David Sedaris strides confidently onstage, stands at the podium, and begins to tell a story about a cat and a baboon. His small, lilting voice matches his stature and his unassuming air. The cat goes to a hair salon and experiences the utter monotony and discomfort of having to interact with the baboon hairstylist, with whom she has absolutely nothing in common.
The animals suffer through the necessary small talk and gossip, grasping at threads in an attempt to relate and ease the pain. By twisting this familiar experience into absurdity, Sedaris pulls the audience into the palm of his hand. At the final punch line (which involves, nicely put, a cat’s intimate grooming rituals), a warm wave of laughter rolls through the Théâtre Maisonneuve.
The theatre is almost full. The audience is young, hip, and almost exclusively Anglo. I’m sitting in the uppermost row of the balcony with two friends – one is an Anglophone who adores the American author, the other a Francophone who asked me before entering the theatre, “So, who is this guy?”
My Sedaris appreciation falls somewhere in between. The author’s collections of personal essays and stories, including Me Talk Pretty One Day, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and Naked, are frequently shared amongst my family. We take great pleasure in chuckling over anecdotes of the Sedaris family misadventures and their resulting insecurities, at the same time breathing a collective sigh of relief: “At least we’re not that crazy.”
Sedaris read three stories during the evening before launching into short excerpts from his tour diary, including a series of jokes collected from people he met along the way. The audience was in stitches. Sedaris admits his observations are often petty and judgmental, but he has the charm of the underdog, clever and cynical.
Reading from “Memory Laps”, Sedaris recalls his dreaded summers spent on the country club junior swim team. While his disinterested mother sunbathed poolside, his father vocally wished that the star athlete of the swim team were his son. Sedaris describes his nine-year-old self splashing through a race for his audience: “It occurred to me that one of us would have to lose. I could do that for these people.”
Sedaris’ stories take on everything from tough-love parenting and the endlessly entertaining game of sibling torture, to American travel wear, excess, and waiting in line for Starbucks. His gestures and facial expressions are understated; his vocal impressions of the people he encounters in his travels are subtle and effortless. For the animal encounter from his newest book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary, his delivery was utterly convincing. Of course the baboon would have a nasally drawl, and the cat a posh reserve.
Though some expressed doubt about the merit of booking a 1441-seat theatre for a literary event, Sedaris’ promoters were definitely on to something. Their target audience came out in full-force, and even if most of them were Anglo fans, the uninitiated were hardly uninterested. His stories, brimming with the tedium and foolishness of everyday life, paired with his acerbic wit and love of a good joke, made everyone appreciate the richness and humour that exists in even the dullest of days.
David Sedaris’ new book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary, is now available in bookstores.
Megan Stewart is an actor, writer and theatre-maker in Montreal. This summer, she is bringing Festival City to Rover, providing in-depth coverage of Montreal’s summer festival scene.