Rants from the Hill: What’s Drier than David Sedaris?

The Ranter Defends Both Nevadans and Count Chocula.

 

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

Like me, David Sedaris is a literary humorist. Unlike me, he has sold around eight million copies of his books, which have been translated into twenty-five languages. (Several of my essays have been translated into Estonian; I may not be big in Japan, but the Estonians find me hilarious.) As any insanely jealous fellow writer would, I’ve been busy finding reasons (which my wife, Eryn, unkindly refers to as excuses) why Sedaris has been a bit more successful than I have. Why do I reckon Sedaris is outselling me? Well, he publishes in The New Yorker and I publish in High Country News (no offense, HCN editors). He writes from an estate in England, and I write from a remote hilltop in the Great Basin Desert. His neighbors are intelligent, cultured, literate people with beaucoup leisure time and disposable income. My neighbors are less interested in a good laugh than you might think. This is because they are primarily scorpions, rattlers, and libertarian survivalists—the latter of which can be dangerous.

Author and humorist David Sedaris, photo courtesy WBUR Boston's NPR News Station.

An actual incident involving David Sedaris visiting my hometown bolsters my theory, while also supporting my corollary assumption that Sedaris, who must certainly be fearful of competition from me, is out to discredit those of us here in the rural, intermountain West. It all started after Sedaris did a reading in nearby Reno last year while on a 60-city tour to promote his book Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. Soon after his stop here in northern Nevada, Sedaris appeared on The Daily Show, where host Jon Stewart inquired about the many cities he was visiting. “Which one did you hate the most?” quipped the host. Sedaris replied with a story about his observations at a recent reading in Reno. The humorist observed wryly that “the icebreaking question when I was signing books was ‘Why did you choose that t-shirt?’” He went on to criticize the Nevadans’ attire, which he claimed included sweatpants and cut-off shorts. The punch line of the anecdote concerned a woman in her sixties who approached Sedaris to have her book signed. “Is that your good Count Chocula t-shirt?” Sedaris asked the woman. “I didn’t think anyone was going to notice,” she replied. The anecdote was masterfully calculated and timed, and Sedaris had Stewart and his New York City audience in stitches. So that’s the story. It made the usual cyber-rounds and was soon enjoyed by folks across the nation.

Of course I’m no stranger to Reno bashing. After all, I’m the guy who wrote a whole essay about my hometown being trashed by the damned Muppets. You know you’ve hit bottom when not only David Sedaris but also Fozzie, the ursine standup comic, sees your town only as material. I generally subscribe to the principle that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but the Sedaris in Nevada incident went largely without scrutiny, and so I feel the need to examine it more closely.

First, let me say that I do not intend to blame Sedaris for stooping so low to get a cheap laugh, since this is something I do at every possible opportunity. Second, I have no interest in defending the informal dress of Nevadans, because it strains my imagination to think of anything less interesting or important. Finally, I certainly won’t spill any ink speculating about the veracity of Sedaris’s anecdote, because, as a humorist myself, I know very well that whether or not any of this actually occurred is immaterial.

No, my objections are different than you might suspect. The first is that I believe a person should know what the hell they’re talking about when they make fun of something. As a single example, consider this Robin Williams gem: “Do you think God gets stoned? I think so. Look at the platypus.” If you know that the duck-billed platypus is an ovoviviparous (egg-laying) mammal—that is to say, a total oddball in the animal kingdom—then this joke will be funny (even if you aren’t stoned). Williams knows of what he speaks. Sedaris, on the other hand, clearly doesn’t know Reno from his other 59 whistle stops. Exhibit A: in chatting with Stewart he doesn’t even pronounce the name of our state correctly (its NevAda, not NevAHda).

Equally egregious, the wag who offers this comic excoriation of how we dress has chosen for his national television appearance thick horned-rim glasses that make him look uncannily like that cartoon dog, Mr. Peabody, a shirt in a bright pink reminiscent of cotton candy, a tie the color of dung, and, as the pièce de résistance, black dress shoes worn with white socks. Seriously? Sweatpants would have been a clear improvement on this get-up. Apparently, however, the outfit is to Jon Stewart’s taste. “You look terrific,” he tells the humorist. “Very nice suit.” Sure, so long as it’s Halloween and you’re costumed as a pseudo-intellectual Woody Allen. Stewart’s acumen is on further display when Sedaris describes folks at the event wearing cut-offs. “Was it a particularly hot and humid environment?” asks Stewart, without a whiff of irony. I went to college with Jon, and he’s the smartest funny person (or funniest smart person) I’ve ever met. And the way it’s going out there, I couldn’t stomach the real news without his brilliant satirical news to coat the pill. That said, humid in Nevada? He was never that daft around our freshman dorm.

