What David Sedaris’ Fisting Joke Teaches Us About Art

emillokuffer
emillokuffer

“An old man was sitting at the kitchen table with his teenage grandson, quietly eating breakfast and flipping through the pages of the newspaper. Upon glancing at the weather section, the grandfather announced, ‘Looks like it’s going to be raining cats and dogs this weekend, the roads are going to be a mess.’ The grandson, unimpressed with his grandfather’s attempt at small-talk replied, exasperated, ‘Ugh, tell me something I don’t know!’ The grandfather folds down his paper and says, ‘Okay… Your grandmother’s asshole can take my whole fist.’”

This was the joke that best-selling author and acclaimed humorist David Sedaris told to an auditorium full of people in San Rafael, CA while on tour promoting his book, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls. Now, before you jump to conclusions and decide that Sedaris’ new book must be pretty fucked up, let me explain what was going on:

The grandma fisting joke was actually part of a larger story that Sedaris was telling us about a time when he bombed spectacularly in front of another audience, which basically came up as the result of him saying, “Well, no matter what I say here today, at least it can’t go any worse than this one time.” A few months prior to the event I attended, David (or should I call him Mr. Sedaris? I want it to sound like we’re close friends, but I also want to be respectful of one of my idols. Hmm, anyway…) was hired to give an entertaining speech at a Yacht club fundraiser or something similar; the venue was chock-full of humorless, old, white, Republican men and their even more uptight, pearl-necklace-wearing wives. For some reason, Sedaris thought a joke about Granny-fisting would make for terrific opener, really ‘loosen up’ the crowd. Suffice to say, he was very wrong. Not only did no one laugh, nobody even cracked a smile and it was so quiet in the room you could almost hear everyone’s asses clench even tighter.

When the joke was repeated to us, in the context of recounting this catastrophic moment, we roared with laughter. And though Sedaris made us all laugh about a half a million times that evening, this was the moment that stuck with me. Sure, maybe it was that the fisting joke was horrifying enough that I’ll never be able to forget it, but I also think this moment can teach us a lot about art and what it means to be an artist. Here’s what I’ve surmised:

1. Even successful people fail.

If you’ve been hired to entertain a room full of people, and you tell a joke that makes exactly no one laugh, I think it’s fair to call that a failure. I also think that selling over 7 million books and hitting the NYT Bestsellers list 5 times makes you a pretty huge success – a reminder that success and failure are not mutually exclusive, and that even the most talented amongst us will experience cringe-worthy moments, and those moments won’t define us or our careers.

2. There’s no such thing as objectively “bad” art (whether it’s a joke, a painting, or a song).

I think the fact that Sedaris told the fisting joke twice and was met with silent hostility in one instance and boisterous applause in the other, highlights the fact that there are no universals when it comes to art – some people will interpret your work favorably, and others will absolutely hate it. Having written online for a handful of years, I’ve learned this first-hand: I can write an article about pretty much anything and then scroll down to the comment section to see that xoFlower-Child1989 has written, “omg, this was beautiful, I love you” meanwhile right below that, bieberfan41 has posted, “you suck balls, go die.” My advice is to take neither of these kinds of responses to heart, and to just keep focusing on your work instead.

3. It’s important to know your audience.

While you can’t always control how people are going to react to your art, you can minimize the chances you’ll be booed out of a building if you tailor your work to the audience you’re trying to entertain/ inform/ impress. Far be it from me to criticize someone as famous as Sedaris, but maybe had he ‘read the room’ of the Yacht club a little better, he would have decided to skip the Old Lady Fisting joke and instead tell a joke about, I don’t know, poor people, and then the whole thing would have gone over a lot better.

4. Care less what people think.

That David Sedaris was able to not only repeat the joke again, but also the story about how terribly the whole affair went for him, shows me he didn’t really give a shit about what any of those old geezers thought about him or his joke. While it might have made for a pretty uncomfortable rest of the speech, I also can’t imagine Sedaris going home, locking himself in his bedroom and agonizing about the faux pas for weeks, can you? It’s a good reminder that at the end of the day you need to let stuff go and move on, and that there might even be some humor in the whole thing that you can draw inspiration from later.

5. Try, try again.

I think if David Sedaris were to have retired on the spot, never written or entertained again after a few people didn’t laugh at him one time, we’d all agree that would be pretty ridiculous. And yet, for those of us who haven’t earned the same level of accolades as Sedaris, we can sometimes be tempted to throw in the towel altogether in the wake of an artistic ‘failure.’ NO! Throughout the career of any artist, there will be highs and lows; so, after a particularly rough low, congratulate yourself on having gotten one of them out of the way, pick up your pen/guitar/paintbrush/camera/laptop/etc. and set out to achieve another high. There’s never an excuse to give up. TC mark

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