Now, however, Sedaris is exposing Jerri’s ugliness to a much wider audience. The Strangers movie has a tangled history—it debuted at Sundance a year ago, but the release was delayed so long that many people began to wonder if it would ever appear at all. Of course, Sedaris’s brand of comedy, with its unsettling mixture of poignancy and cruelty, is not for everyone; that’s precisely what her fans love about it. Now it’s hard to see what worries her more: that the rest of the world won’t embrace her sensibility, or that it will.
Have you been to Amy’s apartment?” says Dinello. “Don’t you think the place is booby-trapped?”
Dinello has arrived at the makeup room, and he and Sedaris joke around with the prickly precision of exes who still talk daily—all zingers and private jokes. There’s also a fair amount of chatter about the third member of the troupe, Colbert, who is due at the shoot any minute and who appeared on Letterman the previous night. “Did you see him?” Dinello marvels. “He was so relaxed, he was so in control. He seemed like a Big Celebrity.”
When Colbert shows up, an odd little negotiation takes place. Sedaris asks, “So Colbert, for the movie, Stewart owes me a favor—could he have me on? I’ve never done the show.”
“Jon Stewart?” says Colbert. “Sure. And I’ll have him come on with you when you’re on my show—”
Sedaris looks chagrined: She’d said yes to an appearance on The Colbert Report, but she has no publicist, and she’d accidentally double-booked with a previous engagement.
“You’re booked!” says Colbert with a hilarious combination of mock and genuine brusqueness. “You’re booked on my show.”
“We can talk about it later—”
“We can talk about it on my show.”
“I think it would be funny if you came on as Jerri,” suggests Dinello.
“I can’t do that—that’s so Ruth Buzzi!” Sedaris says.
“You can’t come on as yourself,” needles Dinello. “You’ve got nothing to say.”
If comic collaborators, like a dysfunctional family, tend to settle into interlocking roles, then Colbert is the brain and Dinello is the bad boy, which leaves Sedaris cast as the instinctual one—the wacky younger sister who is all feeling and no thinking. She tells me a story about Colbert’s joking with his brother, who was trying to give her complicated driving directions. Colbert said of her: “Don’t you know what she is? She’s an idiot savant! And her savant is making faces.”
It’s the kind of story Sedaris tells a lot. Like her brother, she is reflexively self-deprecating, and insistent on defining what she’s not. She’s not a writer, she says. She’s not a comedian. Though she’s a regular on Letterman and Conan, she refuses to do any show, like Celebrity Poker, with the word celebrity in the title because “it makes it sound like I am one.” Despite a few recent roles in mainstream comedies, she also says she’s not an actress; although she admires people who are able to project “real” emotions onscreen, she can’t imagine doing it herself.
And she shares her brother’s fascination with the grim and the offbeat, an affinity she credits him with nurturing. Sedaris reads constantly, and almost every book she mentions to me ends with the refrain “David gave it to me,” from a collection of Diane Arbus photos to Is There No Place on Earth for Me?, Susan Sheehan’s portrait of schizophrenic Sylvia Frumkin, which Sedaris used as an inspiration for Jerri. David also encouraged her to shift from her original life plan—to work at a prison near their hometown—and audition for Second City in Chicago. He taught her about how one’s obsessions might be turned into art.
Yet unlike him, her comedy has not resulted in wide-ranging, hit-every-market success. Does that make her jealous of David? Quite the opposite, it seems. “Jealous of what?” she asks. “We’re each other’s biggest cheerleaders. He’s everything to me.” Still, she acknowledges that his fame—and to an extent, hers—means their projects can’t exist in the way they once did. “You know, we’ve thought, Next time we do a play, maybe it wouldn’t be in New York,” she says. “You want that feeling to be new again. We want the feeling of wondering if someone will show up. Selling tickets for $12 and not worrying about expectations.” She doesn’t finish the thought explicitly, but it’s clear: If they did another show downtown, it wouldn’t be tiny, and it wouldn’t be an acquired taste. It would be one of the hottest tickets in town, and what fun is that?
So maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing if Sedaris’s movie doesn’t rocket her to mainstream celebrity. During a visit to her apartment in the West Village—not booby-trapped, as far as I can tell—Sedaris shows me her latest project, a guide to party-throwing that’s due this fall, titled I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence. “I want it to be good for illiterate people,” she says, as we flip through the scrapbooks of photos and recipes. There’s a chapter on dining with lumberjacks and another about serving food to the grieving. It’s charming, it’s offbeat, it’s a little hard to explain. Which makes it her favorite kind of project: too weird to imagine everyone loving it, but perfect for those who understand.