Even if I could get past the idea that a comic, of all people, would be so pompous as to imagine there should be a dress code at his gigs, I’m still deeply insulted on behalf of the truly innocent victim in this story: Count Chocula. In this Halloween season, it seems only right that I should stand up for this maligned hero. General Mills debuted Count Chocula, Franken-Berry, and Boo-Berry (the “Monster Cereals”) back in 1971, which put me at just the right age to love them, and to join the ranks of kids who experienced a condition actually called “Franken-Berry Stool,” in which the heavy red dyes in the strawberry-flavored cereal turned our feces the color of David Sedaris’s shirt, when they would under normal circumstances have been the color of his tie.

For those of you too young to remember, 1971 was none too placid a year. The Charles Manson murder trial was nightly news, Ku Klux Klansman were arrested for bombing school buses, Lt. William Calley was found guilty of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, and the Nixon administration arrested 13,000 anti-war protestors during a single three-day period. Closer to home, Operation Grommet proceeded apace, as the United States spent the year continuing a decades-long program of attacking Nevada (which they probably pronounced NevAHda) with nuclear weapons, the fallout from which caused obscenely high cancer rates among downwinders. It was a moment in which some unnamable innocence was being lost, which is another way of saying that we needed Count Chocula. TV commercials even reassured our parents that the cereal was “So full of nutrients, it’s scary!” Not as scary as the A-bomb, or even the fuchsia poop induced by Franken-Berry, but you get the point.

As for the count himself, he could hardly have been less frightening. He was, in fact, a sweet little vampire, with his single fang (like a kid who had lost one of his front baby teeth), huge doe eyes, comically pointy ears, long puppet nose, and friendly, silly grin. (Actually, I note a sight resemblance to Sedaris.) One of the unique personality traits of the cartoon vampire was that, although he had the power to scare the other cereal monsters in his posse, he was terrified whenever he came face to face with “such scary beings as mice and children.” Yes, you heard that right. We, children in an age of fear, had the power to scare a vampire! It was a delicious feeling, knowing that we could turn the tables on terror simply by lifting our spoons.

Now that I’m a father, the proposition that children are more terrifying than vampires seems obvious enough. Each fall, when the monster cereals are sold for just two months leading up to Halloween, I become unapologetically nostalgic. The fact that the cereals have been successfully re-released in special edition retro boxes suggests that I’m not alone in this. Count Chocula? Come on, Sedaris. He’s one of the good guys.

So here’s a summary of how the notorious incident with David Sedaris and the Reno t-shirt lady appeared to the national audience of The Daily Show: Sedaris hilariously satirizes Nevadans’ attire, building to a punch line in which the sixty-something t-shirt lady, who is comically exposed as ignorant and provincial, becomes the butt of the joke. Indeed, she is figured as doubly stupid, first for wearing the shirt and then for failing to realize that the humorist’s joke is at her expense.

Here, instead, is how I characterize the incident. While dressed like a cross between a New Yorker editor and an inebriated birthday party clown, a comic who is raking large coin in our community mispronounces the name of our state on national TV while failing to answer Jon Stewart’s inane query as to whether it is unusually humid in the high desert. Finding it amusing to insult an older woman who has paid to see his show, purchased his book, and waited in line to meet him, he delivers a sarcastic crack about a t-shirt bearing the image of sweet old Count Chocula, whom anyone who was a kid in 1971 would now support for president.

The author, taking a well-deserved rest after ranting about David Sedaris.

As a humorist myself—which is to say, as a person for whom irreverence must be understood as my stock-in-trade—I don’t have a problem with any of that. But here’s what chaps my hide. Sedaris fails to realize that it is not he but rather the woman who delivers the punch line, of which Sedaris himself is the butt. “I didn’t think anyone was going to notice,” she replies, without missing a beat. The irony in this exchange belongs not to the humorist for observing the idiosyncrasy of the woman’s informal attire. It belongs instead to the woman, who knows perfectly well what Sedaris is doing and bests him by turning the joke around with the kind of graceful, self-deprecating irony that is the hallmark of genuine wit. (And can there be any doubt that she is a person of good humor if she has chosen to wear her Chocula colors to a performing arts center?) Any desert rat will tell you that this brand of dry humor is a signature characteristic of those of us who dwell in this dry place.

Sedaris is right that this is an amusing anecdote. He’s simply wrong about why. So I hope one of you reading this will drop him a line to let him know that black socks go with black shoes, and to teach him how to pronounce Nevada. (You might also ask him to let Jon know that Nevada is the driest state in the union.) Most important, please tell David Sedaris—whom I consider the most gifted literary humorist working today—that it is we who consider him the unwitting provincial. You think The New Yorker has cornered the market on irony? Out here in the desert our irony is so damned dry that it’s scary. Bluh! Bluh! Bwaa haah haah!