No subject too small (to make fun of)

“We’ve laughed at the self-absorbed antics of Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer for nine years,” reported Salon Entertainment following the 1998 finale of Seinfeld.

“We know they’re jerks, but we love them anyway.”

In fact, many fans of the televised sitcom felt that the final episode — where the four wind up being thrown in the slammer for breaking the fictional Good Samaritan Law (and being generally mean-spirited) — was a little harsh.

It might be fair to say that we don’t love them despite their snarkiness — we love them because of it.

Writer David Sedaris plays to those same snide sensibilities when it comes to his stories. Some of his work is fiction — his darkly hilarious Holidays on Ice offers bitter Christmas tales — but the author is best known for skewering his own offbeat family on the page.

But where Sedaris — who, like Seinfeld, will appear at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium this week — really excels is in exposing the gory truths of our collective selfishness. Never mind the filters of political correctness: “In plays and movies it always appears drab and old-ladyish,” he writes about Anne Frank’s hallowed hiding-spot-turned-tourist-attraction in his essay “Possession.”

“But open the curtains and the first words that come to mind are not ‘I still believe all people are really good at heart’ but ‘Who do I have to knock off in order to get this apartment?'”

It’s not proper — but who among us hasn’t been there?

They’re laughing with you

TV star Seinfeld may seem, at the outset, to have little in common with quirky This American Life contributor David Sedaris. Upon closer inspection, however, the two qualify for separated-at-birth status.

Both were born in the mid-’50s in New York (Seinfeld in Brooklyn and Sedaris in Binghamton), and to working-class families. Both are impeccably neat, both have been pegged as gay (Seinfeld isn’t, Sedaris is), and both base their craft on real-life events, often involving family, friends and themselves. Both wield tongues sharp enough to warrant honorary mean-girl status (you know, that vicious ice queen in high school who was hell as an enemy, but whose unflappable snottiness made her the friend to have).

“What would the world be like if people said whatever they were thinking, all the time, whenever it came to them?” Seinfeld queries in his 1993 autobiography SeinLanguage. “How long would a blind date last? About thirteen seconds, I think. ‘Oh, sorry, your rear end is too big.'”

Here’s where the comedian and the author part company — Seinfeld has, to date, only penned the one book, while Sedaris has completed five, along with a French translation of Me Talk Pretty One Day and numerous plays.

It was one of his plays, The Santaland Diaries, that brought Sedaris into prominence in the early ’90s, introducing fans to his sardonic wit through an autobiographical misadventure as a department-store elf.

But Sedaris, like Seinfeld, can work his sarcastic magic on the most mundane of details.

“I was able to recall great heaps of [snow], and use that memory as evidence that North Carolina was, at best, a third-rate institution,” he writes of his family’s move from New York to Raleigh. “What little snow there was would usually melt in an hour or two … and there you’d be in your windbreaker and unconvincing mittens, forming a lumpy figure made mostly of mud. Snow Negroes, we called them.”

Family issues

Seinfeld offered a similar dry delivery when dealing with his television family — including aging parents who, upon moving to a retirement community in Florida, provided plenty of fodder. But he is quick to point out that his real-life father, a sign maker with flawless comedic timing, inspired him in his standup routine.

“I come from the kind of family where my mother kept an extra roll of toilet paper on the tank in back of the toilet, and it had a little knit hat with a pom-pom on it,” Seinfeld reports in SeinLanguage. “The toilet paper had a hat, the dog had a sweater, and the couch arms and back had little fabric toupees to protect it. I never felt the need to try drugs growing up. My reality was already altered.”

Sedaris might agree that his family life was an alternate reality — five siblings (including fellow writer Amy, with whom the author has produced several plays) and parents unfettered by social graces — but he certainly didn’t eschew drugs. Nor did he ever attempt to be anyone other than himself, his own idiosyncrasies informing his books.

“My father demanded I retaliate, saying I ought to knock the guy on his ass,” Sedaris imparts, recalling a run-in with a school bully. “‘Are you talking to me?’ I asked. The archaic slang aside, who did my father think I was? Boys who spent their weekends making banana muffins did not, as a rule, excel in the art of hand-to-hand combat.”

Not that self-effacement got Sedaris off the hook. So far he’s not found himself imprisoned for bad behavior, like the cast of Seinfeld.

But tapping one’s family for black humor does have its downside.

“She’s afraid to tell me anything important, knowing I’ll turn around and write about it,” Sedaris admits of his sister Lisa in Dress. “More and more often [my family’s] stories begin with the line, ‘You’ll have to swear you will never repeat this.’ I always promise, but it’s generally understood that my word means nothing.”


Jerry Seinfeld takes the stage at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium Friday, April 7 at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $46, $61 and $76. David Sedaris stops off at the same venue Wednesday, April 12 for an 8 p.m. performance. Tickets run $28.50, $33.50 and $38.50. For more information, call 259-5544 or 251-5505.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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