Presented in a different way, the series of vignettes depicted in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim might cause extreme second-hand discomfort and maybe, horror of horrors, pity. As the collection stands, however, the reader is left giggling aloud at Sedaris’ dry wit as he recounts his misguided run-ins with a neighboring brat, his attempts to force some kind of fellow-feeling from his macho brother and his days of being a hippie panhandler at fourteen. He pretends not to find himself funny, and, as Mark Twain points out, this is the secret to really great story telling.
Even beyond these strictly humorous situations, Sedaris confronts some heavy topics. He talks about being gay at sleepovers and later being kicked out of his house because of it. He touches on the antics of his family members, not being chosen to speak at his brother’s wedding and how he loathes when his partner embarrasses him in front of their guests. He has somehow channeled these cringe-worthy moments into a hilarious collection of tales and a respectable career by writing and speaking about them.
I wonder if this is Relief Theory at its finest. Are we laughing as a way to relieve the tensions that these situations cause? We can only do this as far as Sedaris guides us. He lays his experiences bare to the reader, and we laugh at his discomfort and confusion. Without his blessing to do this, it would be cruel. Because he invites us, by his wording and the very fact of the book’s publication, to laugh at his view of his life, it is encouraged that we do so. We are in collaboration as the final step in the joke instead of at odds when we laugh in superiority. Sedaris is likely the one who requires the relief here. By being the one to condone the laughter, he takes away its power to do damage. He has both neutralized some potentially painful memories and suckered us into being entertained by them, turning his pain into a respectable profit.