Mark Twain argued that in writing humorously, what matters is not the content of the story but rather the manner in which it is delivered. A humorist must maintain an air of gravity and disinterestedness while paying careful attention to pacing. His prescribed formula had several key elements, all of which we see at play in David Sedaris’ 2004 collection of autobiographical essays, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Employing a sharp and dry self-deprecating humor, Sedaris crafts twenty-two tales that embody the unique American art of the humorous story.
Part of the high art of a humorous story is ability of the author to string together incongruities and absurdities “in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way” while presuming to remain “innocently unaware that they are absurdities” (Twain, 241). Sedaris does exactly this in “Possession,” an essay in which he decides Anne Frank’s historic hiding place would be the perfect apartment to call home. He writes: “The entire building would have been impractical and far too expensive, but the part where Anne Frank and her family had lived … was exactly the right size and adorable, which is something they never tell you” (184). He goes on to casually describe her kitchen as an “eat-in with two windows,” and calls the fireplace “the focal point” of the family’s sitting room (185). To reduce the home of a beloved child hero senselessly killed as part of the greatest atrocity in modern history to a series of potential design improvements is preposterous, but Sedaris does so with utter gravity, creating a juxtaposition that results in hilarity.
The twenty-two essays are littered with humorous “nubs” (to borrow Twain’s language), acting as punch lines delivered without fanfare. Sedaris tells a joke as if simply stating a passing observation. In “The Girl Next Door,” for example, he describes an eyebrow-less nine year old as having a face “like the weather in one of those places with no discernible seasons” (107). This creates a comical image for the reader but is expressed “apparently without knowing it, as if one were thinking aloud,” commanding from the audience a level of attention to detail and nuance (Twain, 241).
In “Blood Work,” we see the slow and deliberate pacing Twain emphasized as indispensable to the humorous story. The essay describes Sedaris’ time glamorously spent cleaning apartments in New York City. One client attempts to clarify whether Sedaris would be cleaning at 2 in the afternoon or morning, which Sedaris describes as the point which he would “later recognize as the first sign of trouble” (126). He then breaks the paragraph, which acts in effect as Twain’s famously described pause. The suspense has been established. Thus, everything that follows – from Sedaris’ arrival to the swelteringly hot apartment and his encounters with its sweaty inhabitant who won’t stop talking about Fire Island – is received in anticipation of this “trouble,” building tension that is ultimately released when the reader realizes the intention of the client. The result is an exceptionally funny story that stands out within a collection of exceptionally funny stories.
In Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, Sedaris employs every aspect of Twain’s humor formula. Regardless of the subject addressed – familial guilt, aging romance, or neighborly disputes – the message is delivered artfully, precisely crafted to deliver the type of unexpected laughter which makes you spit out your or wake your roommate. It is indeed a “high and delicate art,” and one which Sedaris has undoubtedly mastered.