Humorist David Sedaris and “Girls” creator Lena Dunham alternated sharp insights with self-deprecating wisecracks at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday night. “White Teeth” author Zadie Smith introduced the two New Yorker contributors, and Dunham started by reading an essay from her upcoming book on nudity — a word with which Dunham has become synonymous after her hit HBO show. She even joked about it before she began, saying she felt nervous in front of the audience without the “shield of nudity.”
Dunham implied that she takes cues from her artist mother, Laurie Simmons, who had a propensity for nude self-portraits when she was young. She described her mother’s body in the photos and joked, “It’s weird to refer to your mother’s butt that way,” while also talking about her mother’s unshaved underarms: “a look I really regret knowing my father enjoys.” Dunham said she has been comfortable nude since her college years. “I didn’t love what I saw, but I didn’t hate it,” she said, adding that she wanted to explore the question, “Who gets to be naked, and why?” Dunham is fully aware that she is both ridiculed and praised for baring her non-modelesque body on screen, but made it clear that even seeing a “thick black hair on my nipple” under the harsh stage lights won’t stop her from going nude on her show in the future.
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Dunham also explored the phenomenon of young women who date jerks, proclaiming that she is the first to do so. She recalled sleeping with a man who would reject her for the other girl with whom he was cheating on his girlfriend, receiving $20 to watch a man masturbate and having sex with a guy in college who took off his condom mid-coitus and avoided eye contact with her the next day. Though Dunham told these stories humorously, she also made poignant observations about women diminishing their self-worth by allowing themselves to be treated like that.
Sexism was also a theme in her final essay about older, experienced men in the film and television industry who have behaved inappropriately toward her or belittled her, like the men who said, “You’re prettier than you let yourself be,” or the man who told her alone in a hotel suite, “Girls love it when you direct your blowjobs.” Dunham successfully balances serious issues in her stories with a buoyant charm.
Sedaris read an essay he published in the New Yorker several weeks ago about his youngest sister, Tiffany, who committed suicide. He began with the tragic details of her life and death, and how she explicitly wrote in her will that the family was not to attend her memorial service. At the time of her suicide, Sedaris had not spoken to his sister in eight years. Somehow, Sedaris seamlessly transitioned into an extended family vacation scene after his sister’s death, where he, his father and his four remaining siblings enjoyed lively conversations at the dinner table about what to name his new beach home (the candidates were Sea Section, Conch Sucker and something with Seamen) and took prank-filled trips to the grocery store. He artfully brought the story back full circle when he mentioned his father, who wondered out loud why Tiffany would kill herself. “That’s all any of us had been thinking,” Sedaris admitted as he closed the piece. Sedaris also read a fictional piece from his book, “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls,” imagining a monologue by a man who is twice-divorced and no longer speaks with his children, as read by a high school forensics competitor.
Sedaris and Dunham wrapped up the evening by reading fan questions to each other, seemingly written by the two themselves under pen names. Sedaris and Dunham giggled through questions like, “When are you going to take on the issue of bees? They’re dying,” and “What is the craziest animal or ugliest person you encountered [while on tour]."
Sedaris and Dunham have an incredible chemistry and it’s easy to see why: They share a hyperaware, confessional sense of humor, and it seems each has a professional crush on the other. Dunham asked of Sedaris, “How good is he at reading?” to which Sedaris responded, “How good is she at thinking?” Sedaris also complimented Dunham on her excellent manners, while she referred to herself as a “crazed fan” of his.
Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium was packed to the brim with “crazed fans” of both authors, and audience members included big names like Sedaris’ sister, actress Amy Sedaris, Ariel Levy of the New Yorker, comedians Julie Klausner and Mike Birbiglia, and Dunham’s “Girls” co-star Zosia Mamet.
Follow Andrea Park on Twitter: @andreapark