brown which in 1994 published Barrel Fever, a collection of Sedaris' essays and short stories.
Barrel Fever includes several of the pieces that brought Sedaris to national attention when he read them on the radio, including "Diary of a Smoker," in which the author declares that the efforts of nonsmokers to extend his life by not allowing him to smoke in front of them only gives him more time to hate nonsmokers, and "SantaLand Diaries," a "minor classic," according to Booklist's Benjamin Segedin, in which the author chronicles his amorous and aggravating experiences playing one of Santa's elves in Macy's one Christmas. Critics remarked on the humorously exaggerated self-delusion of Sedaris' narrators in the short stories, including a man who brags on talk-shows about his affairs with such stars as rock singer Bruce Springsteen and boxer Mike Tyson, and a gay man with a persecution complex who "bemoans his suffering at the hands of society in a style so over-the-top as to be laughable," according to a critic in Kirkus Reviews.
Critical response to Barrel Fever was generally positive, with reviewers appreciating Sedaris' humorous yet accurate portrayal of such American foibles as the commercialism of Christmas and the self-righteousness of health fanatics. "Without slapping the reader in the face with a political diatribe," wrote the critic for Kirkus Reviews, "the author skewers our ridiculous fascination with other people's tedious everyday lives." A contributor to Publishers Weekly commented, "Sedaris ekes humor from the blackest of scenarios, peppering his narrative with memorable turns of phrase and repeatedly surprising with his double-edged wit." Booklist's Segedin compared Sedaris' humor to Dorothy Parker, in which he demonstrates "low tolerance for human foibles." To the Booklist critic, Sedaris' humor can be "vindictive and nasty," but also "extremely, relentlessly funny." Allison Levin, however, reviewing the collection in Whole Earth Review, found it "uplifting, nasty, sweet, and frightening but at the heart of Sedaris' storytelling is humor born of compassion." And although Newsweek critic Giles found some of Sedaris' commentary relatively shallow, he nonetheless concluded, "This is a writer who's cleaned our toilets and will never look at us the same way."
Sedaris' second collection of essays, Naked, appeared in 1997. These essays, according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, revealed that "he can hardly be called a humorist in the ordinary sense . Sedaris is instead an essayist who happens to be very funny. In his characteristic deadpan style, Sedaris tells stories "about nutty or bizarre experiences, like volunteering at a hospital for the insane," Craig Seligman observed in the New York Times Book Review. Other essays include Sedaris on hitchhiking, working in Oregon, his personal battle with his childhood nervous disorders, and the title piece about his sojourn at a nudist colony. In still others, the essayist turns his eye on his family, especially his mother. In these autobiographical tales, wrote Mifflin in Entertainment Weekly, "Sedaris covers a impressive emotional range from the comically corrosive title piece to 'Ashes,' his account of his mother's death from cancer—a direct, unsentimental hit to the heart." The essays that go beyond the sarcastic to touch the heart, suggested Seligman, reveal an evolution in the essayist. "He's in the process of figuring out how to go beyond the short humor piece," noted Seligman, "and the essays in Naked feel transitional." As Ira Glass, the producer for Sedaris' NPR commentaries and the host of Public Radio International's This American Life, to which Sedaris frequently contributes, told Peter Ames Carlin in a People profile, "People come to his work because he's funny . But there's a complicated moral vision there."
Sedaris reprised some sketches from his first two collections along with some new ones for his 1997 collection, Holidays on Ice. According to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, the three best stories of the collection come from Barrel Fever and Naked: "Dinah, the Christmas Whore," "Season's Greetings," and the ever-popular "SantaLand Diaries." The newer sketches "look very thin indeed" by comparison, thought the same critic, who concluded that "flashes of customary brilliance" will keep this gift book from being disappointing.
Sedaris moved to Paris with his partner in the late 1990s, initially to escape the disruption of renovations on his New York apartment. However, he liked the city of light well enough to settle down there, and his attempts at navigating the treacherous shoals of French culture have provided him with more material for his self-deprecating tales of humorous misadventure. "A sequel of sorts to Naked, [Sedaris'] 2000 book, Me Talk Pretty One Day, amplifies the antic family portrait he created in the earlier book, while recounting his adventures in New York and Paris," summarized Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times Book Review. "Although amusing, Sedaris' tales of life in France now that he's happy don't have the bite of those in the first half of the book, many of them dealing with his eccentric father, an IBM engineer who ruins miniature golf with dissertations on wind trajectory," wrote Nancy Pate in Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service. As Glass observed in Esquire, "A lot of people think they love David for his acidic tongue—which is still there, believe me—but I think it's his empathetic side, his skill in evoking real affection and sadness in his stories, that from the beginning brought people back for more." Kakutani largely agreed, but argued that "Sedaris' bitchiness can easily wear thin in the slighter pieces . Indeed, the stronger chapters in this book tend to be the ones that mix satire with sentiment, brazenness with rumination. Those pieces reveal a writer who is capable not only of being funny, but touching, even tender, too." A critic for Publishers Weekly felt that Sedaris is "Garrison Keillor's evil twin," focusing on the "icy patches that mar life's sidewalk." The same reviewer also commented that Sedaris will exhaust readers of the new book "with helpless laughter." Lisa Schwarzbaum concluded in Entertainment Weekly, "These days Sedaris glitters as one of the wittiest writers around, an essayist and radio commentator who only appears to be telling simple then-what-happened anecdotes."
