Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Show and Tell

As English students, one of the most important questions we are asked to answer is, “How does form relate to content?” With its unique production and Sedaris’ wacky voice, I Like You is practically begging us to answer this question in depth. Amy Sedaris is a master of the old-fashioned classroom activity, Show and Tell. Her writing style and the visuals included in her book work together to both show and tell the reader what she is talking about. The way that the form and content play off each other is a defining characteristic of this book, and it gives Sedaris more opportunities for heightened humor than novelists or essayists are often offered.

Because this is a “how to” book, most often Sedaris tells the reader something in her writing and then the same thing is shown to the reader in pictures. Sometimes this is a list of “simple” step-by-step instructions followed by a visual. For example, on pages 107-109, Sedaris tells the reader in a detailed recipe how to make “The Perfect Party Cake,” and then shows each step in a two-page photo spread. In a similar way, often the pictures are used to clarify a reference Sedaris makes in her writing. For example, on pages 24 and 25, she writes, “If you must bring a plant, it better be of the five-fingered variety.” This sentence is accompanied on the opposite page by a sketch of two well-dressed women giving and receiving a marijuana plant. Finally, sometimes the pictures will help to set the scene for the current party she is discussing. For example, on pages 150-159, Sedaris introduces the section titled, “When You Get to Play Nurse,” which is accompanied by a photograph of a table full of medical supplies and a plate of Rice Krispies Treats.

What makes this book so entertaining and the relationship between its form and content so interesting is that Sedaris always uses the relationship to her advantage in making jokes. Take “The Perfect Party Cake,” for example: that series of “30 easy steps” is funny because it is a parody of more complicated recipes. In the pictures, she even breaks certain parts of the process down into two or three more steps than necessary, almost just so she can reach her goal of thirty pictures. The idea of giving someone a marijuana plant as a hostess gift is already ridiculous; to see two well-dressed ladies be the parties involved in this exchange heightens the humor. In the case of the table full of medical supplies and Rice Krispies Treats, this scene can act as the “decoration” to Sedaris’ words of wisdom concerning the type of party you would throw for sick people, if “party” and “sick” go together at all.

Most of Sedaris’ ideas are ridiculous in and of themselves. While she does a good job telling the reader about her expertise in a sarcastically funny way, the pictures show the reader exactly what she is talking about, which thereby heightens the humor of the piece as a whole. The reader is already probably laughing at Sedaris’ suggestion to give her marijuana as a hostess gift. Now, one could potentially imagine two college buddies exchanging a marijuana plant as a joke hostess gift; however, when the reader is asked to picture two ladies seriously giving and graciously receiving a marijuana plant, he or she can’t help but laugh harder. In this sense, not only are the reader’s former conventions about hospitality being reversed by Sedaris’ writing, but the pictures that accompany her words also reverse the mental image the reader has about Sedaris’ outlandish ideas. Therefore, the reader experiences not one but two reversals of expectations when reading this book. This is significant—and special—because not all books are able to give the reader this thrill of a double reversal. It takes more media than just words to provide this sort of humorous experience, and Sedaris has two kinds of media at her disposal. Sedaris uses the relationship between form and content to her advantage and creates a uniquely hilarious view of hospitality for her “guest,” the reader.

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