The Week In Radio: A flush of joy from painfully funny family portraits


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The Independent Culture

Is it acceptable to talk on the phone when you're sitting on the toilet? The American humourist David Sedaris says not, though his sister Tiffany would beg to differ. "Don't mind me," she has been known to say, with the strained tone of someone engaging in heavy lifting, while clasping the phone to her ear. "I'm just… trying to get… the lid… off this… jar."

We've reached the middle of the third series of Meet David Sedaris and you'll have to trust me when I tell you that right now you won't find anything better, or funnier, on the radio. If I ruled Radio 4, I'd have it on every day, preferably just after the Today programme, and again after World at One, to help lift us out of our soul-sapping, news-induced gloom.

The series is composed from readings of Sedaris's short stories and autobiographical essays along with entries from a diary spanning several decades. His tales, which frequently revolve around his family, are funny, but darkly so and there is more to them than merely the eccentricities of those than inhabit them.

Sedaris, a writer for The New Yorker, deals in light and shade, and on the significance of the small things within the bigger picture. These light/dark, happy/sad juxtapositions have seen him likened to Mark Twain, though Sedaris identifies himself more closely with stand-up comics. This is apt given his delivery that radiates sweetness, civility and only slight disenchantment at the world when revealing the most excruciating personal humiliations. This is also why he works so well on radio.

This week's story centred on a taxi ride he took with his sister from the hotel where he was staying in Boston to her house on the outskirts of the city. The journey triggered memories of their childhood as well as observations regarding her current situation: a middle-aged woman living alone, travelling around the city in a home-made rickshaw and, encouraged by her landlady, trying to rid herself of excess fat every morning by rhythmically pummelling her stomach and thighs.

Tiffany's jam-jar story was particularly unsettling for Sedaris, as he thought of all the occasions he'd fallen for it. "Try tapping the lid against the counter," he'd suggested at the time, or "Rinse it in hot water." Eventually, after much huffing and puffing, she would let out a long breath, murmur "There we go", and thank him for his advice. "And I would feel powerful," he recalled sadly, "believing myself to be the only man on Earth who could open a jar over the telephone." Only Sedaris could tell of his sister's multi-tasking during a bowel movement, and still come off sounding needy.

He's not without spikes, of course. Last week, Sedaris recollected dangling his sister Amy's Barbie doll out the back of the family station-wagon as a child after swimming lessons, reeling it in at intervals to assess the damage. His description of the battered Barbie, shorn of half her hair, her nose ground down to a bump, was delicious in its cruelty.

He also recalled his 10-year-old self listening to his father pointedly singing the praises of a boy called Greg who was a star swimmer, despite having "legs no thicker than jumper cables", and we got a glimpse of Sedaris as the outsider within his own family, a sponge for his father's barely disguised disappointment. To deflect attention from Greg, Sedaris would crack jokes about his sister Gretchen's puppy fat. "It was a way of changing the channel," he observed. "Switching in this case from The Greg Show to The David Show, which today was sponsored by Gretchen's weight problem." His mother, who seems to have shared her son's way with words, preferred to call it: "Stirring the turd."