FORT WORTH It takes a special kind of storytelling talent to bring the house down with an anecdote about a joke that bombed, especially when you bring the house down by retelling the joke. But that’s just one of the little tricks that David Sedaris pulled off during his show Saturday night at Bass Hall.
Granted, the joke has a punch line so aggressively dirty that if I were to reprint it, I’d get fired, but it involves a grandfather’s response to the statement “Tell me something I don’t know” — and the audience that didn’t like it had, as Sedaris put it, an “average age of 600.” When Sedaris relayed the tale about the joke’s flopping, the Bass Hall audience convulsed, and it was hard to tell how much of the laughter was at the anecdote and how much was at the joke.
But it was part of the rhythms of the show, during which the humorist and NPR contributor got away with several lines he’d never get away with on public radio. As always, he read from written material, but the opening bit — about language courses, Americans’ overuse of the word awesome and the predictability of what hotel and restaurant workers say — played like strong observational stand-up comedy.
Except that Sedaris’ bits are long, going off on tangents that make you forget how they started, but somehow finding their way back to their entry point. Their forms varied — the most poignant being a New Yorker piece about the suicide of his sister Tiffany this year, a sad tale that found humor in the way Sedaris’ eccentric family reacted.
A “dramatic monologue” from his latest book, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, contained twists that became more surreal after Sedaris introduced it as a fictional piece he had written so that teens would have a good piece to read at forensics contest. Some of the other readings came from this year’s entries in a diary that Sedaris has obsessively kept, according to an NPR report, since 1977; the biggest laugh came from yet another unprintable bit about a shocking note he wrote during a book-signing at a teen’s request.
Sedaris speaks with the measured rhythms of an NPR announcer, but with the perfectly timed pauses and left-field punch lines of the best comedians. He seemed to lose a couple of beats while reading a passage from Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick’s book about life in North Korea, going faster than usual as the tone turned serious.
And then he added the kicker — he’s recommending Nothing to Envy not just because it’s a great book about people living horrible lives, but there’s nothing anyone can do to help them, so you can enjoy its greatness without feeling guilty. It takes a special kind of storytelling talent to get a big laugh out of that.