Tuesday, February 28, 2017

David Sedaris and Self-Deprecation

            One of the largest aspects of the humor of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (and indeed, most of Sedaris’s works as a whole) is its basis in self-deprecation, especially self-deprecation as a sort of coping device. I touched upon this in one of my questions, but I’m interested in both the way Sedaris uses it and its usage in humor as a whole. Sedaris often branches from outright comical stories to ones with much more depressing, or serious undertones—most prominently his facing discrimination/homophobia and genuine self-loathing. On one occasion Sedaris outright calls himself “evil” for exposing so much of his family’s past and present in his essays and being, paradoxically, too truthful about them. Yet he does all this in a tone that’s humorous. He points out his shortcomings and mistakes in jokes, and when he doesn’t and outright expresses disappointment in himself, he quickly reverts back to humor in the next sentence. His humorous self-deprecation seems to be doing two jobs here: one, serving as a coping method for his actual self-perceived shortcomings, and two, making for an enjoyable, and introspective, read. The first point I’ve already touched on, and plays on the idea of humor equals tragedy plus time we’ve discussed in class. Generally, when something tragic or terrible happens to us, it takes a while to forget about it. Laughing about it can help speed along this process; it makes the pain we’ve gone through (or are going through) less debilitating and more manageable. It also lightens the pain somewhat in the literal sense. If we search for the comedy in something painful to us and find it, focusing on that comedy rather on the pain has the same effect—less debilitating, more manageable.

The latter point is more obvious—after all, who wants to read an essay in which the author just lists every single thing he finds wrong about himself? It’d be incredibly depressing. And yet that’s essentially what Sedaris does. He does list most of his shortcomings and problems he’s faced throughout life but makes them palatable through humor—it makes the uncomfortable truth comfortable. That’s another positive feature of self-deprecating humor; it allows us to explore our faults in a way that’s not directly critical. Rather than obsessing over them or outright denying them, we can embrace them and poke fun at them and ourselves. We’re able to laugh at ourselves and describe how we wish we could improve in a way that’s positive rather than negative. It’s healthy, to an extent. And additionally, like when it’s employed in the manner that David Sedaris employs it, self-deprecating humor helps others embrace their faults in a healthy manner as well. It shows that it’s okay to be critical of one’s self and one’s faults and additionally, when the faults of the reader line up with the faults of the author, even offers a chance for self-reflection. It allows the reader to wonder if they do that too, and if yes, how they can improve on that or learn to deal with it, as well as a connection with the author—yes, we’re all only human, yes, we all have faults, and yes, we can all learn to cope with our faults somehow. Overall, the self-deprecation of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is effective and points to how self-deprecation in general is an effective means of humor.

Ostracization and humor

There's Nothing Better Than Family

David Sedaris’ Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim offers readers a rather interesting, and very funny, look into the life of the author. If it had not been for the disclaimer at the beginning of the book stating that these stories were all true, I would have simply called Sedaris an incredibly creative writer for being able to come up with these elaborate and detailed stories. The fact that these stories are, in fact, true arguably makes them even funnier, simply because they are grounded within reality, and make them more relatable to a larger number of readers. Some of this laughter can be clearly attributed to the superiority theory, as many times I laughed at these situations because they seemed completely embarrassing and I was just simply happy to not be in the authors position. One of the most notable times was in the chapter titled “Consider the Stars” where Sedaris’ father refused to leave a family’s house until they agree to pay for the root canal that Sedaris needed after being hit by a rock. The other father essentially states that their conversation is leading nowhere but his father refuses to leave without receiving some sort of settlement (50). This story is funny because his father’s stubbornness is endless to the point of being comical, but also because the very thought of being put in this sort of position by my own father is terrifying, but also a very real possibility. While I would be mortified to be in his position, I am entirely content to read about, and laugh at, Sedaris’ story which luckily he seems to be as well.
            Many of Sedaris’ stories have this similar relatability about them, the story about his rather extended snow day that was chronicled in the chapter “Let It Snow” brings back my own childhood memories of my mother forcing my brother and I to go out and play in the snow, and while she did not lock us out of the house, I can only imagine after a few days stuck in the house with my brother and I, and absolutely nothing to do, her intentions were probably quite similar. What is arguably the best part of this story comes from when the older siblings convince their younger sister to lay down in the middle of the street so that their mother could not ignore them anymore (15-16). Every older sibling has stories of convincing their younger siblings to do something that they would never do themselves, but nevertheless want to see done. The second that I read through this story it made me think of a somewhat similar story from my own childhood in which I convinced my brother to do something that I did not want to, simply because I knew there was a chance I could get hurt, but my brother was not me, and if he got hurt I would not have to feel it so naturally this was the best choice. At the time I was around 7 years old and my brother was about 5, and I wanted to see if I could ride my bike down the steps of our front porch, the type of great idea only a child could think of, but I of course did not want to do it myself. Naturally I enlisted my brother and the first time he made it down without a problem, but of course I had him try it again just to make sure it was not a fluke, and naturally that time he fell and hurt himself. After my parents came rushing out of the house, and my brother sold me out, they asked me what I possibly could have been thinking to which I answered in what seemed like the only logical way at the time, saying “I don’t know what happened, it worked the first time he did it,” as if the fact that he had actually done it multiple times was somehow going to make the whole situation better for me. This story was not funny at all in the moment, my brother had gotten hurt and my parents were yelling at me, but with the distance of quite a few years, my entire family is able to look back upon this story and laugh. What Sedaris has done throughout his entire collection of stories is has created a work with which the reader can relate, which are very funny in their own right, but often allow the reader to reminisce and think of their own family stories, which only then add to the humor that is experienced while reading this work. 

The Girl Next Door and Tragicomic Irony

     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.

We all see a little bit of ourselves in Sedaris

Earlier in the semester we discussed how comedy is tragedy plus time and I think much of the humor in Sedaris’ work relies on the part of his life that he struggled and suffered. For instance, in the section “Full House,” Sedaris is forced to go to a sleep over where he is held down while his nipples get twisted “back and forth as if they were a set of particularly stubborn toggle bolts.” After the torture Sedaris comments that he understood that Walt’s dead sister, Laura “was smart to have cut out early.” Sedaris recounts a tragic moment in his life then he offers a humorous yet dark comment. His audience is able to laugh at his suffering because time plays a major role in distancing the tragedy.
There is another component to Sedaris’ humor that explains why I found myself laughing out loud constantly and it is the relatability of his suffering. Usually when I read humorous novels I let out a giggle, but I rarely let out a full throttle laugh. I went back to examine the parts of the novel that made me chuckle the most and realized that they were parts that I related the most to. Memories of awkward situations surfaced as I reflected on my life so far.
This brought me to the realization that we laugh at other’s tragedies because their suffering reminds of us of our own suffering. In the section “Consider the Stars” Sedaris describes how excited he was when a popular kid named Thad threw a rock at his head. He came home to his sister with a bloody face exclaiming “It was Thad!!!” and his sister responded “Did you save the rock?” While I read, I couldn’t help but think of the social hierarchy that I encountered in grade school and reflect on the absurd power that the popular kid had on everyone. I immediately remembered Emma Avilia, the most popular girl at Hereford Middle School and associated her with Chad. I immediately started to chuckle as I thought about my past experiences with Emma and her charming character.
While we may not recognize it, we read other’s suffering as a reflection of our own. We see a little bit of ourselves in Sedaris and his stories ultimately serve as a mirror in which we can look at our past. While it is evident that humor does come from tragedy + time, it is worth noting that another person's tragedy is most humorous when the audience is able to connect through their common experiences and knowledge

Why You Should Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

     In Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, David Sedaris uses humor to make the reader look inward and learn things about him/herself. The funny snapshots of his life contained in the novel all have a lesson attached to them. One important lesson Sedaris portrays in his novel is that money and objects cannot buy happiness, especially when these things are obtained through greed.
     Children have a tendency to be greedy, as seen through Sedaris’ story Us and Them, when he tries to avoid giving his good candy to the Tomkey children who went trick-or-treating a day late. Although it is humorous to imagine a little boy stuffing his face with candy he should not be eating, Sedaris points out a strong truth when he describes his young self as “a human being, but also a pig, surrounded by trash and gorging himself so others may be denied” (12). This quote describes human nature, and the way people often act in selfish manners.
     Another example of gorging oneself can be found in the character of Aunt Monie, the eccentric aunt who stops by once in a while but is still an important member of Sedaris’ family due to the wealth she leaves when she passes away. It is humorous to read about Aunt Monie’s lifestyle, with her new Cadillac every year, her maid and driver, and her nightly pork chop. However, through Aunt Monie, we realize money does not buy happiness. Her family built relationships with her based on her money, not her personality and love. She lived in a big house alone. Once David’s mother inherits some of the money, she realizes just how little happiness it brings as she avoids telling people so she can keep her current relationships without jealousy or being used and becomes “disappointed by how little pleasure [money] brought” (69).
     Through humorous stories from growing up, David Sedaris teaches his readers valuable lessons about the importance of money and the disgusting realities of greed.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Nicolas Cage, Koi Ponds, and the Power of Commentary

