Lena Dunham didn’t have “the shield of nudity” to protect her at Tuesday night’s Alone Together At Last: Lena Dunham and David Sedaris joint reading, but she started roughly adjacent to her comfort zone with the claim that her mother, Laurie Simmons, “invented the selfie.” The Girls auteur, who was admittedly nervous at the start of the Carnegie Hall gig, went on to envision her mother snapping old-school film of her “butt and unshaved armpits (a look I really regret knowing that my father enjoys),” which she noted, “wasn’t as simple as swinging your iPhone around and pushing your tits together” back then. At the base of it, though, Simmons’ selfies fulfilled something fundamental: “The feverish need to know what she really looked like.” The ages-old compulsion to literally expose and consider oneself – not to mention her own Baby Boomer progenitor’s part in it – was an astute connection for the millennial poster girl to make, and a fitting opener for an evening of calculated, cathartic oversharing.
Like her hit series, Dunham’s introspective essays bear out that her particular brand of wry navel-gazing is an (a)vocation she couldn’t have resisted even if she tried. Between her social-media-fueled peers and her selfie-snapping mother, Dunham was always fated for public exposure in every sense of the word. And, during the two-hour show, she would periodically drop in asides ranging from following up the statement “my mother was slim” with a self-deprecating “that wasn’t a joke, so thank you,” to acknowledging her surprise that a later anecdote landed a laugh: “[It] never even occurred to me. I’m thrilled.”
It seems only natural Dunham would pepper tic-like interjections into her hyper-subjective essays, which also covered her extended hook-up with a “James Dean-meets-George Carlin [type], only a ginger” and her fledgling experiences in showbiz with patronizing older men she deemed “Sunshine Stealers: Users who take ideas and/or sex” from bright young things. It’s only natural because Dunham doesn’t derive power from the physical (she described her own body as “a tool to tell the story… a granny-panty-clad prop”); she draws her strength from a mirror-hall-like exercise in self-reflection. Like her mother, she’s taking selfies over and over via her work, live-editing her words, and in the process finding out “what she really [looks] like.”
Throughout the night, Sedaris alternately tagged in with his own musings – first the biographical story “Now We Are Five,” about his younger sister Tiffany’s suicide, then a cynical high school forensics speech offering entitled “Think Differenter” from his latest collection, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls. The former, in particular, was no less revealing than anything Dunham presented, but Sedaris’ experience shone through. Nearly three decades older and more seasoned than Dunham (both professionally and in terms of his relationship to fame), Sedaris seems to take it for granted that you can “know” someone – as he had his late sister for nearly 50 years – and now really understand them. So how, then, are we expected to truly know ourselves?
That’s the difference with Sedaris – it’s not mandatory in his world to know yourself inside and out, it’s not de rigueur to continually keep shifting the lens to drink in yourself from every angle. That he happens to be good at it is just a perk. It’s why Sedaris relishes in the details rather than the big picture at times. While both authors are fundamentally self-reflective, Dunham offers up a #nofilter selfie, Sedaris’ abstractions – perhaps the jingle bell on the tip of his shoes from his breakout Santaland Diaries or the winking names his family members suggested for a boat during a beach vacation (including Sea Section, Conch Sucker, and Roe v. Wave).
The night ended with a supposedly publicly culled Q&A segment that could have been called “Everything We Ever Wanted to Know About Each Other But Were Too Afraid to Ask (Under Our Own Bylines).” Dunham and Sedaris, both of whom were made famous by their own history of embarrassment, reveled in the chance to commune over every absurd topic from the dying bee population to cat abortions to the ugliest person Sedaris has ever seen at a reading to the tragically spoken-for domain name StuckUpBitches.com. Each question was more elaborate than the last, lensed by its author’s own flights of fancy, but the questions spoke to their genuine rapport with one another (and, oh yeah, Dunham’s dislike of the website Go Fug Yourself).
Before the Q&A, though, was the night’s single, most telling moment: After Sedaris finished his “Differenter” meditation on marriages becoming as disposable as iPods, Dunham took a moment to ask the audience (which included Dunham’s family and Fun. guitarist boyfriend Jack Antonoff, Sedaris’ sister Amy, comedian Mike Birbiglia, and literati luminaries Zadie Smith and Ariel Levy), “How good is he at reading?” Sedaris shot back without missing a beat: “How good is she at thinking?”