Around this time 31 years ago, David Sedaris was working as a Christmas elf at a New York City Macy’s; 28 years ago, he read his story about the experience on NPR’s Morning Edition, and it changed his life. This holiday season, Sedaris has released The Best of Me, a greatest-hits collection that includes that story as well as many others from his career as the most prominent humorist of a generation. At the same time, in terms of new writing, Sedaris is a bit stuck, thanks to his famously idiosyncratic writing process. Not unlike a stand-up comedian, Sedaris tests all of his essays out on the road, so with the country not really gathering in large theaters right now, the drafts of unfinished pieces pile up. (The interview was conducted weeks before a recent social-media controversy over one of his CBS Sunday Morning segments.)
On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Sedaris talks about the importance of touring and getting feedback from his audience, his love of the writing on The Simpsons, and more. You can read some excerpts from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.
On Writing and The Simpsons
There’s a way you’re taught to write, and that’s having a topic sentence, and it takes a long time to unlearn that. When I look at student writing … I’m not a teacher, but people send me stuff. You just see it crippling so many essays. I’ve always liked The Simpsons. One of the reasons I like The Simpsons is that I dare you to watch the first few minutes and know where it’s going. I like that it leads into the story, and it’s not the story that you expect. I like that with an essay, too. Sometimes, if people are really urgent for time, then they’re like, Just get to the point. And it’s like, I don’t want to get to the point. When I was doing stuff for This American Life, they would give you a theme, and a lot of times Ira just wants to get right to the story. I just found that I liked not doing that.
It was a real treat to just kind of write something — let’s say that it was going to be in The New Yorker, where they’ve never said to me, “This is fine, but can you lose a page?” Whereas when I wrote for Esquire, often they’d get an ad. That sounds so old, doesn’t it? Getting an ad in a magazine. And then they would say, “We have to cut 200 words,” which was actually a fantastic experience.
I’ve been doing this thing for CBS Sunday Morning. They have these short essays, and they can be about whatever I want, but they can’t be overtly political. So I turned eight of them in, and then they said, “Oh, these are all great, but each one of them needs to lose like a page and a half.” And I did it, and I felt at the end that I didn’t even notice what was missing. But it did hurt a lot, because usually when you have to do that, you’re cutting out a lot of the mood.
On the Importance of Feedback
I’ve written a lot since the pandemic started, but I don’t know if any of it’s good or not because I haven’t had a chance to read it out loud in front of an audience. Like those CBS things I just recorded — gee, if I’d had my way, I would have read them out loud umpteen times and then rewritten them. I did the best I could, but without the audience to tell me how I did, I have no idea. If theaters had been open, I would be out there, and I could test. So all I have to go by are magazine editors, [who] put their finger in the air and get the feeling, Oh, this won’t do.
Being adored is what I miss. I miss [the audience] as a teacher, too. I miss them telling me: “That really works,” or “I don’t know what you were thinking there, but that’s not working at all,” or “Boring!” I miss even the traveling part. Even the icky parts of traveling. Even when you’re in a shitty hotel, or even when your planes get canceled. I miss all of that — just all of it. But one thing is, though, I sure appreciated it when I did it. There’d be times, and you’d think, Oh, really, I have to do this today? But then I’d sign books before the show as well as after, and then think, Oh, I’m doing this for Paul. That’s who I’m doing this show for. Then you get excited, and you can’t wait to get on the stage. You could have something you’re working on, and at the beginning of the tour you absolutely love it, and then you’re sick to death of it a few weeks later. But then you get a good microphone and you get a good audience, and it’s like you’ve never read it before, and you find brand-new moments in it. I miss all of that just terribly.
On David Rakoff
David Rakoff was one of those people that I can’t wrap my mind around his death. Everybody else that I’ve ever known who died, I could accept it, but I can’t accept David’s death, and I can’t dwell on it, and I can’t reflect on it.
The greatest joy was going into the dressing room [of plays that he and Rakoff worked on]. And it would be David Rakoff and Jackie Hoffman and Jodi Lennon and Sarah Thyre in the dressing room, not running lines, but just being funny. There was no better place, and there was no more joyful place than being in the dressing room while they were getting ready for a show and just laughing so hard. You’d go with him to a movie, and it was like he had a tape recorder in his head. And he would come out and he would recite not lines, but whole scenes — everybody’s dialogue, verbatim.
Sometimes people will say that I’m witty, and I’m not. Witty is funny and smart. David Rakoff was witty, and you had to be as smart as him to be witty. There was something old-fashioned about the way that he was funny. Like in another era he would have been on all those television shows that wits appeared on, and he would have had his own radio program. His brand of intelligence, his moment, I felt was like a Golden Age. People like him, they don’t come around very often.
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