This past weekend, I went out to dinner with some friends to celebrate one of their birthdays.  We had agreed beforehand that we would be spending most, if not all, of the evening together, but we were unsure of what we should do after dinner.  There had been heavy rain earlier that day, so we decide it would be best to go back to campus instead of walking around Towson with the threat of another downpour.  As we waited for our Uber to arrive, we admired a small koi pond in the entrance of the restaurant.  My eyes followed a fish to the edge of the pond, where I noticed a small sign, about the size of an iPhone, leaning against the wall.  The sign read, “PLEASE DO NOT HOLD THE FISH.”  This made all of my friends laugh.  We wondered aloud why there was a need for such a sign, until someone mentioned that the fish did look very friendly, so it was no surprise that some would want to hold them.  We laughed even harder at this observation, and we all began having a friendly conversation with the koi, who lifted their heads above the surface of the water. 
            Later at night, we decided to watch National Treasure.  The movie about Nicolas Cage trying to steal the Declaration of Independence to find a secret treasure map once held a place of genuine interest in our young hearts, but that faded once we gained the ability to identify bad acting.  We watched the movie because we were feeling nostalgic.  We knew that the movie was awful, but we had an enjoyable night because we provided a commentary to go along with the movies that made us all laugh at the bad acting and melodrama. 

            These two examples of humor I experienced this past weekend connect to one of the main ways that Sedaris makes his collection of short stories funny: humor is not necessarily inherent in certain situations, but it can be created with well-constructed commentary. For example, when he explained the sleeping habits of his family, he mentioned that his mother slept irregularly, often in her clothes.  The children would give her pajamas for Christmas, and Sedaris notes that she would give them a strange look, “as if, like the moment of one’s death, the occasion of sleep was too incalculable to involve any real preparation” (Sedaris 30).  The fact that his mother struggles with sever sleep problems is not a matter that many people would find humorous.  However, Sedaris’ comments on her reaction to her sleep problem make the leader laugh at a serious issue.  In this way, Sedaris builds his theory of humor on a combination of past experiences with new observations.  Taking time to step outside of a situation can allow someone to reexamine the event and provide new insight that is a humorous.  However, extensive time is not always necessary; in the case of the friendly fish comment, the only amount of time needed to make an observation was the time required to formulate the thought.  Being able to respond quickly and lightly to an event can be very funny as well.  The humor in the situation can also depend on the relationship between the person making the commentary and the person listening.  In the case of the National Treasure commentary, part of the reason I found it funny was because I was friends with the people who were making the comments.  An outsider without any connection to the people making comments may not have found them as funny.  In the case of Sedaris' book, the reader does not necessarily have a personal relationship with the author, but Sedaris gives the reader an intimate look into his life so that a relationship can be formed relatively quickly.  This shows that using commentary as a form of humor is not always a foolproof formula for evoking laughter.

Black Mirror and Sedaris' Mother

David Sedaris’ Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is a collection of essays about David’s family and personal life. The essays all include funny situations varying in types of humor, but there is a common theme of pity in each of Sedaris’ chapters. I found myself laughing at several of his jokes even if they were dark or aimed towards those I pitied in the story. We have learned from Kierkegaard that pain and irony, or conflict can be one of the major sources of humor. I believe that Sedaris uses this pitiful theme to relate to his audience and create a funny twist in several of his chapters.
The first few essays are focused on his early life. These chapters focused on his dysfunctional family and awkward social life, which I’m sure everyone can relate to. One of the essays I thought was funny was the first one of the book, “Us and Them.” I found this funny, because Sedaris is perplexed that the Tomkey family did not own, or believe in television. Young David spends his days studying them, watching over the kids in school, and peering into their window. He does not understand what one could do without a TV, and is concerned that they will miss popular references and not fit in. I found this funny, because I also found TV to be an essential part of life in my adolescence. On the other hand, I am currently watching “Black Mirror” on Netflix. This show is a drama with individual episodes that demonstrate how technology is destroying man. I just thought it was funny how David’s viewpoint as a child is that one cannot fit in society without a television, and pities the Tomkeys. (Possibly a little incongruity).
This pity is also present in “full house” the fourth Chapter. Sedaris is invited to a sleepover and is forced to go. He is attacked and gets his nipples twisted, as anyone would at an adolescent sleepover. Sedaris then makes a joke, “I understood little Lauren was smart to have cut out early” (Sedaris 36). This is Sedaris’ dark sense of humor, but it does demonstrate pain+distance or tragedy+time.

Most of Sedaris’ jokes branch from how life is suffering. He does have some uplifting parts of the story however. I found It extremely interesting how my attitude toward the mother changed after the chapter “The girl next door,” where David’s mother comes to help him pack in his apartment, after he finds out the girl next door he tried to befriend had been stealing from him. The girl, Brandi, calls her a bitch and she replies, “sister, you don’t know the half of it” (Sedaris 122). My opinion of David’s mother changed drastically after she helps him out of his situation, especially since his father will not help him because of his sexuality. Until this point I did think the mother was a little bratty; she locked her kids out in the snow and drank wine all day, and seems like a Debby downer. For some reason after this somewhat “affectionate” moment, I found her old antics to be pretty funny.

Adults Playing with Baby Toys

The section of Sedaris’s book that stood out to me the most was the “Baby Einstein” chapter. Sedaris’s brother has a baby and buys a toy that really isn’t age appropriate for a newborn, so he decides to make it spell out dirty words instead of using it for its designated purpose—teaching a child to spell.
I have two young nephews back home, and it was my job to babysit them all summer, every summer from the time they were 18 months and newborn to about four years old and two and a half. Long story short, I’ve spent many of their nap times surrounded by talking baby toys. There were always a good age range of toys present since nephew #1 was a year and a half older than nephew #2. So many of them sang and danced and randomly turned on when they sensed motion. For the adults in the family, it became a running joke to scare someone with the toys or to annoy them into a frenzy just by singing one of the songs under our breath.
Years went by with the adults asking each other to play in front of the babies, but using the creepy “toy voice” just to freak the other people out while making the babies laugh. We would also sing the songs when we wanted to mess with someone else in the house by ruining a very rare silence. However, my soon-to-be brother-in-law, Kevin, (father of nephews #1 and #2) decided to take things to the next level. He put a bunch of the motion triggered toys lined up in the dark hallway on the way to the bathroom over night to scare his brother, who lived in the basement apartment, when he got up in the morning. Imagine getting up in the dark for an early shift at work, trying to stay quiet so you don’t wake anyone else in the house only to hear “DO YOU WANT TO PLAY WITH ME???” followed by playful music. Kevin won the ongoing prank war my taking the creepy factor to the next level.
This example, along with Sedaris’s “Baby Einstein” chapter ask us to question why it’s so funny to use children’s toys in a way in which they were not designed to be used.  The even great question, I think, comes up when we think about why babies get bored with the toys when they outgrow them, but adults and older children get such laughter out of messing with these toys and making fun of their silly songs and voices. Is it our way of coping the with constant repetition of simple songs teaching us things we already know, or the whiny mechanical voices that are constantly in our heads for years, or is there something more behind the desire to mess with these toys long after we’ve outgrown the acceptable age range?
While the coping theory seems to fit pretty well, I think the Incongruity theory explains why it is we find using toys inappropriately to be so funny. Making creepy faces while imitating a doll’s voice is the opposite of what someone would expect, so their reaction makes the other person laugh. It’s a bit of a twist on the theory because the person is subverting the other person’s expectations and laughing at the result, not at the subverted expectation. Using cute things to scare people is innocent enough to be funny, because the person who was scared by the toy is able to laugh at themselves for being scared in the first place since the object that scared them is so nonthreatening.
Sedaris’s brother was doing something similar when he tried to get the spelling toy to swear. He was frustrated by the toy picking up on his idea and stopping the word just short of completing the expletive. While people reading the chapter can identify, I also think it’s funny that the toy laughed at him. They toy was programmed to laugh at people who were trying to use it inappropriately. This suggests that the toy makers were aware that people would try to do this sort of thing, and built in the laughter as a sort of safety mechanism so they wouldn’t teach children to swear accidentally and even to acknowledge the misusers attempt at humor and award them with a laugh.