Note: This article is a part of the “highlights from our hiatus” edition
The 10th Annual Mark Twain Lecture Series came to St. Mary’s on Friday, April 22. The series, which in previous years has welcomed the likes of Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi and actor and humorist John Hodgman, seeks to celebrate writers that use humor and satire “in its highest form.” This year’s featured lecturer was best-selling author and NPR contributor David Sedaris, known most for his collections of personal essays. Many of his recognizable collections like Me Talk Pretty One Day and Squirrel Meets Chipmunk were for sale both in the school store and at the ARC the night of the lecture.
Dr. Tuajanda Jordan began the event that night, speaking to a densely crowded auditorium, the audience filled not only with students and faculty but members of the public. The Twain Lecture is a hot ticket every year due to the notability of the speaker—and Sedaris’ name meant that even more so. Tickets, though free, had to be reserved and picked up in the weeks prior to the event, and the hours leading up to the lecture saw Facebook and YikYak postings looking for or offering up extras.
President Jordan introduced Dr. Ben Click, English Professor and Director of the Writing and Speaking Center, and loving father of the Twain Lecture Series. The series grew from a lecture class he taught more than 10 years ago, and he has overseen its growth from a 200-member-wide audience to the 1,700 captive listeners seen this last Friday, as Dr. Jordan noted.
After an off-beat set of introductory remarks characteristic of Dr. Click, which spoke to the passing of time since that initial class 10 years ago (complete with reminders that photos were not to be taken in the auditorium, and that if he heard a phone ring he would send Matt Alexander, SMCM English student and Afghanistan War veteran, to collect it) Click said that he began the series as a way to honor the sort of humor and wit championed by Mark Twain. He thanked the many programs that have an influence on the Twain Series every year, including but not limited to the English Department, the Student Government Association, the Voices Reading Series, and the Center for the Study of Democracy.
After speaking of his many achievements and the honor being bestowed on the school with his visit, Click had this to say of Sedaris before the man stepped on stage: “This is the best intro possible…Twain could do a lot of things, but he could not rock a pair of culottes.”
The lights were dim in the hot and pressed auditorium, with the back doors of the gym opened up to let in the air and ambience of the spring night—lending the event the feeling of a back porch talk or a late night drive-in as Sedaris began the night’s lecture (indeed wearing a pair of swishing culottes). There was a funny pause in the proceedings as Sedaris wanted to welcome some student members of the upcoming stage production Machinal to the stage. Actors and crew members were in the middle of Tech Week Friday, and could not attend the lecture, so Sedaris graciously welcomed Jacob Traver, Liam Walsh, and Moriah Austin-Brantly to his podium to advertise for the show, premiering April 20.
When the students left the stage, Sedaris started off the night in earnest, with selections from his essays that have been published in The New Yorker. The first was called “A Modest Proposal” and focused on last year’s Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriage, and the impact it has had on he and his partner Hugh of 20+ years. Being written by Sedaris, the essay of course veered off into the quirky and extraneous, focusing also on his litter-picking routine on the side of the road in the English town he calls home, and various incidents of finding Band-Aid colored sex toys amidst the garbage.
Throughout the rest of the night Sedaris shared more essays about his family and his travels, dipping into his dealings with airport security, with growing up in the conservative South, with materialism via pre-distressed pants shopping, with the enigma of Donald Trump. At one point Sedaris addressed the recent news coming out of his home state of North Carolina, humorously discussing the corporations and performers currently pulling out of NC engagements to protest the discriminatory anti-LGBT legislation. He wondered if he was, first, obligated to cancel his speaking engagements, or second, obligated to donate the proceeds to something like the ACLU. (He whiningly complained that he saw no way out of getting out of the second.) Sedaris said that when people asked him about the laws coming out of his home state, he often wondered, “What do these people think goes on in bathrooms?” and wanted to say, no, we need to go further with it—“I hate trans people…We should ban them from all bathrooms, from going to the bathroom ever, and then seal up all their holes until they explode.”
The violence of the (obviously satirical) imagery sent awkward titters and more laughter through the audience, which was a common reaction to Sedaris’ readings throughout the night. But perhaps it felt like trans issues were brought to the forefront of people’s minds by Sedaris’ remarks, making it all the more uncomfortable when a later essay he read made frequent quips about his partner judging his “girlish” looking culottes, remarking that he might just start “transitioning” and shaving off his Adam’s apple. The jokes stood out to some, in comparison to the majority of his humor that was either aimed up, or at himself, in his biting and self-deprecating way.
But moving beyond that, Sedaris’ perhaps longest and most remarkable section of the evening was a rapid fire reading from his diary, something that he says he does commonly at his readings. Entries came scattered from the last ten years of his life, with rambling and funny stories about all manners of things—annoying people in elevators, dirty jokes about necrophilia, a poem about a pigeon that broke into his house. The length of each entry varied wildly and the date of the next one, read aloud, often served as the final period of the punchline. Raucous laughter ensued, perhaps the most of the night.
Sedaris finished up with another essay, and a heartfelt promotion for another book being sold in the lobby of the ARC, Ghettocide by Jill Leovy, a nonfiction book about the senseless rash of murders of achingly young men in South Central Los Angeles gang warfare. He remarked on how unfair it seemed to him, that an author doing such important work would see so much less attention than he, a guy “telling funny stories about culottes.”
As the lights came up and audience members began a line that wrapped all the way around the Arc (as Sedaris said he would stay until everybody who wanted a book signed got one) he took questions from the audience, at one remarking on how different the world is from the world he lived in growing up. He talked about how mothers would come to his signings these days, towing their young sons, and say, “Hi this is Timothy, he’s 14 and he’s gay too!” He said he couldn’t imagine growing up in that climate, feeling comfortable enough to tell his mother about his sexuality (in order to be then embarrassed by her at book signings).
The Mark Twain Lecture Series is a rare opportunity for the entire St. Mary’s community to come together and experience something grand. This semester’s latest visitor, W. Kamau Bell, kept the auditorium spellbound and energized on September 15, going well over his hour-long slot during the off-semester lecture, which comes every four years during the presidential election. Bell’s set, which was half comedy and half poignant education, touched on the tensions still present after last semester’s series of racially motivated incidents. For both his event, and Sedaris’, the packed auditorium, troves of student volunteers, and all the staff and faculty that came together to make it happen are all indicative of the impact the Twain Lecture can have. We’ll see you at next year’s.