As a teenager in North Carolina, Amy Sedaris found herself gravitating towards the outcasts at her high school. “I would go right to them or they would come right to me,” she says. “If somebody called me up and they were depressed or needed to talk, I would have all the patience in the world to listen to them. I’d never make fun of them or judge them in any way.”
That’s a peculiar thing to hear from a woman who makes her living as a comedy writer and performer. Doesn’t mocking people come with the territory? But if you consider her work – which includes books, TV shows, movies, and dozens of plays – it makes perfect sense. During the past decade, she’s created a repertoire of characters that’s like a roll call of human misery. There’ve been teenage girls with slashed faces (Stitches), welfare moms forced to perform for food (One Woman Shoe), elderly and mildly retarded derelicts (Wigfield), filthy donkeys with a penchant for rape (Incident at Cobbler’s Knob), and probably the only junkie whore ever to star in her own after-school special (Strangers With Candy).
Though Sedaris is clearly attracted to fringe dwellers, one never gets the sense that she’s picked them as easy targets. Even at their most contemptible – in the case of Stranger’s Jerri Blank, seducing her own son and encouraging drug use among teens, to name only a few misdeeds – Sedaris never allows them to become victims of her satire. While most comedy writers get their laughs by pointing out a character’s flaws, Sedaris actually embraces their flaws. She truly likes these people, and that somehow makes it easier to laugh at them.
This interview took place in Ms. Sedaris’s Greenwich Village apartment in Manhattan, where she lives with her imaginary boyfriend (Ricky) and her non-imaginary pet rabbit (Dusty). Though she’s working on several projects at the moment – including a script for the forthcoming Strangers With Candy movie – she’s proudest of her amateur crafting club, which she calls the Crafty Beavers. Last week they lined pie plates with felt. Next they intend to make candles. It’s good times.
I. THE BEAUTIFULLY UGLY
THE BELIEVER: Most of your characters are physically unappealing in some way. Occasionally it’s just a lack of personal hygiene, but more often than not, they’re deformed in some spectacular way. They have mutilated faces, gigantic asses, overactive sweat glands, and frightening protrusions of flesh that defy belief in a benevolent creator.
AMY SEDARIS: Yes, but they think they’re pretty. That’s the difference. They don’t consider themselves monsters. I’ve never played anyone who didn’t like themselves. I don’t care if they’re unattractive, but it’s important that they think of themselves as attractive. And I guess that’s part of their charm. I always thought that Jerri Blank was appealing because of her confidence in herself. Her appearance never made much of a difference. It’s not like you wouldn’t want to be around someone like Jerri.
AS: Seriously? You found her that repulsive?
BLVR: Not repulsive, but… I don’t know, it sometimes seems like you’re challenging your audience to care about her. You certainly make it as difficult as possible.
AS: I guess it’s because I can so easily get behind people like that, I just assume that everybody else will too. When they showed Strangers With Candy to test audiences, a lot of women didn’t like it because they thought Jerri was ugly. I thought, wow, that alone would be reason for me to watch the show. I was really surprised by that. But I guess I just don’t think that way. It never entered my mind that somebody would be turned off by her.
BLVR: It’s a different standard of beauty. You may be in the minority, at least as far as Hollywood is concerned, but you share some good company. John Waters has some strong opinions on the subject. There was that wonderful essay in Shock Value where he described his definition of physical beauty. I forget the exact wording, but it was something along the lines of, “A face should jolt, not soothe.”
AS: I completely agree. When I meet a new person, something has to be a little off for me to consider them beautiful. It could be crooked teeth, or veins in their skin that are a little too visible, or a really dramatic lazy eye. The first guy I ever kissed had a water head.
BLVR: What’s a water head?
AS: It’s like when your head is substantially bigger than your body. His head was huge, and he had this tiny little body. I don’t think he’s alive anymore. When I kissed him, all I could think was, “That is so perfect. This is the perfect first kiss.” I kissed him on the forehead, of course. I couldn’t resist.
BLVR: That’s strangely sweet.
