The Count Chocula Incident

Karen Wikander

I got an email from my Dad last week that said, "Hey! David Sedaris talked about Reno on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart!"

Oh dear. Usually when Reno makes it into a conversation on a national stage it's never a flattering moment -- especially when the mention is on a show celebrated for its biting wit, and said conversation is between two of America's greatest observational satirists.

If you live in the Reno area or watch The Daily Show, then you might have seen the clip or read the Reno Gazette-Journal article discussing Sedaris's comments.

Here's the brief interview clip if you want to watch before you continue reading:

I've heard from quite a few people regarding the Sedaris/Stewart conversation. And with most things regarding Reno, everyone put on their defensive caps and became irate.

But when I watch that clip I simply see a satirist pointing out something he noticed about the Reno audience -- Sedaris might have been poking fun at our sartorial choices, especially given the price of tickets for the event, but he wasn't commenting on the quality of people he met. It was an observation. And if you've ever read David Sedaris or listened to him on This American Life or on the BBC, then you know that he's an equal-opportunity offender -- no town or state is safe from his keen eye.

One of Sedaris's strengths -- and the reason that his stories make you cry with laughter -- is that you recognize the behaviors of your fellow human beings in his stories (or even your own comportment). A personal favorite of mine is the story of the two Texans he encountered on the Paris metro -- American tourists who believed Sedaris to be Parisian, and proceeded to talk about him, while he stood and listened, because they believed he couldn't possibly speak English. I love that story because when I lived in Europe I watched it happen all the time. I felt like I had met those people before, and this recognition created a bond between reader and writer.

Nevada Humanities was a partner with Artown and Sundance Books and Music in bringing David Sedaris to the Pioneer Center. A benefit to being part of this team was that I had the opportunity to assist with the book signing both pre- and post-event. Apart from the awesomeness of being able to meet a writer I admire, I gleaned two observations of my own.

Sedaris was not wrong about the panoply of clothing on display. There were women wearing cute spring dresses and men wearing suits -- and there were people in shorts and t-shirts, and, honestly, a lot of sweatpants. That said, who cares? Isn't that one of those Nevada traits that we always laugh at? When you ask someone what to wear to an event and you get the response, "There will be people in jeans and there will be people in black-tie," then you know you're back home. Sedaris observed something about our city and talked about it. He didn't exaggerate -- he observed and reported. Honestly? I think we should just own it. For better or worse this is a state filled with stubborn, free-thinkers, and that informs our sense of place. In fact, if I had to anthropomorphize Nevada I would say it was a lot like John Locke from LOST -- "Don't tell me what I can or can't do!"

On the night of the event, Sedaris talked to us (the volunteers) about the variety of clothing he was seeing and he was quite tickled by the whole thing. He was fixated by the differences between this crowd and his other book-tour stops. It was a very Reno moment.

The other observation is one that you might not have realized if you weren't there for the entire signing -- for all of his biting wit, Sedaris is incredibly kind to his readers. So kind that one of the riders in his contract was that we allow him as much time as he needed with each person he met. He would not be rushed -- he wanted to have conversations with people. He was very clear that if he wanted to talk to someone for 20-minutes, then he was going to do that.

How awesome is that?

And he did. He spoke with everyone -- he told stories -- he joked with the volunteers -- he shared his food with people in line. And, more impressively, he stayed at the Pioneer Center until 1:30 in the morning signing books -- smiling, laughing, talking.

It was at a fairly late point in the evening, maybe after 11pm, when a young girl (in college) walked up to the signing table (she'd been in line for just about two hours). She wasn't in fancy dress and you could tell she was a bit nervous -- she had relatives waiting near the door to leave, so the moment was just between her and Sedaris.

Sedaris took her book and prepared to sign. She bashfully pulled something out of her bag to show him. A group of us were clustered near the table, but hopefully with enough distance to be respectful. We became a little less respectful as our curiosity pushed us closer to the duo.

The girl pulled out a sweatshirt -- but on this sweatshirt she had embroidered the cover of Sedaris's latest book, Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls. It was really quite impressive.

Now, you never know in these situations how people are going to react, but Sedaris seemed genuinely pleased and astonished. He then did something I've never seen before at a signing. He reached into his magical bag of cool things -- which, as he disappeared into it looking for something, seemed very much like a Mary Poppins bag of never-ending presents -- and pulled out a small chapbook. Sedaris explained to her that when he had been speaking in Denmark (or Norway, can't remember), they had crafted a limited-edition chapbook with an unpublished story. It was for that event only and unavailable to the public. He then signed a witty inscription inside and gave it to her. She was completely overcome and, I will admit, we all were tearing up a bit. He then taught her how to respond to rude questions (which was hilarious), but that's not really a family-friendly blog moment.

So yeah, David Sedaris laughingly pointed out our Nevada propensity for wearing Count Chocula t-shirts and sweatpants to a sold-out event at a performing arts centre, but he also gave people a moment in their lives that they will remember and cherish.

I was already a fan of David Sedaris before this event, but after watching him interact with people, ask about their lives, poll them about their beards and gun-owning fathers, and ensure that every single person who needed a book signed got their book signed, regardless of the hour, I think I'm willing to admit that my cynical, Grinch-like heart grew three sizes that day.