But in the wake of an episode in March in which a contributor to “This American Life” admitted to fabricating facts and people in his story, Sedaris’s work is undergoing new scrutiny.
The immediate question is whether Sedaris’s stories are, strictly speaking, true — an important consideration for journalistic organizations such as NPR and programs such as “This American Life.” A secondary consideration is what, if any, kind of disclosure such programs owe their listeners when broadcasting Sedaris’s brand of humor.
Then there’s this: Does it matter whether a humorous writer, working on a news or nonfiction program, makes stuff up?
Unlike a stand-up comedian or a comic literary stylist such as James Thurber, who engaged in obviously implausible situations, Sedaris’s stories fall into a gray area. They are rooted in real events and populated by presumably real people, with their humor derived from Sedaris’s comic “voice.” These exaggerations and comic interjections are evident to a listener or reader, and Sedaris has attested that they are essentially autobiographical. His best-selling books, such as “Naked” and “Barrel Fever,” have been sold as nonfiction.
Except it’s not that simple.
In a lengthy investigative article for New Republic magazine in 2007, writer Alex Heard fact-checked Sedaris’s output and found that he had invented characters and concocted important scenes in some pieces. In one story, for example, Sedaris described working as an orderly in a mental hospital with a co-worker named Clarence. Although Sedaris had once volunteered in the hospital, he told Heard that he hadn’t been an orderly and that Clarence was imaginary. The magazine titled Heard’s article “This American Lie.”
According to Heard, Sedaris also invented parts of a story called “SantaLand Diaries,” about his Christmastime experiences working at Macy’s. The story has become one of NPR’s most requested features and has been replayed on the daily “Morning Edition” program every year around Christmas since 2004.
In an author’s note in his most recent book, “When You Are Engulfed in Flames,” Sedaris seemed to concede that not every experience he describes happened. He called his tales “realish.” (Sedaris could not be reached for an interview for this article.)
According to host and producer Ira Glass, “This American Life” began discussing Sedaris’s contributions to the program after an embarrassing episode in March, in which it acknowledged that a monologue by writer Mike Daisey contained numerous fabrications. The show “retracted” the program it aired in January, in which Daisey described harsh working conditions in the Chinese factories that make Apple’s iPhone, iPad and other products. Glass told listeners that Daisey had invented scenes, facts and people — which is exactly what Sedaris has said he’s done.