Section: LIFE & LEISURE Page: D1

Thursday, March 5, 1998



The assignment came from Esquire magazine. Hang out in the medical examiner's office in Phoenix. Write something funny about dead people. Get paid good dough.

David Sedaris, the elfin-voiced humorist best known for his droll commentaries on National Public Radio's ``Morning Edition,'' figured it was a cake gig.

When he couldn't find the funny in untimely demises, though, Sedaris admitted feeling defeated by the task.

Until he witnessed the autopsy of a 17-year-old boy who had decapitated himself by means of a self-inflicted shotgun blast. Sedaris described a bedroom strewn with blood and gore. An eyeball lodged under the door.

The headless torso wore a T-shirt advertising tequila with the tagline: ``2 Shots I'm Smart. 4 Shots I'm Good-Looking. 6 Shots I'm Bulletproof.''

Sedaris paused a long beat in his narrative. His eyebrows did their furrowed flickerings. A hint of a smile cracked his lips, revealing a gap-toothed grin. His cockeyed left eye went off on its Marty Feldmanesque wander, scanning some unseen plane for the dark absurdities of everyday life.

``I would have at least changed my shirt,'' came the kicker, in that unmistakable Munchkin-like nasal whine, a cross between Pee Wee Herman and Truman Capote.

A 12-gauge burst of laughter -- held in like an underwater breath, the audience cautious of where Sedaris was going with the medical examiner riff -- exploded across a lounge room in the Humanities Building at the University at Albany.

Sedaris visited the campus last Thursday as part of the New York State Writers Institute spring series. It had the feel of an HBO comedy special. Raunchy and expletive-laden. And drop-dead funny.

The New Yorker described Sedaris as possessed of ``a satirical brazenness that holds up next to Twain and Nathanael West.''

Maybe just possessed. He's definitely out, openly and hilariously and sometimes darkly gay. He's so out, he's outer. As in outer space. Off the grid.

After a night with the guy, you find yourself agreeing with the Seattle Weekly critic who put it this way: ``David Sedaris slays me.''

Don Faulkner, the Writers Institute's associate director, who squired Sedaris around campus, was left reaching for the tissue. ``I had tears coming out of my eyes,'' he said. ``From laughter.''

Some highway-accident study is going to finger Sedaris sooner or later. His NPR pieces are so laugh-out-loud zany that his radio commentary should come with some kind of motorist's warning: Beware, drivers. You may want to pull over. You're entering the Sedaris zone.

Think of the characters in some of his short stories. A suburban housewife who kills her infant grandson by laundering him ``hot wash, cold rinse,'' then placing the body back in the dryer. Or, the father who performs surgery on his teenage daughter because ``most of it is just common sense.'' And there's the woman who left instructions before she committed suicide, inviting funeral attendees to murder her philandering boyfriend by pelting him with paperweights.

Humor happens when you're with this manic little fellow. Sedaris never learned to drive and accepted a ride to the Ramada Inn on Western Avenue across from the UAlbany campus after the late-night reading. We pulled into a parking space. It had a sign. Employee of the Month.

Sedaris free-associated on some of his occupations. Apple picker. Maid. Aide in mental hospital. Perfect loser jobs for a guy so inept he was way beyond slacker.

He was never big on school. ``In college, I majored in bong studies,'' he'd told the audience earlier. He would gravitate to Chicago's prestigious Art Institute and major in painting. ``I have no talent that way whatsoever,'' he said. ``But if you pay the tuition, they're not going to tell you that.''

Sedaris is all grown up now at about 5 feet 6 inches tall and 40 years old, but he observes and writes in a kind of arrested adolescence. He is the gay Uber-Geek and he's laughing all the way to the best-seller list with collections of his caustic wit, ``Barrel Fever'' (1994) and ``Naked'' (1997).

He once described himself as a ``magnet for lunatics.'' The highlight for Sedaris, among the long line of fans that had him signing books for three-quarters of an hour at UAlbany, was Joe.

``Joe was this 80-year-old S&M guy with studded leather knuckle covers who said I should do my next book totally gay, outrageously gay,'' Sedaris said. ``I thought Joe was so cool.''

Sedaris later sat in a mauve club chair in Chatterley's -- more humor, of the literary variety -- at the Ramada. He drank Budweiser from the bottle and chain-smoked Marlboros. He ranted about the no-smoking policy on Amtrak. He considered jumping out a moving train on the way up from New York just to get a smoke.

``I went to the Thurber House for a reading with Bailey White (NPR commentator and author),'' Sedaris said. ``There was no smoking in the house. So Bailey stayed in Thurber's bedroom. I got stuck in a Ramada.''

You wonder how much Sedaris is telling the truth. After a time in his company, it hardly matters. ``I'm just a big liar,'' he'd told a group of students at an afternoon seminar.

Leave it to Sedaris to cause a packed auditorium to howl at a piece about his horror of going to the bathroom at a party and encountering a gargantuan bowel movement that would not flush.

He said NPR declined to air the piece.

In ``A Plague of Tics,'' Sedaris delivered an over-the-top performance of a story about his own childhood obsessive-compulsive disorder that included demonstrations of eye rolling and head thrashing, which turned him into a one-man mosh pit at the podium. ``The kid's wound too tight,'' Sedaris offered in his mother's drunken deadpan. In high school, Sedaris said he hoped to be ``considered eccentric instead of simply retarded. I was wrong.''

The audience got laughing so hard you thought they might wet their pants.

In a story line as campy as his delivery, Sedaris was discovered one night at the Club Lower Links, a comedy venue in Chicago, where he read his diary entries. NPR producer Ira Glass was there. David Sedaris slayed him.

Glass brought Sedaris to the NPR studios in Washington, D.C. Sedaris felt comfortable among the NPR stars. There was somebody shorter than him, Noah Adams. ``He's about 5-foot-2 and makes me look big,'' Sedaris said. ``He wears these funny elevator shoes.''

The querulous Sedaris voice that millions of NPR listeners have come to know was launched on Dec. 23, 1992. That was his NPR debut. He read an eight-minute monologue about working as an elf in SantaLand at Macy's Herald Square. Sedaris had moved from Chicago to New York in 1991. He was unemployed. He was glad for the elf work at age 33.

``My costume is green,'' Sedaris said in the monologue. ``I wear green velvet knickers, a yellow turtleneck, a forest-green velvet smock, and a perky stocking cap decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform. My elf name is Crumpet. We were allowed to choose our own names and given permission to change them according to our outlook on the snowy world.''

SantaLand was anything but snowy and bright, though. It was Sedaris dark. Twisted and funny. A literary star was born. Offers came in overnight. A book contract. Glossy magazine assignments. He took meetings with producers for ``Seinfeld'' and ``Late Night With David Letterman.''

The NPR debut became ``SantaLand Diaries,'' his best-known essay and the piece that launched ``Barrel Fever'' onto the best-seller lists.

``It was all luck and it all started with that radio piece,'' Sedaris said. ``If it wasn't for that, I'd probably still be cleaning apartments as a maid in New York.''

Instead, his publisher, Little, Brown, paid Sedaris a hefty advance to write his first novel. ``I have three pages,'' Sedaris said. ``I never wanted to write a novel, but they said they'd pay me and I said I'd try. I'd never written an essay before, either. They were just ramblings on paper.''

Sedaris is taking the novel advance, packing up his SoHo apartment, and moving this summer to Paris with his lover, a theatrical scenic artist. Sedaris will smoke an Eiffel Tower of cigarettes and try to finish a novel.

Nicotine is what got him writing in the first place. He was born in Endicott in New York's Southern Tier. He has four sisters and a brother. His father was transferred by IBM to Raleigh, N.C., when David was in second grade. He was the neat freak in a house of slobs. He obsessively vacuumed when he came home from school. His mother smoked and watched soap operas.

``I made my room a shrine,'' Sedaris said. ``It was immaculate. I put an alarm on the door. I was so ashamed of our house. If I had friends over I had them climb through my bedroom window so they wouldn't see the rest of the house.'' He hit the road right out of high school, hitchhiking cross-country. ``I liked how you could be anyone you wanted to be in that car,'' Sedaris said. ``I liked being a medical student on my way to a brain surgery conference.''

When the rides ended, he went back to what he called ``my pathetic excuse for a life.'' He picked apples in Oregon. He ate in greasy diners. Out of boredom or whatever, he started writing on place mats. He took up smoking at the same time. A kind of diary emerged. Soon, he had a stack of place mats. He's been keeping a diary ever since, two decades worth of stream-of-consciousness prose.

He also writes plays for the New York stage with his sister, Amy, an actor who got her start at Second City in Chicago. One of their shows was produced at Lincoln Center. ``Amy is really, really funny,'' Sedaris said. ``When she gets on a stage, there's no way she's not going to get a laugh.''

Sedaris still works with Ira Glass, the NPR producer. A Sedaris piece appears without warning every month or so on ``Morning Edition.'' ``Ira is the best editor I've ever had,'' Sedaris said. ``I can give him 20 rambling pages and he'll make a story out of it.''

The Esquire piece on the medical examiner's office will come out in a spring issue. We'll see if he found the funny in murder and mayhem.

And if he succeeds in finishing a novel, he may quit writing altogether. ``You get your little moment of attention,'' Sedaris said. ``I understand it's not going to last longer than a moment. I don't want to stick around long enough to humiliate myself.''

He could always fall back on maid service. Or, his brother Paul's floor-sanding business in Raleigh. ``Maybe I'll learn a trade,'' Sedaris mused. ``I've considered taxidermy. I always thought it was a shame you couldn't do that on people.''

Copyright 1994, Times Union, Albany, N.Y.

David Sedaris