David Sedaris

The celebrated American humorist delivers an evening of interlacing tales and outrageous material disguised in a performance akin to catching up with an old friend

The Ulster Hall is packed out with a chatty, excitable throng tonight to hear a man read from what is, effectively, his diary. Just a microphone, a podium, a glass of water and a sheaf of typed notes and David Sedaris is good to go. I’m convinced he doesn’t really need the notes. It’s quite the business model.

Sedaris drifts out of the wings in what appears to be a billowing A-line skirt but is revealed to be culottes. He pronounces 'culottes' with the emphasis on the second syllable so it sounds like something a voluble pigeon might do.

'I bought these culottes in Japan and they were very expensive and I worried that I would never wear them. I wouldn’t want to be the sort of idiot who buys expensive culottes and doesn’t wear them. As you can see I’m the sort of idiot who does.'

He is utterly dwarfed by the Ulster Hall’s giant, green tinged organ as he coughs, shuffles his papers and sips his water. Then he starts to read and everything is alright. His prose is fine on the page, sculpted and pared; it has the lean, honed quality of a Catskills comedian’s material.

Live though, with his slightly sing-song, honey and mustard voice it’s imbued with extra resonance. He underlines things, thickens them out and every paragraph ends with a defeated, muted sigh. He is the victim of every story, ludicrous things keep happening to him and he is powerless to stop them. All he can do is take them on the chin and write them down.

The first story – Calypso – begins with the Ebola panic, as he goes to an American airport and sees the travellers, 'with a flagrant regard for their own lives' wearing face-masks. 'They were concerned about Ebola. Not the thousands who had it in Africa but the single person who had it in Dallas.' 

He is then confronted by a man at a book signing who chimes in with 'I’m no doctor but I think you might have skin cancer.' Mildly panicked he goes for a check up ('My father advised me to have a colonoscopy and a whole new world opened up!') and the doctor finds a benign tumour about the size of an egg under his ribs.

Sedaris has a brainwave – back at his beach-house, 'The Sea Section', there is a snapping turtle with a cyst on its head. Sedaris wants to feed his excised tumour to the turtle. The surgeon, repeating the mantra 'I am forbidden by federal law to give you anything I remove from your body,' denies him and David goes away intact.

A few days later, after telling the story at a show, he is approached by somebody who offers to remove it for him and let him keep it. So, obviously, he says yes.

The story continues piling incident on top of incident, until you realise that all of these things have become inter-connected and that some sort of shadowy, literary legerdemain has taken place. Sedaris is subtle and cunning: the slightly nebbish, what-the-hell persona is a distinct performance (those culottes didn’t happen by accident).

He is a reliable and warm presence, the stories tripping casually out of him so gently and sweetly that you barely notice the outrageous content and when you do, well, it’s impossible to be offended – that’s just David.

There are moments when he seems to step out of his character – there is some concern that a joke about 'Kotex' hasn’t landed because of the different brand names in Europe. 'What do you call them?' he asks. 'Always!' someone bellows from the back of the room. 'Always?' he repeats, sounding genuinely mystified.

It’s an often trotted out truism but a night with David Sedaris is, like so many of his own stories, like catching up with an old friend. You sit around; he talks about what he’s been up to, the family, who he has bumped into, what parts of his body he wishes to feed to diseased reptiles and where he bought those terrible shorts.

And you leave happy and connected and inspired to write a diary of your own. Which won’t be as funny as his.