What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Funny

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Funny
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David Sedaris’ autobiography is named for the final story in the book Naked. However, it is really a metaphor for Sedaris’ style of observation. He tells the story of his life in an irreverent and witty series of vignettes. On the surface, Naked is a light and easy read. Under Sedaris’ acerbic voice, however, is a deep sadness. It is clear that these stories come from painful life experiences. Page by page, story by story, Sedaris not only dissects his failings and foibles, he strips himself and his family bare, revealing everything, warts and all.

It is clear that Sedaris’ style is a product of his dysfunctional upbringing. He was one of six children, his mother was crazy, and his father was a manipulative man with a tyrannous and senile Greek mother. On top of it all, Sedaris suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Tourette’s Syndrome both of which went undiagnosed. His mother made fun of him, performing imitations of her son’s tics for his visiting teachers: "She opened her mouth just slightly, running her tongue over her upper lip, and then she inched forward, her index finger prodding the ashtray as though it were a sleeping thing she was trying to wake. I had never seen myself in action, but a sharp stinging sense of recognition told me that my mother’s impersonation had been accurate" (pg 13). It’s no wonder that, as a child, Sedaris immersed himself in a fantasy world in which he believed himself to be the long lost son of a clean, respectable, and wealthy family. He believed that "somewhere along the line a terrible mistake had been made. The life I’d been offered was completely unacceptable, but I never gave up hope that my real family might arrive at any moment, pressing the doorbell with their white-gloved fingers. ‘Oh, Lord Chiselchin,’ they’d cry, tossing their top hats in celebration, ‘Thank God we’ve finally found you" (pg 5).

If comedy is the index of pain, Sedaris clearly suffered a great deal. Every observation in every story is cutting and funny. Sedaris’ description of his Greek grandmother’s attitude towards his Presbyterian mother is an example of Sedaris’ witty observations: "My father had made the mistake of marrying an outsider, and it was my mother’s lot to suffer the consequences. She had somehow tricked him, sunk in her claws, and dragged him away from his people. It would have been all right for him to remain at home for the rest of his life, massaging worry beads and drinking bitter coffee, but to marry a woman with two distinct eyebrows was unpardonable" (pgs 25-26). When Sedaris’ grandmother moves in, his mother threatens divorce unless they put her in a nursing home, which they inevitably do. While Sedaris found his grandmother an amusing distraction as well as a convenient source of spare change, her presence in the Sedaris home was an obvious source of tension. Growing up, David Sedaris father inspired fear in his children with stories of accidental mutilation and dismemberment in order to force his children to be safe. This did not stop Sedaris from mowing the lawn for pocket money. This changed however, when Sedaris’ father told him of a man who lost a foot after getting it stuck in the blades of a lawnmower. After hearing this story, Sedaris "mowed the law wearing long pants, knee high boots, a football helmet, and a pair of goggles. Before starting I scouted the lawn for rocks and dog feces, slowly combing the area as if it were mined. Even then I pushed the mower haltingly, always fearing that this next step might be my last." (pg 49). As funny as this image is, Sedaris’ father was cruel to instill such irrational fear in his children and Sedaris was obviously traumatized.

However, there is no escaping harsh and painful experiences. Some people become their labels, some become cynical, some might suffer from depression, but others, like Sedaris, are able to rise above it all by developing a sense of humor. This seems to be a common thread amongst some of the greatest comic minds. Chris Rock was the only African American student in an all white school. He talks about being bullied not only for his race but also for his small stature. Today, he thanks his tormentors, for providing him with a wealth of material that he can draw from. Eric Idle, in order to avoid being teased and physically abused at the boarding school he attended, became the class clown. Once he got this early start being funny, he never stopped. Stephen Colbert felt it was his responsibility to make his mother laugh after the tragic death of his father and two brothers in a plane crash. Perhaps this is a healthy and productive way of dealing with the pain. By choosing to laugh at himself instead of wallowing, David Sedaris seems to have come to terms with the disappointments of his childhood and early adulthood.

I spent five years in a virtually all Jewish, all Baltimorean elementary school. Outsiders were not welcome amongst the snobbish students. With two South African immigrants for parents and an avid interest in theatre and books, I was classified as an outsider. Kids went out of their way to be mean to me. I found solace in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, old episodes of Saturday Night Live, and Charlie Chaplin films. I found ways to bring laughter into my life and developed my sense of humor. By the time I entered my new, more accepting middle school, I had become the class clown. I still have some difficulty fitting at school. I’ve never had particularly close relationships with my fellow students and I feel lonely daily in school. When I go home, my mother becomes my audience. Our willingness to laugh at ourselves with each other is how I make it through my often difficult school days.

In the last story in Naked, Sedaris describes a trip to a nudist colony. At first he is awkward and unwilling to reveal himself to people he finds repulsive. Slowly, he lets his guard down. His nudity becomes "routine," and he begins to find the people in the nudist colony endearing. He is finally comfortable in his own skin. To hell with those who don’t accept him for who he is!

In the end, Sedaris has the last laugh. Despite an upbringing that prepared him for nothing (Sedaris believed that he was going to spend his days finding money in the street and, after three days of finding only combs and stray peanuts, gave up on that ambition), Sedaris’ life experiences have given him the literary wherewithal to draw observations and make writing comedy look as easy as picking up money on the street.


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