The Funny/Not Funny Exercise

A review of David Sedaris' 'Calypso' (Little, Brown, 2018)

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David Sedaris promotes Calypso. Source: Wikimedia Commons

But it was just a joke, I say to myself in the dark room. A horrible, horrible joke.’

What makes David Sedaris such a master of his craft is his ability to make, not horrible jokes, but brilliant jokes about horrible, horrible things. This latest collection of essays, out now in paperback, doesn’t so much take aim at as spool out the horrors of family, loss, Trump’s America, and the inevitable decline into old age. Sedaris writes with such natural wit that one wonders whether he actually sets out to be funny, or whether his inner monologue coalesces into poised, perfectly level and almost painfully self-aware observations entirely of its own accord. Especially for Calypso unlike his earlier, less internally focused works – this question is a legitimate one. Comedy here is not the object but the lens; one which frequently leaves Sedaris the man, his actions and his relationships, at the very least singed by its glare.

The central drama of Calypso is the suicide of Sedaris’ younger sister, Tiffany. The essays don’t all explicitly address her death. The first of the collection sees him extolling the middle-aged pleasures of owning a guest-room – but of course, the essay also operates on another level, to explore Sedaris’ fear and unease with his ageing family and self. His construction of multiple semantic fields in which to play around is so seamless it’s almost undetectable as he shifts from layer to layer, seemingly without breaking a sweat: ‘Yes, the washer on my penis has worn out, leaving me to dribble urine long after I’ve zipped my trousers back up. But I have two guest rooms.’ However, Sedaris occasionally and masterfully delivers a gut punch of emotional intensity unforeseen and undetectable until it suddenly arrives, leaving the reader reeling. Tiffany’s death is one such instance, and even more so is Sedaris’ description of the last time he saw her, in the antepenultimate essay ‘The Spirit World’. These moments are, crucially, humourless. Sedaris delivers these blows without any fancy footwork, straight and abrupt.

It’s a comedic formula we see cropping up more and more: the Funny/ Not Funny exercise. Phoebe Waller-Bridge explains the challenge as ‘How do you make an audience laugh in one moment, then feel something completely and profoundly different in the next?’. With Fleabag, Waller- Bridge used this as a founding philosophy, building a TV show which defies easy-labelling, and, like Calypso, is centred around a deep and un-funny trauma. The laugh/cry formula (to put it crudely) can easily become a cheap trick, fulfilling neither its comedic nor its dramatic potential. Its success is a testament to the talent of those who successfully employ it, as Tig Notaro did in her landmark set Live in 2012, introducing herself on stage ‘Good evening, hello, how are you, I have cancer’, and as Hannah Gadsby so triumphantly did in Nanette. In Calypso Sedaris displays an unwillingness to cleave to the constraints of comedy writing as a genre, but what marks these essays out from the stylings of Notaro and Gadsby is his quasi-weaponization of humour as a vehicle to eviscerate his own flaws. Calypso is both funny and heart-breaking, but at its core it is deeply, uncomfortably personal; one wonders how on earth Sedaris will follow it.

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