You know a cultural event is a major cultural event when there are a gazillion think pieces asking how we find humor after it. No one will write anything about what laughter feels like after we’ve all endured Chris Hemsworth with a dad bod in Thor: Love and Thunder or stayed awake through the two-and-a-half-hour-long final episode of Stranger Things. But, comedy—or at least humor—post #MeToo, George Floyd, or coronavirus? Yeah, there’s a glut of those.
But what does this mean for someone who makes a career out of humor writing; of being the person we’re supposed to go to get our minds off of sexual assault or murdered and missing people of color or (because I’m writing this mere days after the Uvalde, Tx. massacre), a horrific school shooting?
Happy-Go-Lucky, humorist David Sedaris’ latest work, finds a different—more somber—person than the man who is still dining out on his experiences battling Karens during his stint as a department store Christmas elf or who once wrote a gag-inducing paragraph about his brother training his Great Dane to eat his pug’s poop.
Set in the past few years prior to, during, and after the coronavirus pandemic, this new book is reflective of so many things: his relationship with his siblings—particularly the most famous one, actress-comedian Amy Sedaris—of white privilege (and also, as Sedaris smartly puts it, Western) privilege, of wealth and what it means to be in long-term committed relationships.
Part of this is Sedaris’, sometimes in hindsight, keen observations about Western society’s issues. During the Black Lives Matter unrest in 2020, he recalls his own biases. Once, while doing a crossword puzzle on an airplane, he did not immediately ask the Black woman reading the Bible next to him if she knew how to spell “Schenectady;” assuming she wouldn’t want to speak with him since he was a white man and clearly queer (he uses the term “queen”) and that she wouldn’t know how to spell it.
There’s a whole essay about his adventures traveling to more impoverished eastern European countries with his friend Patsy that, a few years ago may have been just about the shopping they attempted to do but now ends with a “you don’t know how good you have it” message. A copy of his 2018 Oberlin graduation commencement address is also there, punctuating the optimism and live-your-dreams mentality that we still embraced in the Before Times by telling a group of 22-year-olds that they’ll never be hotter than they are at that moment.
All of these pieces still have the punch of Sedaris’ trademark vapidness (the guy loves to shop and there are several mentions of the fact that he owns a Picasso and multiple houses) and his I-know-that-you-know-that-I-know this is making you uncomfortable.
But there’s a more serious tone to them than in his previous collections.
In the piece “Full House” from his 2004 book of essays, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, Sedaris recounts a game of strip poker at a slumber party when he was a kid. He was just beginning to realize he was gay but was also very much an adolescent still in the closet who was petrified of what would happen if his peers found out. Luckily for him, no one actually knew how to play poker and a young David uses this to his advantage. The piece is meant to skeeve you out as an adult reader, because you know it’s an adult writing about children’s bodies even though he was also a child when it happened. It’s a commentary on our stereotypes of gay men and molestation. It’s also, as it turns out, largely fantasy.
In Happy-Go-Lucky, Sedaris talks of being an adult in a country where he doesn’t yet know the language and the helplessness he felt when a teen boy aggressively sexually pursues him. He knows no one will believe his side of the story, so he runs out the door of his own house. Both stories are about a protagonist trapped by the societal burdens of his sexuality and the embarrassment and excommunication that it might cause. Only one could have resulted in prison time.
There are also pieces that Sedaris may only have been able to write now, as he enters a later chapter of his life. The most poignant is a look back at his, and his siblings’, relationship with their father, Lou, who died in 2021 at the age of 98. The author has made a career out of laughing at his family. But here things go deeper.
In the essay “Lady Marmalade,” he looks back at the physical abuse his father inflicted upon all his children as well as his frequent sexual harassment and, arguably, assault. He thinks about his sister Tiffany, whose death by suicide in 2013 was discussed in his essay “And Now We Are Five;. Tiffany had accused their father of sexual assault and none of her siblings really believed her, in part because she couldn’t give specifics. Now, after both she and their dad have gone, Sedaris contemplates these allegations and what Tiffany’s life must have been like. It’s an extremely well-written piece and not at all funny.
Some might argue that this is going against Sedaris’ brand. His job is to make you laugh and anyone who has ever heard him on talk shows or This American Life will tell you it’s impossible to read his writing without hearing his high-pitched nasally voice accenting specific lines. But it’s also for the best.
Sedaris talks a lot in these essays about what he’s learned during the pandemic and how it’s changed him. The last few years have aged him, and us. Happy-Go-Lucky is a time capsule of this point in society. And there is comfort in that.
Happy-Go-Lucky is available now.
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.