David Sedaris’s book of memoirs is really striking, because his stories vary from the benignly funny to much more tragicomic essays. One of the latter that stood out to me was “The Girl Next Door.” This story in essence really isn’t funny at all; it’s about a girl, Brandi, growing up in a pretty broken home, with an unloving mother and no positive role models except our narrator. Then Sedaris’s friendship with Brandi falls apart too, and we leave the little girl whispering obscenities, friendless and spiteful. And yet there are parts of the story that are funny in a twisted kind of way. Sedaris running away at the end when Brandi curses at his mother is amusing because he, as a grown man, should not be afraid of this child. And yet he truly is, and his mother even has to help him move out because Brandi has “won” (120). It’s funny because of the incongruity, but it is also sad, because it shows our narrator to be a very fragile person, easily defeated.
The humor here reminds me of black humor TV shows like Louie and Wilfred. Both deal with main characters who are depressed and face occasionally grim situations, like suicide attempts or very dysfunctional relationships. Both shows are sometimes so dark that the humor doesn’t really come through at times, since they can be too bleak if you really think about the situations involved. It’s a very interesting form of comedy in my opinion, and I think it is best summed up by our pain + irony formula for comedy. It makes me really think about the motivation for the people telling these stories. While we may laugh at, for example, the pathetic image of Sedaris being afraid of a little girl, what is his motive for telling us these? Why do we sometimes want to make people laugh at our pain instead of commiserate with us? Irony apparently helps to lighten the blow of this sadness, but I still wonder what exactly it is about irony that can turn something dark into something funny. Overall, Sedaris’s humor, especially in this story, makes for a fascinating study into the impulses that drive joke-making and what humor can do for us in sharing our lives with others.