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RI ARTS

David Sedaris on angry letters, getting COVID, and things you can’t say on TV

Ahead of his reading in Providence this week, the humorist shared his particular brand of comedy in this Q&A

Humorist David Sedaris.Handout/Anne Fishbein

For those of us who eat up David Sedaris’s wildly candid diaries, or most outrageous essays, you learn to take much of what the humorist says with a grain of salt.

Like Larry David’s persona on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Sedaris’s essays may offend — that “oh no, he didn’t” cringe-laugh, that laugh-into-your-hand moment — but that’s where his comedy lies. (If you’ve ever been to a Sedaris reading, you know: it’s like stand-up.)

It’s a brand of humor that’s made him a New York Times best-selling author, a household name, and landed him a gig as a “CBS Sunday Morning” correspondent.

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It may be unsurprising that not all of Sedaris’s mail is fan mail. Some readers get “furious” with him, he said with a devilish laugh, during a recent phone interview ahead of his Oct. 6 reading and signing at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence.

A new volume of essays, "Happy-Go-Lucky," by humorist David Sedaris.Handout
"A Carnival of Snackery," one of two volumes of diary entires by humorist David Sidaris.Handout

After two volumes of diaries — the most recent, “A Carnival of Snackery” — and a best-of collection, Sedaris returned with new essays this summer: “Happy-Go-Lucky.”

In an interview from Europe, he talked about about his lost watch, angry letters, getting COVID, and a Twitter firestorm he caused during the height of the pandemic.

You wrote about missing touring during lockdown. It must feel good to get back on the road.

Oh, it feels great. I’m making up for lost time. I got COVID on the last stop of my spring tour. It was a perfect time to get it, though, because I had a week off. It was like I ordered it. I wanted to get it so I could write about it. But it was so nothing.

What was COVID like for you?

I got up in the morning, went on a walk. And I thought, “You know, when I get back, I think I’ll go back to bed.” My throat was scratchy, but just a little scratchy. I sneezed, like, twice. I took just two naps.

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Wow, really?

Well, I was in New York at the time, and they were doing work on my building. I’d [go to ] take a nap and it would be like [imitates power tool noise].

So I just gave up. But just before [I got it, I’d gone to] my publishers office, and saw this big mountain of mail that had toppled over onto the floor. It was all for me. When I got COVID and thought: “Perfect. I’ll answer all my mail.”

Do you respond to everyone?

There were three people who were really mad at me and — they always do this now — they’re like: “I’m never buying any of your books ever again! I’m telling all my friends never to buy your books ever again!” And they don’t leave any room [to respond]. So I’m not going to write them back.

This is one woman, she was furious — I detected real anger there — about the last diary book. What happened is, I was at Heathrow. I lifted my sleeve to look at my watch, and my watch was gone. The woman next to me said, “I bet you just realized you left your watch at security. I’m a flight attendant. Come with me, we’ll get this taken care of.” She took me to a desk with this guy. He got a wrong-number [when he tried to look into the lost watch]. Then he said to me, “They said go on www.lostthings.com.” I said, “But they didn’t. You got a wrong-number. You didn’t even talk to anybody."

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So the flight attendant comes back and says, “Did you get your watch?” I said, “No, that guy was worthless.” She said, “Tell me what seat you’re in, I’ll get this taken care of.” An hour passes on the runway. I felt bad because I thought they were getting my watch. But no. When we got to New York, the woman says, “Get your watch back?” I said, “No, if I got it back, it would’ve been from you.”

So [I had a diary entry about it] and this American woman read that, and was furious. “I’m so sick of you entitled white men. It’s not even their job and you expect everybody to jump and do your bidding for you! Hey, I got an idea: buy another watch!”

What I was angry about [in this diary entry] is the very particular way they have in England of doing nothing, but using language that makes it sound like they solved your problem. That’s what I was angry about. No one is angrier about white men being entitled than white women who are entitled. I looked the people up online —they’re 68-year-old white women and they’re furious. So I don’t write them back because they didn’t leave me any room to respond.

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What’s another letter that you might get?

Also in the diary book, I wrote about my sister Gretchen feeding [live] crickets to her turtles. A couple of years ago, a raccoon broke into the pen and chewed the female turtle’s front legs off. The pet store suggested, to make it easier for the turtle to catch them, take scissors and cut the crickets’ legs off. Gretchen didn’t have scissors, so she tore the legs off. So this guy wrote me furious: “Hey, why don’t you tear the wings off a butterfly next?! You get your kicks [that way?] You say, oh it didn’t cry out in pain — how could it?! You ripped its legs off! You he took away its way of communicating! You effectively cut its tongue out! I used to read your books. I’m never reading any of your books ever again. I’m taking the ones I have and I’m throwing them away.”

That guy, I did write back. I said, “Just giving you a little warning here. I heard that Eudora Welty once went out fishing with her father, and he put a worm on a hook. She didn’t do it herself, but he did it. And they were related. So if I were you, I would never read any of her books ever again.” [laughs]

These letters are incredible. Do you get a lot of these?

Oh plenty. There are a couple in every batch. But I mean, if I were on Twitter or something like that, that’s a daily thing, people who are [angry]. Can you imagine engaging with them all? Rolling up your shirt sleeves and getting into it? I don’t want to live like that. When I get an angry letter, it really ruins my day.

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Is there a book or a topic that’s caused the most angry letters? Sounds like the diary sparked a lot.

Yeah, the diary. For “CBS Sunday Morning,” I recorded a bunch of things before I left to come to Europe. One of them, they were going to run it, then my publicist called CBS and asked them please not to. She thought people would really be upset with me. It was just about how I hate the word “queer.” Not because it used to be a slur, but because it’s the fourth time in my life that I’ve been rebranded. That’s the kind of thing — if people are furious with me, I don’t care. I think I have a perfectly valid point. Straight people don’t get rebranded. Why do gay people have to get rebranded?

Is there a topic you wouldn’t broach because you’d feel like you get too much rebuke?

Race is hard. And people got super-offended by one of the “CBS Sunday Morning” things— I was shocked. Like, you gotta be kidding me. It was about egregious customer service. Then it was decided by people on Twitter that I was trying to fire essential workers during the pandemic, when all of my examples were clearly 10 years old, and had nothing to do with essential workers. I don’t have Twitter, but my publicist called and said, “I just think you should know this is going on.” I guess it was like a tidal wave. CBS has the commentary on the website — but a page-and-a-half, well, that’s too much to read before forming an opinion. [laughs]

Details here on: “An Evening With David Sedaris.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.