AS: I’ve always been drawn to people with problems. Not just physical problems, but mental problems too. Like depressed people or killers, all that stuff. When I was growing up in North Carolina, I was determined to work at the local women’s prison in Raleigh. I’m sure that it wouldn’t have been as great as I imagined. After awhile, I probably would have thought it was just depressing and awful. But I’m still very curious about anybody who isn’t able to function in society. And if they’re really nuts? I’m all over them. I was talking to this girl Tally the other day. I asked her what she was doing and she said, “Making a list of people I hate.” What do you say to something like that? “Oooh, okay, good luck with that.” She went off her medication and developed a totally different personality. But I keep calling because I’m fascinated by her. She’s gotten to a point where she doesn’t leave her apartment at all. And all I want to do is be her friend.
BLVR: Have you ever based a character on her?
AS: Not yet, but most of my characters come from people I’ve known or met at some point. David [her brother and frequent collaborator] introduced me to this woman in Chicago named Jean and we would both imitate her. Jerri Blank came out of me imitating David trying to imitate Jean. One of my favorites – which has never worked on stage but I’m determined to do it someday – is a woman that I lived above on the south side of Chicago. She was really fucked up. She always thought she was smelling formaldehyde, and she’d call me every day to complain. I don’t think I ever saw her without a broken leg or a broken arm. She ran her own flea markets and she’d sell things like throwing stars and nunchucks. I was like, “I can’t believe that I get to be her neighbor. There is a god!” During that same year, I also got to live with an incest victim and her deaf child. I learned so much.
II. “IT’S A COOKING SHOW, BUT I HAVE REALLY LONG LEGS AND CAN’T GET OFF THE COUCH.”
BLVR: I’ve heard that you’re a serious collector of fake meat products.
AS: I sure am. I have two hams, but only one is a whole ham and the other is just half a ham. I have a whole turkey that’s just beautiful. I put tin foil over it for Thanksgiving so that it looks hot. I have a standing rib roast, a small chicken, and hot dogs that come bundled up and in a string. I also have a porterhouse steak. It’s a nice collection.
BLVR: What compels somebody to stock their kitchen with inedible foods? I understand the kitsch value of it, but it takes more than a casual interest to amass that kind of collection. You have almost every meat group represented.
AS: It kinda happened by accident. When I saw the first piece, I just fell in love with it and had to have it. Ever since then, I’ve kept my eyes open for more meat. It’s not like there’s a store where you can go and buy fake food. It’s very rare that you come across a quality synthetic ham for sale. So whenever I find something like that, I’m so surprised that I just have to snatch it up. I know that sounds really weird, but I just love everything about food. It comes from my family. We’ve always been fascinated with food. Making it, eating it, looking at it, collecting it. There’s nothing I like more than getting into bed with a good cookbook. My goal in life is to have my own hospitality show.
BLVR: I’m not familiar with what that means.
AS: It’s hard to describe. It’s basically a show about entertaining, but it can involve anything from cooking to cleaning your house. I remember growing up in North Carolina, there was a hospitality show called At Home With Peggy Mann that was kinda crazy. It was in black and white, and it was just this woman sitting on her couch and talking about her life. It was really depressing. I just like the idea of a hospitality show for single people. How to cook for one, how to save leftovers for the following day. There aren’t really any shows like that designed for lonely people. I live by myself and I don’t have a boyfriend, but I love having people over and decorating my apartment and doing all those things that are usually associated with couples. I’d probably do it in a southern character. And each week I’d have an obstacle to overcome. Like, let’s say, I have breast cancer. Or maybe my legs are extra, extra long. Or I have a tumor. It’d be about how to cope with those things and still put dinner on the table at eight o’clock at night.
BLVR: Wow. A tumor? Seriously? Cooking with a tumor? That’s kinda… wow.
AS: I don’t mean to laugh at it, but that’s something people have to deal with. There are all kinds of hurdles like that.
BLVR: You seem to use humor as a way of anticipating tragedy. It’s like you’re preparing yourself for the worst. If you’re already accustomed to living with cancer, and even finding the humor in it, it won’t be as bad if it actually happens to you.
AS: In some ways, sure. But it’s never been that serious for me. I just get a kick out of adversity. Don’t you ever pretend that you’re completely paralyzed and you have to get to the phone? The phone’s ringing and your goal is to get out of bed and somehow wiggle over to it before they hang up. It’s not about making fun of crippled people, or wanting to be crippled yourself, but… I don’t know, I just like it. I’ve always liked wheelchairs for that same reason.
