Wednesday, February 24, 2010

One-liners always leave me laughing

After reading more of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and hearing Sedaris read some of his other work in class on Tuesday, it seems to me that one of the most effective techniques Sedaris uses in his work is one we have not yet discussed: David Sedaris is a master of the one-liner.

One-liners get me every time. My love for sarcastic humor and puns make me particularly susceptible to their power. These carefully placed sentences, usually dead-pan in tone, come at the end or the middle of a story and typically offer an over- or under-exaggerated observation of what has taken place so far. The most effective one-liners, in my opinion, are those that come from the person in the corner who hasn't said anything throughout the conversation, but has been taking careful notes on the "characters" and "setting" involved, and at long-last releases their opinions in a perfectly timed and constructed sentence.

Things are a little different for Sedaris, who is the sole narrator for this written work. In the second half of his book, Sedaris uses one-liners to either deflate or detonate a joke (after working to build up to it), to completely change the subject (and therefore get a laugh), or to reveal something about himself and his opinions as a character who functions in the story. Ultimately, one-liners function in all these different ways to build Sedaris' unique voice as a narrator.

On page 145, Sedaris uses a one-liner to deflate a joke that he has been building up to. In talking about his sister's suburban house he ends with, "Step indoors and you automatically put on twenty years and a 401(k) plan." This sentence completely reverses the sentiments of the one before it, and that contrast makes the reader laugh. In it, Sedaris is also able to reveal to the reader his true feelings concerning his sister's house without coming out and saying, "The interior of her house was depressing/awful/drab." Showing, not telling, the reader how one feels is, in my opinion, the hallmark of a good writer.

Another one-liner that I found particularly funny is on page 157. After talking about normal icebreakers he uses to get people talking about their towns upon his arrival, Sedaris comes out and says, "What really interests me are the local gun laws." Unlike the sentence I cited in the paragraph above, this one-liner is funny because it is so direct. While it might be part of that precious 3% of dishonesty Sedaris claims to use in his writing, the quick change in subject matter again reveals something about the narrator: his sense of irreverence when it comes to meeting new people. In this instance, Sedaris uses a one-liner to be completely, shockingly open with his reader. While this is the opposite of the technique mentioned above, it is equally funny.

Another good example of a one-liner that shows, but doesn't tell, the reader something about Sedaris occurs in the story, "Rooster at the Hitchin' Post." Sedaris' father presents him with cigars upon the birth of Paul, to which Sedaris replies, "I hope you're not going to smoke that in here," I said. "Normally I wouldn't mind, but I just Scotchgarded the drapes" (165-166). In this instance, Sedaris puts words into his own mouth instead of offering internal commentary on what he describes going on around him. The perfectly-placed break in the quotation allows for the build-up of the joke, which reaches its climax in the second part of his line on the next page. Throughout his book, Sedaris uses both speech and internal commentary to poke fun of the members of his family. This particular one-liner is refreshing because he reveals to the reader that he can also make fun of himself.

All of these examples of one-liners work together to reveal something about Sedaris as both a person and a narrator. They contribute to his unique sense of voice, which in turn adds to the humor of this piece.

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