- 08 Dec 20
Deservedly Lauded Funny Man Compiles His Greatest Hits
Sedaris’ essays have been making those in the know laugh since the early nineties when he made his breakthrough, first on Chicago local radio, and then on NPR with his ‘Santaland Diaries’ essay, which documented the seasonal joys of working as a elf in a Christmas department store. His appearances on the late night shows like Craig Ferguson’s much-missed gag fest were always good gas and all. According to the man himself, getting his foot in the door at The New Yorker in 1995 was the big deal though, “If you read an essay in Esquire and don’t like it, there could be something wrong with the essay. If it’s in The New Yorker, on the other hand, and you don’t like it, there’s something wrong with you.”
The Best Of Me, as the title might suggest, is a sort of greatest hits collection, selected by Sedaris from nearly thirty years at the typewriter. It’s a handsome edition and should make the perfect gift for the smart arse – or would-be smart arse – in your life.
Right from the off, you’re laughing along at vicious fare like ‘Front Row Centre With Thaddeus Bristol’, and any parent who tells you they don’t sympathise with Mr Bristol at the school play is telling you lies. He critiques a nativity scene, “In the role of Mary, six-year-old Shannon Burke just barely manages to pass herself off as a virgin.” That’s as cruel as it is funny, and Sedaris is very funny. Later, you’re wondering if the talking bear in ‘The Motherless Bear’ really is a bit of a pain in the neck and hardly warranted the hate mail Sedaris apparently received because of it.
He’s not just a craic dealer though. While there are laughs in ‘A Guy Walks Into A Bar Car’, it’s a beautifully-realised tale of longing and regret for the road not taken. Who amongst us has not wondered what might have happened had we got off the train in that Italian University town when we were asked? The nun joke is good too.
He gets plenty of mileage out of his partner Hugh and his family, but it comes across as affectionate rather than sniping. He might be taking the living piss out of psychics – and rightly so, the ridiculous charlatans – in ‘The Spirit World’ but the story really betrays how much his misses his late mother and his sister, Tiffany. He may have a go at his father – the man who took the “dreaded fraternity paddle” to his young son’s upper thigh for singing in ‘Laugh, Kookaburra’ – but the final essay, ‘Unbuttoned’, where Sedaris and his siblings prepare for Sedaris senior’s inevitable end as he passes away bit by bit in a nursing home, is properly touching. In a moment of clarity, his father says to him, “You’ve accomplished so many fantastic things in your life. You’re, well… I want to tell you… you… you won.” “Seek approval from the one person you desperately want it from,” muses Sedaris, “and you’re guaranteed not to get it.”
I might say, if I was asked, that you're better off trying to please yourself anyway, but Sedaris accepts his father’s admission. “Whichever way he intended those two faint words, I will take them, and, in doing so, throw down this lance I’ve been hoisting for the past sixty years. For I am old myself now, and it is so very, very heavy.” Now, if you can’t get anything out of that, you’ve either never had parents, or you wouldn’t recognise good writing if it kicked you in the head.
Speaking of good writing, Hemingway would have been proud of a first line like the one that opens ‘Nuit Of The Living Dead’ - “I was on the front porch, drowning a mouse in a bucket when this van pulled up, which was strange.” Never mind any “baby shoes for sale” malarkey, there’s a whole story in that one sentence. Even better, when he borrows Swift’s title to respond to the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the recent ‘A Modest Proposal’, he manages to be clever, funny, and moving, all at the same time. That’s a pretty neat trick.