David Sedaris, Chuck Klosterman and literature as standup comedy
Chuck Klosterman will be appearing at the Boulder Bookstore on Monday, July 15.
Becoming a comedian will get you laid, and becoming an author will get you respect, but from the perspective of a professional audience member like myself, the two really aren't all that different. When I'm doubled over by the lyrical whimsy of local comic Jordan Doll, I could be cracking up over a vivid Tom Robbins turn of phrase. So it comes as a real surprise that I rarely see an overlap of fans of Louis C.K. and David Sedaris, or of Aziz Ansari and Chuck Klosterman (who, by the way, will be at the Boulder Book Store next Monday).
It's a shame that literature carries that foul stench of academia wherever it goes, preventing comedy fans from seeing it for what it really is: fucking fun. Standup deals with the same problem, with all the high-minded intellectuals lost in a fog of syntax, unable to treat topical humor as sociology, or to put autobiographical standup on the level of a Shakespearean soliloquy. When it's done well, a public reading of comedic literature is just another brand of standup comedy, and it's time we started viewing the two on an equal plain.
I'll admit that it's a lot easier to laugh at a standup comic's jokes in a dark room full of drunks than it is a collection of printed sentences on paper, but sometimes the words of a comedic writer are just too funny not to shout about.
I first discovered pop-wizard Chuck Klosterman while working in a Winnebago factory in Iowa, and the cultural insight of his essays was the perfect kind of cerebral tension that would be detonated by a killer one-liner. I used to read Killing Yourself to Live over and over on my lunch breaks, surrounded by snuff-spitting rednecks who couldn't identify a Beatle in a lineup. Early in the book, Klosterman recounts the events that lad up to Sex Pistol Sid Vicious's possible (probable) stabbing of rock's most obnoxious girlfriend, Nancy Spungen:
Vicious purposefully OD'd on smack before the case ever went to trial, so I suppose we'll never really know what happened in that room, though he did tell the police, "I did it because I'm a dirty dog." This is not a very convincing alibi. He may as well have said, "I got 99 problems, but a bitch ain't one."
Granted, I was a reformed Evangelical from a rural Midwestern hamlet, so blowing my mind with witty pop metaphors wasn't the greatest challenge in the world. Yet to this day, reading even the most juvenile, subterraneanly lowbrow joke will tear me to pieces.
Last summer I began reading the books of Russell Brand -- a comedian who is denied respect by intellectuals because of his profession, and is even dismissed by comedians because of his tabloid associations. In his first autobiography, My Booky Wook, he describes being ejected from a taxi that was driving him and a producer to a sex shop, hoping to buy dildos for a segment on their TV show. The two were entangled in a drunken, drug-induced fight, and after reading the following lines I laughed as hard as I have at any comedy show, so much so that several minutes passed before I could get it together and continue reading:
I used some of my sexy fighting talk, which would lift the whole tone of the most basic brawl. "Oh, yeah, baby boy? You wanna sniff Pappa's poo pipe?" Then I hissed at him like a goose.
Admittedly, typing out a joke is a completely different animal than verbally delivering one on stage. And while some writers are as useless as Michael Vick at a PETA convention when it comes to delivering their work on stage (Bret Easton Ellis springs to mind), there are a few writers who understand the same dynamics of timing, cadence and audience connection that standup comics have to master in their performances.
I've always considered David Sedaris Live at Carnegie Hall to be one of the greatest comedy albums ever put to tape. I once made the mistake of saying this aloud to a roomful of comedians, and received the familiar silent look of sympathy that clearly translates to "You poor, dumb son of a bitch -- you don't even know what a comedy album is." But I honestly believe that not only is Sedaris a great comedy writer, but he has a master's understanding of how his work is meant to be delivered orally. And listening to the audience lose themselves in preternatural howls of laughter suggests that it's more than just the material that's killing them -- it's the delivery.
In Carnegie Hall, Sedaris describes his travels as a writer on a book tour, often asking the locals about their nation's approach to gun control and Christmas rituals. When he arrived in Holland, he discovered that instead of elves, their tradition of Santa Claus's helpers involves "what was consistently described as 'six to eight black men.'" Typing this story out doesn't do it justice of the delivery, but the story itself is too much of a head-fuck not to include here:
The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid-fifties, when the political climate changed and it was decided that instead of being slaves, they were just good friends. I think history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet times beside the fire, but by bloodshed and mutual hostility. They have such violence in Holland, but rather than duking it out among themselves, Santa and his former slaves decided to take it out on the public. In the early years, if a child was naughty, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would beat him with what Oscar described as "the small branch of a tree."
"Yes," he said. "That's it. They'd kick him and beat him with a switch. Then, if the youngster was really bad, they'd put him in a sack and take him back to Spain."
. . . This is the reward for living in Holland. As a child you get to hear this story, and as an adult you get to turn around and repeat it. As a bonus, the government has thrown in legalized drugs and prostitution -- so what's not to love about being Dutch?
Some comedians may argue against the idea of literature reading as standup comedy by calling it long-winded and completely void of physical humor. But this is a pretty weak defense, considering that Bill Hicks would often give exhaustive monologues about defense spending or the War on Drugs (sometimes going five or ten minutes without a single joke), and contemporary messiahs of comedy Louis C.K. and Marc Maron really aren't all that animated themselves.
When you strip away all the cultural pretense from these two creative cousins, a psychological undertow reveals the church-and-state separation that keeps standup comedy and literature readings from having the same fan base: Books won't get you laid, and being funny won't get you respect.
Thankfully I'm just a critic who loves to laugh, a designation that yields neither.
For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.
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