In his short essay “How to Tell a Story,” Mark Twain describes the difference between humor and comedy: while comedy looks for laughs in inherently funny subjects and events, the humorous story “bubbles gently along.” Comedy is about jokes, in other words, while humor is about tone. If the idea of funny without jokes strikes you as impossible, I invite you to consider the dominant mode of prose humor for the last 30 years — the New Yorker stuff, the gossip-blog stuff, the read-aloud-on-NPR stuff, whose tone has so thoroughly suffused the upper middle class of print and web media that we don’t even recognize it as a tone anymore.
This tone has a few defining qualities. It is selectively irreverent, willing to make catty remarks about what people are wearing to the funeral but dead serious about the importance of, for example, voting for Joe Biden. It is strongly influenced by camp, both in its use of self-deprecation — the voice of 21st-century humor is anxious and assumes that we are, too — and in its gleeful substitution of aesthetics for the discredited values of the past. Nobody attends church anymore, but we all still have to go to the gym.
Above all, it is glib. I have selected this word for its denotative meaning — ie fluent, voluble, and suspicious of sentiment in all but the most abbreviated expressions — but I also wish to levy the connotative assessment. The institutional tone in 21st-century humor is unequipped to deal with anything that matters. in Happy-Go-Luckyhis new collection of essays about the pandemic, aging, and the slow but inevitable death of his father, David Sedaris simultaneously asserts himself as the undisputed past master of this tone and captures its fundamental weakness, applying the style he has developed for the last 30 years to a subject matter for which it is almost eerily unsuited.
Sedaris was one of three youngish humorists named David who enraptured the literary-adjacent world during the 1990s, the other two being David Eggers and David Foster Wallace. Since then, Wallace has done the least funny thing a person can do, and Eggers has doggedly searched for the second-least funny thing in a series of books exploring various social and geopolitical crises. Sedaris, meanwhile, has done pretty much the exact same thing he has done since his 1992 breakout essay/NPR segment “The Santaland Diaries,” sticking to a formula that has reaped three decades of consistent financial and audience rewards.
One of the main things I learned from reading this collection is that Sedaris and his husband own at least seven homes.
That formula is straightforward: a befuddled, anxious person gets into various situations with which he is intellectually, socially, or experientially unable to deal, muddling through with a series of asides that, while varied in their phrasing, all send the same message to the reader: “Can you believe it?” The reader cannot, but also it’s all true, both in the sense of it’s a memoir and everything therefore actually (ie ostensibly, kind of, pretty much) happened, and in the sense that it has the ring of truth, that funny quality of how things really are. The ability to evoke this quality has always been Sedaris’s great strength, and it shines through in this collection, mostly in the form of non sequiturs attributed to his sisters. They’re the kind of things your friends and family might say, if they were funnier, and in this way they are better than jokes, because they are not laugh traps the author has built to spring upon you so much as little cracks in the orderly surface of the world, across which he reaches for your hand — in a word: relatable.
It is ironic, then, that relatability also turns out to be the absolute bête fucking noire of this collection, cropping up again and again to recast Sedaris not as the antsy everyman we grew up with but rather as some kind of moneyed Aspergers case. Consider the first sentence of “Hurricane Season,” an essay largely concerned with the destruction of his vacation property in a storm: “Grow up in North Carolina and it’s hard to get too attached to a beach house, knowing, as you do, that it’s on borrowed time.” This sentence is an example of how great humor is universal, in that pretty much every human being on Earth can join together in the shared experience of not being able to report to it.
One of the main things I learned from reading this collection is that Sedaris and his husband own at least seven homes: a hurricane-vulnerable beach house in North Carolina named the Sea Section, another beach house next door, their apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the apartment above that, a place in London, a country house in nearby Sussex, and a farmhouse in Normandy. (Further research suggests that they own additional homes not mentioned in Happy-Go-Luckybringing the apparent total to double digits.)
This life of wealth and fame provides a fundamentally different backdrop for the likable fuck-up persona Sedaris developed in “Santaland” and subsequent essays. Self-deprecation was always a necessary counterweight to his perspective, which can be dismissive to the point of smugness (noting the increasing number of signs reading “defund the police” during the summer of 2020, he thinks, “that won’t be doing us much good come election time.”) From a writer who meets fans everywhere he goes and has to think for a second to remember how many homes he owns, self-deprecation rings false. How are we to reconcile Sedaris the celebrity, Sedaris who buys real estate on impulse, with the nervous weirdo who has been narrating these essays for the past three decades? Hasn’t he changed?
He has, of course, and this inevitable change — plus all the freight that comes with it, the unmanifested but heavy cargo of aging and death and loss — becomes the emotional center of Happy-Go-Lucky. In the title essay, about the senescence and death of his father dele, Sedaris wades into territory fundamentally different from the dead-end jobs of his early work dele or the tittering dinner parties of his middle period. His father’s death forces him to confront a series of intensely unfunny subjects, including their fractured relationship and his own growing conception of himself as old.
For a different author, that would be comedy gold — or at least a bracing opportunity to try something new, to go somewhere more vulnerable and potentially less funny, but also maybe incisive and bittersweet in a way that made the late-life output of funny writers like Twain and Joan Didion are paradoxically invigorating. But Sedaris can’t seem to do it. Either he doesn’t have enough tools in the box or he just refuses to look too closely at any of these understandably difficult subjects, so instead he writes about them in the same tone he used to write about department-store Santas and being bad at French, with disastrously jarring results.
Writing about his father’s transition to hospice care, for example, Sedaris goes from a toss-off joke about his weight dropping to 120 pounds (“now he’s just showing off,””) to saying that their relationship was never very physical “unless you count him hitting me,” to reporting that he has been cut out of his father’s will. In the space of about a page, we go from pure sex and the city banter to a kind of half joke about possible childhood abuse to a zero-humor instance of ongoing dysfunction in their adult relationship, with no cues about how seriously we’re supposed to take any of it.
If Sedaris were more emotionally forthcoming or just willing to linger for a few sentences on a single thought, the answer might be “very seriously while laughing,” a mode in which some of the best humor can operate. But his unrelenting emphasis on fast pace and light tone — that is to say, glibness — leaves him with too little time to explore the complicated and clearly ambivalent ways he feels about his father, about death, about social disintegration, and about all the other heavy topics whose weight threatens to capsize the second half of this collection. Sedaris is like the social director running around the deck of a listing cruise ship, frantically playing for laughs and doing jazz hands while the reader wonders whether he doesn’t know the ship is sinking or just refuses to acknowledge what’s going on.
There are real emotions here, and I don’t doubt that Sedaris feels them. Famous humorists who can’t believe how bad the shopping is in Serbia love their fathers, too. It’s just that he seems unequipped to deal with anything that heavy, as a prose stylist and maybe as a person. There is a part in “Happy-Go-Lucky” when Sedaris goes to visit his father before his 98th birthday, for what he will later realize is the final time, and observes that the older man, who is going deaf, has developed the habit of offering a “false-sounding laugh” in response to remarks he might not have heard. Sedaris renders this laugh as “ha ha!” eg “Joan is 90 now and has blood cancer.” “Ha ha!”
This phenomenon is a synecdoche for the whole book. A man with a dozen houses confronts death, the coronavirus pandemic, Black Lives Matter, and broad cultural changes that he cannot fully understand. “Ha ha!” he says. It sounds just like a laugh, just like it always has, except it does not sound true.
Dan Brooks writes essays and fiction from Missoula, Montana.