Amy Sedaris wiggles her toes. She’s sitting in a makeup chair, wearing bright-green high heels and a black-and-white print dress with a full skirt, admiring her perfect pedicure.
“I love this color,” she says, gazing down at her silvery-green toenails. “It makes them look like teeth.”
Sedaris is at a high school on West 16th Street, preparing to film some promo clips for an upcoming Comedy Central marathon of her cult TV show, Strangers With Candy, as part of a PR blitz for the new Strangers movie, opening this week. The series, an acid satire of after-school specials, starred Sedaris as Jerri Blank, a 46-year-old ex-con who’s gone back to high school to start over. As Jerri, Sedaris was transformed, with a monstrous overbite, a slab of hair, and a walk that recalled the eager waddle of a horny beaver. Today, the makeup artist is simply helping Sedaris look more like herself, with an extra splash of glitter.
In the middle of the makeup session, one of the Comedy Central people approaches Sedaris, beaming. “I just wanted to tell you how much I love you,” she says. “I’m not allowed to talk to the talent—”
“You’re not?” asks Sedaris, alarmed.
“—but you know, I’m about to leave this job. So I figured, fuck it, I’m going to go up to Amy Sedaris.”
It’s a typical Amy Sedaris moment. If you’ve never heard of her, that’s not surprising. But if you’re totally obsessed with her, that’s not surprising either. She’s un-famous enough that the press junket for the Strangers movie is the first one she’s ever done. Yet Sedaris is famous enough, in certain circles at least, for someone to jeopardize a job just to tell her how much she loves her.
Sedaris responds graciously, but she seems a bit unnerved by the attention. She’s much happier making girl talk with the makeup artist. About skin creams, for example: She’s obsessed with them and has been since she was a kid. “Everyone in my family laughed,” she crows, waggling her bare arms, which are indeed quite dewy. “But look at me now!” Or bikini waxes—she was supposed to write about getting one for a women’s magazine, but the article never ran. “I wanted to describe the cradle they make with their fingers—” she demonstrates, with a hilariously crass gesture, then shrugs. “I guess I just don’t understand their demographic.”
Amy Sedaris started out as a beloved downtown personality—the cute girl willing to make herself repulsive with a pig nose, a hump, and a fat suit, like Cindy Sherman crossed with Phyllis Diller. She’s David Sedaris’s younger sister, one of the panoply of wacky Greek siblings who are staples in his short stories. Before David became a best-selling writer (so famous now that he’s fled two countries—first the U.S. for England, then England for France—to avoid being harassed by fans), he and Amy put on shows together in New York under the name the Talent Family. During intermission, Amy sold her cupcakes and cheese balls in the lobby. (She still makes them and sells them at Joe Coffee and Gourmet Garage.)
Then in 1998, she created a show in collaboration with her partners, Paul Dinello (Amy’s ex-boyfriend) and the then-unknown-but-now-strikingly-well-known Stephen Colbert. They pitched Comedy Central on Strangers, a comedy with a weird look, a repulsive lead character, and a skewed premise: 46-year-old “boozer, user, and loser” Jerri Blank is back in high school, but every lesson she learns is completely wrong. She macks on students of both sexes, dumps nerdy friends at the first glimmer of popularity, and finds the solution to most adolescent problems in a dose of drugs or manipulation. The network bought the show and stuck it in the unpromising time slot of 10:30 on Wednesday nights.
Still, Strangers thrilled the small, proud cadre of dedicated Sedaris fans and won her a further following when it was released on DVD. The show proved an ideal spotlight for her special gift, the ability to make what is beautiful odd and what is odd beautiful—to find something appealing and even admirable in Jerri’s radical inability to see herself as others see her. “The more damaged you are, the more you do not find Jerri repulsive,” explains Colbert. “Usually what we talk about as broad comedy is also shallow, but with Amy, it’s different: You get a sense you can cut her open and count the rings, and she would be that character to the core.” And Sedaris is proud that Jerri’s not everybody’s cup of tea. “More men than women like Strangers With Candy,” she says. “Pretty girls don’t like the show. They don’t like to see an ugly lady.” So who are the fans? Her face collapses into Jerri’s pumpkin grin. “Lovable misfits,” she croaks. “Misunderstood.”