Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Funny HA HA

June 29, 2008

David Sedaris was in town this weekend at UCLA in the midst of his current book tour supporting his newly released essay collection When You Are Engulfed in Flames. These visits to UCLA’s Royce Hall have become annual events for the performing arts program, UCLA Live, and despite their unvarying nature, they continue to be highly popular and often sell out. Saturday’s show did not disappoint his legion of NPR-listening fans and was often laugh-out-loud funny. As usual Sedaris showed great care in the preparation of his program, mostly reading selections that neither appear in his current book nor were performed in prior L.A. appearances.

But what excited me most about the show was that there was more purely fictional material in the evening’s program. Lately, some pundits have tried to drag Sedaris into a James Frey-inspired witch-hunt over his hyperbolic memoirs and tall tales. In a manner ignorant of psychoanalytic theory as well as the entire history of American humorists dating back to Twain and beyond, certain critics have tried to use Sedaris as a punching bag for their own anxiety over being unable to distinguish a reality that isn’t clearly laid out for them by others. While I think they’re right to criticize his memoir-based essays, they are wrong in finding fault with the fact that they may not be completely true. The real problem is that often the biting wit of these memoirs are mixed with too much sentiment. The punch lines are softened in a Garrison Keillor manner that, while not unpleasing, isn't completely satisfying.

Of course, I am no stranger to overwrought sentiment being a fan of opera. But I have long believed that Sedaris is at his best when he pulls no punches, which seems to be the case more frequently in those works and monologues that are entirely fictional. Take his send up of Mike Tyson in Barrel Fever for instance. On Saturday, he read at least two extended fictional pieces, one from the point of view of a depressed fox looking to carry out his own suicide as road kill, and another as an amnestic defender of the blind. Here Sedaris really pushes the envelope, at times even making the audience uncomfortable with the implications of his humor and its targets. He’s a much bolder and funnier writer than one would perceive in his books, and Saturday’s reading was one that reminded us that he’s still got plenty of bite.

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