In June of 2004, Sedaris' book, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, was published. "You'd think that the best-selling storyteller would have run out of dish by now, but Sedaris has a few juicy ones left, and each is told with stand-up precision," declared Daly in People. Sedaris remains a master in turning personal and overheard tragedy and pathos into the material of comedy. He told Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service correspondent Robert K. Elder that he is not interested if he merely hears laughter in a hotel where he is staying. "I don't want to see what someone in a hotel finds funny," Sedaris commented. "But if they are screaming in pain or terror, I'm interested. I want to see what is so horrible. I want to see if I think it's horrible too." Elder commented that Sedaris is an "unapologetic voyeur of human behavior" with a talent for "finding laughter in the macabre, beauty in oddity." Writing in Time, Walter Kirn noted that Sedaris' target with his humor is most often himself, "vulnerable, vain, afflicted with bad habits and perpetually defending his right to self-destruct in peace." Kirn concluded that the "humor in Sedaris is transgressive, but it never feels contrived to be so. It's his legitimate, warped view of his legitimate, warped life."
Origins of the Underclass, and Other Stories, Amethyst Press (Washington, DC).
Barrel Fever: Stories and Essays, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1994.
The SantaLand Diaries (play), produced off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater, New York, NY, 1996.
Naked (autobiographical essays), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1997.
(With Amy Sedaris) Little Freida Mysteries (play), produced at La Mama, New York, NY, 1997.
Holidays on Ice (short stories), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1997.
Me Talk Pretty One Day (autobiographical essays), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2000.
(With Amy Sedaris) The Book of Liz (play), produced at Greenwich House, New York, NY, 2001.
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2004.
Sedaris, David, Me Talk Pretty One Day (autobiographical essays), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2000.
Advocate, December 10, 1996, p. 54; June 20, 2000, p. 133.
Booklist, June 1, 1994, p. 1762; June 1, 2001, p. 1907.
Entertainment Weekly, July 29, 1994, p. 55; December 13, 1996, p. S10; March 21, 1997, p. 68; June 2, 2000, p. 72.
Esquire, June 2000, p. 38.
Fortune, June 12, 2000, p. 358.
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 1994, p. 430.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, June 20, 2001, p. K6846; July 18, 2001, p. K2674.
Library Journal, May 1, 1994, p. 104; April 1, 1997, p. 93; July 1997, p. 143; October 15, 2000, p. 124.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 16, 1994, p. 6; July 2, 1995, p. 11.
Newsweek, August 15, 1994, pp. 66-67.
New Yorker, August 1, 1994, p. 81.
New York Times, July 4, 1993, p. V5; February 19, 1997, p. C14.
New York Times Book Review, March 16, 1997, p. 10; June 16, 2000.
Orlando Sentinel, June 28, 2000.
People, March 24, 1997, pp. 35-37; October 20, 1997, p. 129; June 26, 2000, p. 20; June 7, 2004, p. 50.
Publishers Weekly, April 25, 1994, p. 58; January 27, 1997, p. 88; April 7, 1997, p. 22; November 24, 1997, p. 55; May 8, 2000, p. 212; June 19, 2000, p. 54; June 18, 2001, p. 20.
San Francisco Chronicle, March 14, 1999.
Time, June 19, 2000, p. 139; September 17, 2001, p. 86.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), February 2, 1996, p. 2.
Variety, November 11, 1996, p. 66.
Wall Street Journal, June 2, 2000, p. W10.
Washington Post, March 22, 1997, p. B1.
Whole Earth Review, winter 1995, p. 63.
"Book Review: Sedaris' Wit Entertains at Byham." Post-Gazette.com (Pittsburgh, PA), http://www.post-gazette.com/books/20011023sedaris1023fnp2.asp (March 31, 2005).
"David Sedaris," January Magazine,http://www.januarymagazine.com/profiles/sedaris.html (March 31, 2005).
"David Sedaris," Steven Barclay Agency, http://www.barclayagency.com/sedaris.html (March 31, 2005).
"This American Icon," Tucson Weekly,http://www.tucsonweekly.com/gbase/arts/Content?oid=oid:42574 (March 31, 2005).