At Book Country, we really believe that in writing, there are no absolute rules. Since we want to become better writers via conversation and true engagement with other writers, we take pains to avoid being didactic about what writers should or shouldn’t do.
That said, Nevena and I do agree on one hard and fast rule:
Every writer should be reading David Sedaris, especially writers who want their work to be funny!
The good news is that it’s not hard to find audio clips of Sedaris reading his hilarious stuff. A frequent and longtime contributor to one of our favorite NPR productions, This American Life, you can find a robust archive of Sedaris performances online. Below, we dig up our three favorites for you to check out:
- “Who’s walking who?” “The Youth in Asia” from the episode “In Dog We Trust” (essay starts at 4:24). As a diehard lover of great danes, this is my all time favorite Sedaris essay. (You can find the print version in ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY, which is one of our Book Country Landmark Titles in Memoir).
- “It makes one’s mouth hurt to speak with such forced merriment.” “Santaland Diaries” is the classic Sedaris recounting of working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s Herald Square. The behind-the-scenes horrors ring true no matter what the time of year. (From the episode “Christmas and Commerce;” essay starts at 4:42 and the print version appears in HOLIDAYS ON ICE).
- “I sat back, pretending that applause was for me.” Sedaris writes freely about the antics of his own family, in particular his dad. In “Papa Was Not A Rolling Stone” (from the episode “Music Lessons” starting at 5:55), he recounts his attempt at taking guitar lessons at his father’s urging. The original essay is also from ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY. For a bonus, keep listening to this episode, which ends with an equally hilarious + heartwrenching essay by Anne Lamott that proves the writing adage, “if you want to make them cry, first you gotta make them laugh.”
So what does David Sedaris do to make that humor really come alive on the page and over the radio?
Approachability: Sedaris always sounds like he’s actually talking to you. Relatability is everything in humor, so having that intimacy is key. When in doubt, write the scene like you were telling it to a friend!
Keep it simple: You’ll notice that the language Sedaris uses is never very fancy. The sentences are uncomplicated, without very many clauses, rejoinders, or over-wrought phrasing. That keeps the pacing quick–always important in a funny scene–and helps you avoid confusing your reader (or bungling the joke). A good way to figure out how smoothly your scene reads is to read it aloud to yourself. The less you stumble over the words aloud, the less the reader will stumble over them, too.
Keep it short: Resist the urge to explain why something was funny as soon as it happens in the scene. That tires out the joke. Instead, let that white space around your paragraphs do a little communicating for you: much like a comedian pauses for just a second to let a punchline sink in, you’ll let the funny moment hang in the air, giving it some room to breathe. (That keeps your comedy “fresh” on the page.)
What tips do you have for infusing your work with winsome humor? Share your ideas on the Book Country Discussion Boards here.