The man who can say (almost) anything

David Sedaris takes on the ill-mannered

David Sedaris wants to give you two pieces of advice on public speaking: Keep to your time limit and don’t tell jokes about fisting. These and other nuggets of wisdom entertained the audience on Nov. 15 at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, where fans bought copies of Sedaris’ latest book, Calypso, for him to sign.

Like every good writer, Sedaris gets to the point. Promptly at show time he walked onstage to introduce Katherine D. Morgan, a former Portland State creative writing student who opened for him last year after they met at a book signing. Morgan read her own personal essay then introduced the bestselling humorist.

Sedaris read with a pencil in hand and warmed to the crowd. He appeared to thrive on people, which probably explains his busy schedule; he’ll do 25 shows in 21 states, each with its own multi-hour book signing.

Characters he meets at these signings, such as a man with a thumbtack tattooed on his forehead, often show up later in his writing. Consider yourself warned: David Sedaris will remember you for the rubber chicken hanging out of your purse, for your unspellable name or most definitely for your rudeness.

You might, in fact, call Sedaris a crusader against the rude. In a commencement speech in May, he advised Oberlin College’s class of ‘18 to “be yourself. Unless yourself is an asshole. ‘How will I know if I’m an asshole?’ you’re probably wondering. Well, pay attention. Do people avoid you? Every time you park the car or do your laundry do you wind up engaged in some sort of conflict?”

He doesn’t hesitate to inflict counter-rudeness on the deserving, either, such as a woman who insisted on jumping the line at a book signing in Napa, Calif. Sedaris wrote “You are a horrible human being” in the woman’s book while she laughed, thinking he was joking. And of course he was joking. Sort of.

Sedaris sometimes teases and at other times rants, but only the truly tone-deaf would mistake his comedic license for real malice. Sure, maybe he disapproves of the mean and petty folks we all have to deal with, but he also examines them with the perverse eye of a comedian and the genuine warmth of a devoted people-watcher.

Sedaris’ 10 books have sold 10 million copies and been translated into 29 languages, according to publisher Little, Brown and Company. While he has described himself simply as “a fairly successful person, one with a Picasso painting and 10 books under his belt,” many critics call Sedaris America’s most beloved humorist. Some even equate him to Mark Twain, who similarly toured the country reading to audiences.

Like Twain, Sedaris has a charisma which allows him to say almost anything. We need such a voice now, not only entertain us, but to tell us things we don’t want to hear.