"I wear green velvet knickers, a forest green velvet smock, and a perky little hat decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform," David Sedaris said for the first time on NPR's Morning Edition twenty years ago this Christmas. Chronicling his stint as an elf in the madcap Santa Land at Macy's, the story -- like Sedaris himself -- has become a public-radio institution, celebrating the freedom and wit of laziness, while condemning the synthetic nightmare of shopping malls and vain parents.
Sedaris will be at the Garner Galleria Theatre in January, but in the meantime, tomorrow night the Boulder Ensemble Theater Company will unveil its version of The SantaLand Diaries , proudly displaying just how miserable, disenchanting and hopeless the Christmas season can be.
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After Horatio Alger and World War II championed the industriousness of hard-working Americans, Kerouac and the '60s ruined everything -- and cynics like Bukowski, Bill Hicks and Kurt Cobain paved a nihilistic road for a generation of dropouts who refused to work or regularly take showers. David Sedaris was a hit with this crowd. He was gay but not political, a stoner who loved day-time television, an artist working for a house-cleaning company.
By 1992, the corporate world had crafted an endless number of disposable jobs for people like Sedaris. These gigs typically contained mindless work for little pay, yet for what little physical or mental energy was expected, a large chunk of dignity was always surrendered. In The SantaLand Diaries, Sedaris endures insults from his peers, humiliations from pre-madonna Santas, and coins chucked at his head by hyper children. Millions of working-class Americans (and more than a few Europeans) identified with Sedaris's plight of a life devoted to paycheck degradation, and cheered him on during those little moments of revenge from a prankster with nothing to lose.
"She said, 'I'm going to have you fired,'" Sedaris said in his miniature, smoker's sigh. "I had two people say that to me today. 'I'm going to have you fired.' Go ahead, be my guest. I'm wearing a green velvet costume; it doesn't get any worse than this. Who do these people think they are? 'I'm going to have you fired!' I wanted to lean over and say, 'I'm going to have you killed.'"
But rather than simply hate these people he was forced to guide through a plastic wonderland, Sedaris made a study of them, documenting all their pretentious and neurotic behavior and later writing it up in his diary back at home.
"Taking someone's picture tells you an awful lot, awful being the operative word," Sedaris wrote, referring to his position as photo elf, where he witnessed celebrities, screaming babies, sexist meatheads, urinating children, racists and animal protesters climb upon the lap of a fat actor in red so they could have their pictures taken. "During these visits the children are rarely allowed to discuss their desires with Santa. They are too busy being art-directed by the parents. . . . Tonight I saw a woman slap and shake her sobbing daughter, yelling, 'Goddamn it, Rachel, get on that man's lap and smile or I'll give you something to cry about.' I often take photographs of crying children. Even more grotesque is taking a picture of a crying child with a false grimace. It's not a smile so much as the forced shape of a smile. Oddly, it pleases the parents."
Sedaris took no small pleasure in informing these families that, after waiting in line for two hours with their screaming children and pounding headaches, they would not be receiving any photo of Santa with their spawn. At least not that day: "It is my job to say, 'The pictures taken today will be mailed January twelfth.' The best part of the job is watching their faces fall. These pictures are sent to a lab to be processed; it takes time, all these pictures so late in the season. If they wanted their pictures before Christmas, they should've come during the first week we were open."
To keep himself amused, Sedaris turned up the volume on his sadism, executing tiny pranks on his captive audience. To keep him out of trouble, management banished him to Magic Window duty, where he was expected to stand around and continuously repeat, "Step on the Magic Star and you can see Santa!" Noted Sedaris, "I said that for a while and then started saying, 'Step on the Magic Star and you can see Cher!'"
At that, people started abandoning their place in line, angry when they looked through the window and only found a jolly Santa with a child on his knee. "What did they honestly expect? Is Cher so hard up for money that she'd agree to stand behind a two-way mirror at Macy's?"
Later, Sedaris was grabbed by a random woman waiting in line, and told to inform her son, who was throwing a tantrum on the ground, that if he was not good, Santa wouldn't bring him any toys for Christmas. "The child said, 'He is too going to bring me toys, liar, he already told me."
After the woman insisted Santa would bring him a lump of coal instead of toys, Sedaris then informed the mother and her son that "Santa no longer traffics in coal. Instead, if you're bad he comes to your house and starts stealing things. I told Riley that if he didn't behave himself, Santa was going to take away his TV and all his electrical appliances and leave him in the dark. 'All your appliances, including the refrigerator. Your food is going to spoil and smell bad. It's going to be so cold and dark where you are. Man, Riley, are you ever going to suffer. You're going to wish you never heard the name Santa.'
"The woman got a worried look on her face and said, 'All right, that's enough.' I said, 'He's going to take your car and your furniture and all the towels and blankets and leave you with nothing.' The mother said, 'No, that's enough, really.'"
After The SantaLand Diaries premiered on Morning Edition, Sedaris went from relative obscurity -- cleaning houses and giving readings for a dozen people -- to being inundated with requests to write sitcoms, give voiceovers for advertisements, and clean houses of fans who really had no interest in having their houses cleaned.
The very private Sedaris was uncomfortable with the attention, turning down all offers and focusing his energy on writing and giving readings. His audio-book and on-stage performances are now wildly in-demand, and his Live at Carnegie Hall album stands comfortably next to any standup comedy live albums, something few literary icons can claim.
Yet when SantaLand first premiered, Sedaris felt he had no right to be on the radio. "It doesn't make any sense that my voice would be on the radio," he told NPR in 2005. "People have sonorous radio voices, and mine is not that at all."
Yet Sedaris continued writing and telling stories on the radio, particularly NPR's This American Life, whose creative director, Ira Glass, originally discovered Sedaris reading stories for small audiences in Chicago. After SantaLand, David Sedaris was unable to continue cleaning houses (or work another round as an elf at Macy's) due to his large public recognition. "When I moved to New York, cleaning apartments was my job," he said. "If Ira hadn't put me on the radio, I would still be living in New York, cleaning houses. I don't have any skills. Even if my first book had come out, that's what I'd still be doing. I think people have the idea that you get paid a ton of money for a book, but you don't really. I mean, I don't ever feel like, 'God-damned public radio! I could be cleaning the Rosenblatts' refrigerator right now!' But it did cost me my job. I assume that happens to everybody who is a commentator on public radio. They just do a commentary, and then their life just changes."
The SantaLand Diaries will be playing daily at 7:30 p.m. December 15 through December 24 at Boulder's Dairy Center for the Arts, located at 2590 Walnut Street. Tickets are $15-25. For more information visit www.thedairy.org
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