Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Dressing Us in Corduroy and Denim

As victimized and made fun of as Sedaris’ family members may be in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, Sedaris reveals in his humor and writing that one’s kith and kin are lifesavers in the turbulent ocean that is the human experience (excuse the cheesy, overdramatic metaphor). In that sense, the structure of the family ultimately comes to mirror the structure and function of humor itself. Namely, that both humor and a sense of family and community can save and rescue us from embarrassment and steely, unyielding seriousness. Therefore, it’s not a surprise, really, that Sedaris chooses to pair the two together in his book of essays.

As was discussed in class, humor has the ability to simultaneously deflect and shed light on that which may cause discomfort, whether it be a global issue such as human suffering, or the fact that some siblings can be nutcases. In “Rooster at the Hitchin’ Post,” Sedaris comically characterizes his brother Paul by illustrating him as the sort of man who will (and did) eat “‘fish-assed-tasting chicken’” (168) in his underpants in the middle of the night, which is funny because one never expects (or desires) a sibling who is that quirky. However, in the same chapter, Sedaris reminds us that he, too, is part of the family, and as such, he isn’t exempt from being foolishly portrayed. Just before the incident with the snack of off-tasting chicken wings, Sedaris describes how Paul put a sticker on his back that said “Hello, I’m Gay” right after their mother’s funeral. The humor, then, is multidirectional within the family circle. I imagine this sort of humor as similar to the motto of “Once a [insert family surname here], always a [re-insert family surname here],” in that once you become part of a family, it isn’t easy to fall out of a family. There is a bond that is formed that is difficult to sever, and humor can create that sort of tightness, that filial sort of bond in a group by having multiple targets. It’s just as what Kay was talking about in class, how insulting her friends, how directing humor at them and allowing them to fire jokes back at her, strengthen their friendships.

In contrast, Sedaris also presents chapters or situations in which he is outside the family circle, such as in “Blood Work” and “Nuit of the Living Dead.” In these respective parts of the book, Sedaris is on his own and the humor employed in these parts is extremely different from the kind used in chapters like “Rooster at the Hitchin’ Post” and “Repeat After Me” where Sedaris recalls certain moments shared with one other sibling. When Sedaris is apart from his family, when he is alone, the humor he employs has very few directions to go in. The joke is ultimately turned toward the self, and the self becomes the source and target of ridicule. This type of humor reminded me a lot of LaMott’s in “Ham of God” because the focal character was the self, and there was not a brother, sister or parent around to jab in the ribs.

To go along with that, “Blood Work” and “Nuit of the Living Dead” were also some of the most uncomfortable chapters for me to read in Sedaris’ book. Whereas Sedaris used humor previously to show how insane and vulgar his brother is or how pet-oriented his sister is, the truth revealed in the humor of the aforementioned chapters was so bare and blunt that it was making me itch for a censor. The shame Sedaris unveils in “Blood Work” (aside from the chapter’s overall crudeness) was too palpable, too frighteningly real and honest, and similar things can be said about “Nuit of the Living Dead” and, perhaps, all instances in which Sedaris recalls times when he was out of his family circle (his getting beat up at a carnival for pretending to be a hippie, for example). While Sedaris confessing that he thinks about zombies when he’s alone in the house overnight is funny because it seems so irrational, it calls us to question why he would feel such an intense fear when he is alone—something, I feel, would have not been as noticeable had Hugh or family member been with him. Likewise, had Sedaris been with family during the incident in “Blood Work,” perhaps he wouldn’t have reflected that “Martin’s efforts broadcast germs, a debilitating shame bug that traveled across the room in search of a new host” (133). These are the moments, I believe, in which Sedaris is at his most vulnerable. His discomfort is noticeable, and so because he has no other family member with him, because he is outside of his family circle, the discomfort radiates outward to us, the readers; and I don’t know about you, but during those times in the book, I, too, was wishing that I had someone to joke with, someone to dissipate the uneasiness I strangely managed to sense.

Family and humor, then, can go hand-in-hand. The structure of the family mirrors the structure of a multi-directional humorous situation, in which we are all connected because we are all targets. Just as families try their best to make you never forget that you are a part of them, multidirectional humor works in the same way. It makes you never forget that you, too, are part of the joke; and that, incidentally, you are privileged with the comfort that you belong to a community (no matter how small), and that that sense of camaraderie and security is ultimately born of laughter.

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