Amy Sedaris Gets Up in Your Grill

Photo: Matthias Clamer

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.”

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. Next: A History of Graffiti in Its Own Words

Amy Sedaris Gets Up in Your Grill