• Review: New ‘Believer’ book with Sedaris, C.K., Oswalt and more, gives life to old tradition

    Ask a comedian for advice, and more likely than not, you’ll get a joke. Editor Eric Spitznagel at The Believer knows this, so he and Amy Sedaris started a humor/advice column and called it “Sedaratives.” In each issue of the magazine, “Sedaratives” is taken over by a different guest “advisor” who responds to several Dear Abby-ish prompts. The column has been popular enough to warrant two collected volumes from Vintage Books. The new one is called Care to Make Love in That Gross Little Space Between Cars? A Believer Book of Advice, and contains contributions from Zach Galifianakis, Weird Al Yankovic, Dave Eggers, Brendon Small, Louis C.K., Merrill Markoe, Sedaris herself, and about two dozen other comedians and humor writers.

    Following two introductions (one by Judd Apatow explaining why he doesn’t have the time to write an intro, and one by Patton Oswalt explaining why he can’t afford to play second banana to Apatow), the book goes straight to the columns. Being funny in print can be difficult. Some of the guest columnists are used to it (George Saunders, Nick Hornby), but many of them tend to deliver their jokes as stand-ups and actors. This makes the book an interesting opportunity to see how comedians handle their comic personalities in print.

    George Saunders’ elaborate facetiousness works well here; he adopts the voice of God’s messenger in responding to a question about violence in the Bible. Dave Eggers (whose McSweeney’s empire publishes The Believer) uses his mastery of the short story format to create a mini-narrative that gradually reveals his responding “character” as unreliable and unbalanced. Like a handful of other contributors (Merrill Markoe, Annie Beatts, Nick Hornby), Saunders and Eggers are accomplished writers, and there is a certain fluidity to their entries.

    But, as I suggested, some comedians’ voices don’t necessarily translate well in print. The editor’s note before Louis C.K.’s contribution (“Mr. C.K. was, by his own admission, ‘having a bad day’”) provides a comedic hedge that suggests an awareness of this pitfall. Indeed, C.K.’s responses come off as arbitrarily mean-spirited. Of course, none of the letters are “real” – they serve only as set-ups for jokes. But, despite the fact that nobody is actually being attacked by C.K., his harsh responses don’t really work as jokes in this context. An advice-seeker asks how to make her own comfortable Baby Bjorn for her child, and CK calls her a “lazy cunt.” You get the feeling that, in his live act, this material wouldn’t be delivered with the same apparent harshness, that C.K.’s natural self-awareness and sense of absurdity would ameliorate what are otherwise straight-up insults.

    Amy Sedaris, who contributes twice – once under her own signature, and once as Jerri Blank the unforgettable drug-addled, middle-aged high school student she played on Strangers with Candy – provides some of the book’s best moments. One of these is Blank’s response to a writer whose birthday is overshadowed by the holiday it falls on. She responds with a story that begins one night after a cockfight, when “some words were exchanged between me and a wily one-legged Mexican named Vasquez… Let’s just say I soon found myself with a corpse… I had to drag him about twelve blocks so I could dump him in an incinerator. So my advice to you, Fred, is to save those tears for a real problem.”

    Other contributors include Fred Willard, Laraine Newman, Alan Zweibel, Paul Scheer, Sam Lipsyte, Bob Saget, Rose McGowan, and Jerry Stahl. Besides being an interesting opportunity to see how comic performers adapt their personas to print, this solid collection reminds us that humor writing is no longer as widely practiced in mass market print publications. It’s nice to see The Believer maintaining an old tradition with new voices.

    You can purchase Care to Make Love… on Amazon for $10. We highly recommend you do so.

    Casey Burchby

    Casey Burchby writes for a "living," which means he doesn't live terribly well. He resides among California's most plentiful natural resource: the suburbs. Find him (@TheBurbach) on Twitter.

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