What Your Patients are Hearing

Worst comedy audience: far right or far left?


Comedy can be about pushing the limits of topics explored and questioning societal norms. For those comedians bold enough to push hard, the result can be societal pushback. As just one example, consider the arrest of George Carlin by Milwaukee police for allegedly violating public obscenity laws for uttering those seven naughty words not to be said on television (the charge was subsequently dismissed).

David Sedaris is a present-day boundary pusher. His sources of humor have ranged from his early life growing up in a family with five siblings to the challenges of getting older with aging parents, and from American attitudes about race to his own ambivalence about guns.

Pushback against his humor has come from both ends of the political spectrum. “I don’t know which is worse: a far-right audience or a far-left audience. Each of them is a hand around my throat slowly choking the life out of me,” Mr. Sedaris said in an interview with The Economist correspondent Anne McElvoy.

Mr. Sedaris’s take on the oddities of everyday life are side splitting to some, to the tune of millions of book sales and accolades as a giant of humor – and deeply offensive to others.

His career in making people laugh began in art school with monologues on the paintings of fellow students. What has followed is a life of keeping his eyes and ears open, and a notebook at the ready to record the goings-on of daily life.

Often, something bad can happen that can prove to be funny, at least in hindsight, Mr. Sedaris explains. He cites the example of his medical examination for a kidney stone that went sideways, with him ending up in the hospital’s waiting area clad only in his underwear.

“The thought came that someday, this will be funny to me. Today it’s not, but someday it will be,” Mr. Sedaris says.

Such humor seems global. Laughs at his stories may come at different parts, based on the language and cultural interpretations. But the basic premise of the story can hit home in far-flung places.

The path to the humor in his stories can prove perilous. “It’s so hard to talk about race in the United States. ... The audience thinks: ‘Wait a minute, if I laugh at this, does it mean I’m racist?’ You can feel them getting snagged there, so oftentimes I just leave that element out of the story because I want the story to move,” Mr. Sedaris says.

Does that mean humor has a limit that should not be crossed? Not to Mr. Sedaris.

Click here to listen to the interview.

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