Lena Dunham and David Sedaris were adorable together last night in their one-night show ”Alone Together At Last.” Zadie Smith was the surprise introducer (not sure who backed out), and there was a joke about the three of them living under the stairs at the New Yorker together. When Lena arrived at the podium she said, “Isn’t she pretty?” and later in the performance David joked that when Lena called Zadie from a cab on her way to the show she offered her $20 to do the intro, and that he was surprised when she actually took it from him in the dressing room.
These are funny people, but as we know they’re also quite serious. They manage to infuse serious topics like suicide, sex, and sibling rivalry with enough wit to cut the edge but with a safe distance from cloying and predictable. Zadie spoke of the “ferocious honesty” that distinguishes both writers, and their Carnegie Hall performance didn’t disappoint.
Lena started with a joke about how scared she felt on stage without her “shield of nudity,” and she talked a lot about nudity but not until she’d finished talking about stage fright, and I loved it because the one time I stood on a stage and told a story I did the same exact thing: I talked about what I was scared about instead of launching into my story while my heart beat in my toes.
Lena read some new essays (from her forthcoming book that sold for $3.5 MILLION dollars…), and said before beginning, “If I mess up a word let’s just be comfortable with that,” and then, before a sold-out audience, on a stage known for outstanding acoustics, a writer started reading. This is amazing in itself, isn’t it?
Lena’s opening essay was called “Sex Scenes, Nude Scenes and Publicly Sharing Your Body.” She told us about how her mother invented the nude selfie, and went into great detail about her mother’s process and costuming. She talked about the nude sex scenes in Girls and how most professional actors have canned responses like, “It’s no big deal,” or “It’s like being in bed with your brother,” and she said “Because no one has ever accused me of being professional or an actor I’m going to tell you the truth.” The audience screamed and laughed, and when we stopped she did just that.
Then Lena introduced her idol, David Sedaris, and he was the cutest thing ever arriving on the stage in a pink shirt and what looked to be a vintage Liberty of London tie. (It looks an awful lot like one I recently found in my grandfather’s tie collection that spans multiple generations.) He’s on a forty-city tour (he’s a writer, not a rockstar; how awesome.), and he’s ridiculously comfortable on stage, which is good because he started by reading a story that was recently published in the New Yorker about his sister’s suicide and he seemed to need no preparation beyond a sip of water to tell his family’s tough truth.
It’s the kind of essay (read it here if you missed it) that makes writers limp with envy. He does one of the smartest, bravest things you can do: he tells us up front, in the very first sentence what this essay is about and he’s not coy, not even for a hot second, when he begins, “In late May of this year, a few weeks shy of her fiftieth birthday, my youngest sister, Tiffany, committed suicide.”
And then, because he’s David Sedaris, he made us laugh just about a dozen sentences later. He tells us extraordinary details that make us cry and reflect, then he says something that makes people pitch forward and back in their seats because their bodies just can’t contain the force of their laughter.
The essay, “Now We Are Five,” is over four thousand words, yet I don’t think he lost anyone’s attention on the roller coaster ride of emotion and insight. I’ve read the thing from to back twice to myself and once aloud to my mother, and STILL, I was gripped. If you’re not a fan of David Sedaris but are for some reason reading this, please go buy one of his books immediately. Holidays on Ice would be a seasonally appropriate choice, and you can read an excerpt here in an essay called “SantaLand Diaries” about when he was an elf at Macy’s.
Lena and David flip-flopped a few more times on the stage, and at the end Lena asked the audience, “How good is he at reading?” and his response was, “How good is she at thinking.” Planned or not, it was friggin’ adorable.
My mother and I could see every bit of how adorable they were and the subtle expressions on their faces as they read because we were lucky to have front row seats. We had them because I only learned about the show last Thursday, and also because even if I’d heard about the show before the tickets went on sale in early September it’s unlikely I’d have bought them because I’d have told you it was pretty unlikely I’d still be here at the end of November.
But life is funny like that.
If not downright hilarious, life is definitely surprising. That’s one of the themes that wound through Lena and David’s stories last night. Lena said that when we enter into relationships we’re making “a basic human promise to be decent,” but it doesn’t always work out that well. David took us on his family’s summer vacation just a month after his sister’s suicide and he brought us to beach-towel conversations with his siblings and his solo bike rides alone. He was brave to admit that he hadn’t talked to his sister Tiffany in eight years, not since their last falling out, and though he was often near her town and despite his father’s encouragement: he hadn’t reached out.
While talking about her nude sex scenes, Lena said something about bravery, “It’s not brave if it doesn’t scare you.” Lena and David push boundaries, and this I like. I also liked sitting so close to two of my writing idols. Here’s a picture of them, together, on that beautiful stage: