David Sedaris, Ira Glass And 25 Years Of 'Santaland Diaries'

Dec 21, 2017
Originally published on December 21, 2017 1:55 pm

It's been 25 years since Morning Edition listeners first met a very un-merry Christmas elf named Crumpet from "Santaland Diaries," the somewhat fanciful story of David Sedaris' time working as a Macy's department store elf.

"Santaland Diaries" catapulted Sedaris into a career as a best-selling author and playwright. Twenty five years ago, Sedaris was a struggling writer who occasionally read his work in nightclubs.

This American Life's Ira Glass, then an independent producer, had seen him.

"I ... always had thought, from the very first time I'd heard you read, 'Oh, this guy would be great on the radio,' " Glass tells Sedaris in a conversation on Morning Edition. "I was always intimidated to approach you to ask you to record it because so many of your early stories are from the point of view of somebody who is nice to people when they need them but very mean underneath. So I was just always a little scared of you."

Glass recorded the original reading from NPR's New York Bureau. And as Sedaris read it, Glass says he knew it was something special.

"I remember we got to the part where you sing like Billie Holiday — and I had no idea that you were just going to like break out into song and sound exactly like Billie Holiday," Glass says. "I was a pretty experienced radio producer at that point, and I was like, 'This is a good one.' "

For Sedaris, then 35, the response was life changing.

"Just immediately after it ended my phone started ringing with opportunities," he tells Glass.

And because his name was in the phone book, he says he got all kinds of calls – from editors, old friends and from strangers, including a telephone operator. "She was late for work because she sitting in her car listening to it. And then she went into the phone company to start her job and she called me."

That 1992 reading on Morning Edition was "like someone had flipped a switch," he says. "and they said OK the second part of your life is going to start in 7 minutes. So just get ready."

Morning Edition airs the reading every year, and for many, hearing Sedaris as Crumpet the elf has itself become a holiday tradition.

"I realize you're lucky if you have one thing that people appreciate, you are a lucky, lucky person," Sedaris says.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I can't believe how much time flies. Amazing, but it has been 25 years since MORNING EDITION listeners first met a very un-merry Christmas elf named Crumpet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DAVID SEDARIS: (Reading) I wear green velvet knickers, a forest green velvet smock and a perky little hat decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That's writer and humorist David Sedaris reading from his "Santaland Diaries," the story of his time working as a Macy's department store elf. That reading was first heard on this program back in 1992. The "Santaland Diaries" catapulted Sedaris into a career as a best-selling author and playwright.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SEDARIS: (Reading) I don't know that I could look anyone in the eye and exclaim - oh, my goodness - I think I see Santa. Or, can you close your eyes and make a very special Christmas wish? It makes one's mouth hurt to speak with such forced merriment. I think I'll be a low-key sort of elf.

Gosh, what strikes me when I hear that is how young I sound, which makes sense because I was 25 years younger then. It's like the same relationship I have to my high school yearbook picture. I mean, I just see it, and I wince.

IRA GLASS, BYLINE: (Laughter).

GREENE: I don't know if you recognize that laugh or not. But that laugh came from Ira Glass, the host of This American Life. He actually produced the "Santaland Diaries" for MORNING EDITION.

MARTIN: So we brought Ira and David Sedaris back together to talk about recording this. Twenty-five years ago, Sedaris was a struggling writer who occasionally read his work in nightclubs. Ira Glass was doing a local radio show in Chicago.

GLASS: I had seen you read onstage and always had thought - from the very first time I heard you read - like, oh, this guy would be great on the radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SEDARIS: (Reading) I'm going to have you fired. I had two people say that to me today. I'm going to have you fired. Go ahead. Be my guest. I'm wearing a green velvet costume. It doesn't get any worse than this. I'm going to have you fired. And I want to lean over and say, I'm going to have you killed.

GLASS: I was always intimidated to approach you to ask you to record it because so many of your early stories are from the point of view of somebody who is nice to people when they meet them...

SEDARIS: (Laughter).

GLASS: ...But very mean underneath. And so I was just always a little scared of you.

SEDARIS: Well, if you say to somebody - I'm going to have you killed - I mean, that's one thing. But doesn't everybody think it? I mean (laughter), you're allowed to have wicked thoughts. Aren't you? And that's always been interesting to me that people over the years have come up and said, oh, "Santaland" - you know, I hate Christmas, too. I love Christmas. I mean, I thought it came across in the story - love it.

GLASS: I remember I booked you into NPR's New York bureau to record it. And I remember listening to you read it. And it was going so well. And I remember we got to the part where you sing like Billie Holiday. And I had no idea that you were just going to like break into song and sound exactly like Billie Holiday. Like, I was a pretty experienced radio producer at that point. And, like - I was like, this is a good one. (Laughter) And so I remembered that so clearly, that moment of being like, what's happening? Like, what is this thing?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SEDARIS: (Singing, imitating Billie Holliday) Away in a manger, no crib for a bed.

GLASS: I also think that "Santaland" has - you have a weird relationship to it because there was a phase in your early career as a writer where that was the thing that people knew you for. And I just remember it took years for you to outrun that. And so the fact that it just reruns every year on MORNING EDITION - I don't know. You must have very mixed feelings about it.

SEDARIS: Well, I realize you're lucky if you have one thing that people appreciate. You are a lucky, lucky person.

GLASS: Yeah.

SEDARIS: And I guess if you sat down and you thought about it and you thought - huh, what can I write about that people would respond to? Well, everybody has to deal with Christmas. And it's either going to torment you or delight you. And maybe that's why it resonated with people - because it affected everyone. But I think if I sat down to do that - if you said, OK, I want you to - you've got a month to write something that will touch everybody - I wouldn't be able to come up with anything.

(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI TRIO'S "WHAT CHILD IS THIS")

GREENE: David Sedaris with Ira Glass. I hope this got you excited for the 25th anniversary broadcast of the "Santaland Diaries," which will be tomorrow right here on MORNING EDITION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.