Comedian and cookbook author Amy Sedaris follows her funnybone
One of the hardest things to wrap your mind around about Amy Sedaris is this: She’s pretty. Her hair is smooth and combed. She’s slender, and her teeth are straight.
In short, she looks nothing like her most famous character, Jerri Blank, the 46-year-old bucktoothed former drug addict and prostitute from her cult TV show and now feature film “Strangers with Candy.”
“It’s fun to be in a disguise and make believe, then at the end of the day get to take it all off,” Sedaris says from her Manhattan apartment.
If she sounds like a kid who lived for Halloween and spent hours dressing up in mom’s clothes, good. Sedaris revels in being considered a female Peter Pan, a comedian more concerned with making herself laugh than anyone else.
Such defiance has won Sedaris many fans and left many others scratching their heads.
“I don’t think it’s hard to make a living doing my kind of humor, but I’m not reaching for the stars, either,” she says. “As long as I can pay my rent and do what I like to do, I’m OK. My entire life I have never gotten caught up in caring what people think about me.”
Sedaris says her father drummed this notion into his children’s heads.
“That’s why it doesn’t bother me to get bad reviews. It’s great to get good reviews, but bad ones don’t bring me down,” she says. “If I find it funny, that’s good enough for me.”
Take “Strangers with Candy,” in which an ex-runaway is dropped back in high school. The tone is very much like those cheesy, moralistic After School Specials, only with a bizarre assortment of twisted students and staff, including an evil principal, a self-absorbed counselor (Sarah Jessica Parker) and a closeted teacher (Stephen Colbert). She even took Jerri’s father (Dan Hedaya) and put him in a coma.
“In After School Specials, the dad was always tired or rolled up in a ball on the couch or at work. So we just decided to take it a step further,” she says.
That doesn’t keep dear ol’ dad from appearing in many scenes: propped up at the dinner table, dragged along to school functions, etc.
Not everyone shares Sedaris’ idiosyncratic vision. The film version of “Strangers” was completed two years ago, but collected dust on a shelf at Warner Bros. until ThinkFilm picked it up.
“The delay didn’t bother me,” Sedaris says. “Eventually, Paul [Dinello, the director] said he thought it was not going come out. I said of course it’s not it’s “‘Strangers with Candy!’ Did you really think it would have a big opening and that Warner Bros. would stick with it? The film is a funky seed we planted, and it will sprout when it wants to.”
The same was true, she says, of the TV show, which was never considered a tent pole of Comedy Central’s programming during its only season, from 1999 to 2000.
“To me, one of the good things about Comedy Central and this might not sound like a good thing was that they never got behind “‘Strangers with Candy.’ They put all their energy behind “‘South Park.’ We were out in the woods doing the show there weren’t any grownups around. So if you were a fan of our show, you had to discover it on your own. Then you have a kinship with it, because you helped nurture it and help it to grow.”
Sedaris and company didn’t realize the extent of the show’s cult status until after it was cancelled and she released a book. The team wrote “Wigfield,” and took it on tour and met what Sedaris calls their “Children of the Corn” fanbase of misfit and outcasts. And they begged for more “Candy.”
But turning the half-hour TV sitcom into a feature film, while not difficult, did present hurdles.
“It was more freeing to do the TV show because we could improvise more than we could in the film,” Sedaris says. “Some stuff just happened in the moment, and we couldn’t do that. And we didn’t do anything in the movie we wouldn’t do on the TV show.”
Really? Not even the drawing of Colbert’s character giving the art teacher a blow-job?
“Oh, yeah,” Sedaris says. ” I always forget about that one.”
Sedaris expanded the conceit of the show beyond the After School Special, turning the feature into her own version of a Lifetime movie.
“Lifetime is, to me, the equivalent of the After School Special,” she says. “I got a lot of ideas for “‘Strangers’ from watching Lifetime. You get sucked in by its mindlessness. I watch those shows and think, my mom wasn’t like that and my friends weren’t, either. Who’s queer family was like this?
“Living this way is why your kids would do drugs. With my straight-guy friends” Sedaris says it like she can count them all on one hand “when they get married, their wives are like that, too. They all look like that. And they don’t get me at all. No loss there.”
Sedaris’ next project is a cookbook. And in true fashion, it will be unlike the typical Betty Crocker classic. She shot the photography in her New York apartment last summer which she says was both a mistake and serendipitous.
“I had the oven on 400 degrees the entire summer, so in all the pictures, the candles are melted down, and the butter is liquid,” she explains. “But I wanted it homemade and realistic. Food that looks sterile and perfect I can’t relate to it.”
Apparently, she achieved her goals.
“I took the book totally seriously and did the best I could” which, Sedaris concedes, “isn’t very good.”
Beware of ‘Strangers’
A prequel to the cult TV series, whose fans could conceivably be amused, “Strangers with Candy” strives for the cheap look and outrageous sensibility of John Waters’ early films. Divine would have been better than Amy Sedaris as 46-year-old Jerri Blank, pictured, who gets out of prison and returns home after 32 years to find her father in a coma. She thinks he’ll come around if she goes back to high school and wins the state science fair.
Jerri teams up with brainiacs Megawatti (Carlo Alban), who has a crush on her, and Tammi (Maria Thayer), who Jerri, accustomed to prison sex, goes after. Jerri really wants vapid hunk Brason (Chris Pratt), who’s on a rival team coached by Dr. Roger Beekman (Matthew Broderick).
Science teacher Mr. Noblet (Stephen Colbert) has neglected the science fair for his affair with art teacher Geoffrey Jellineck (director Paul Dinello), who, when Noblet dumps him, goes after Beekman.
The impressive supporting cast suggests there’d be some bizarre sex tapes on the Internet if they hadn’t agreed to participate.
Colbert, Dinello and Sedaris wrote the childish screenplay, which tries to shock by offending everyone. You get the feeling they found it much funnier than you do.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, July 14, 2006.