BLVR: So besides horrific diseases and physical deformity, what other hurdles would you have to overcome on your hospitality show?
AS: Well, let’s say my character is having somebody over for dinner that she can’t stand, but her daughter is dating him so she has to be nice. What do I serve? There’s lots of little things that I’d have to get through in each episode in order to put the food on the table. I’m excited that somebody’s coming over, and then he calls in the middle of the program and cancels. I have to deal with that rejection in front of an audience. That’s kinda the whole point of the show. Whenever you’ve got a problem, put it on the back burner. It can wait. It’s not urgent. Whether it’s a tumor or a canceled date, you can’t let it interfere with your dinner plans.
BLVR: That’s not bad. Have you thought about pitching it to a network?
AS: They’d never touch it. “It’s a cooking show, but I have really long legs and can’t get off the couch. That’s my idea.” I’m not saying that I’d never do network TV, but it involves giving up a lot of control. I’d rather do my own thing, even if it’s on a much smaller scale and I never get exposed to a wider audience, if it means that I can do what I want. Creating your own stuff on your own terms can feel so good.
BLVR: It’s probably for the best. I have a hard time picturing you in a sitcom. The networks wouldn’t know what to do with you. You’d end up in some terrible family comedy like “Life With Amy” or “Everybody Loves Amy.” You’d play a perky housemother trying to raise her precocious kids.
AS: I couldn’t do it. But add a monkey and a retarded kid and a deaf husband and I’d be all over it. Each episode would open with the phone ringing off the hook.
BLVR: Now that’s something I’d watch.
AS: And isn’t that what it’s supposed to be about? When I go see a movie or whatever, I want a fantasy. I want to take my mind off reality, not be reminded of it. Everything on TV is trying to be so real, and it really isn’t. I thought it’d be funny to produce a sitcom in New York that’s supposed to take place in LA, because they do all these sitcoms in LA that are supposed to be New York. First of all, nobody’s apartment is that size. Nobody looks that fit or tan. I’d love to do a show about LA where everybody is living in tiny apartments and they’re all really pale.
III. REACHING FOR THE LOWEST STAR
BLVR: You originally planned to write a children’s book, isn’t that right? Something about a worm searching for his identity?
AS: Yeah, but the editors at Hyperion passed on it.
BLVR: That’s a shame. There’s not enough quality fiction being written about earthworms. Since the book may never be published, or even written, can you tell us a little more about this lost classic? Where did the idea originate? How did you imagine the plot unfolding? What was your vision?
AS: Well, it all started about fifteen years ago. David and I found an orange ceramic worm that we adopted and named Montgomery. I’ve named everything that I’ve ever owned. Real or inanimate, I have to give it a first and last name. Everything in my apartment comes alive at night. Anyway, we used to make up stories about Montgomery. Eventually he broke and we got rid of him, but the idea just stuck with me. It always seemed like it would make a great character for a kid’s book. I never worked out the entire plot, but it’s more or less about a worm trying to figure out what kind of worm he is. So he goes on these adventures. Maybe he lives in a donkey’s ass for a night. And then at the end he realizes that he’s a tequila worm and an alcoholic. It’s all about reaching for the lowest star. [Strangers With Candy co-creator] Paul Dinello had another idea, that maybe it could open with a fisherman and he’s using the worm as bait. Somehow the worm gets split in half, and the head goes one way and the tail goes the other. They would go on different journeys and then meet up at the end. Either way, I guess the Hyperion editors thought that a worm wouldn’t be sympathetic. It probably didn’t help that I wanted him to have low self-esteem. And he wasn’t particularly ambitious. But the point was, that’s okay. A lot of people aren’t ambitious. He just… goes through life.
BLVR: It sounds vaguely familiar, doesn’t it?
AS: [Laughs] Yeah, I’m not ambitious when it comes to my acting career. I’m not breaking down my agency’s doors or sending out headshots. Even when I’m offered work, I always want small parts and my agent gets so mad at me. When it comes to things that other people have written, I just don’t know what I’m doing. I’m terrible at memorizing a script and reading lines. I get confused and I don’t understand and it just looks fake to me. It’s more difficult for me to be creative that way. Usually I’ll just show up and say, “Okay, where do you want me?” I’m on their territory, I’ll do whatever they want me to do, I’ll make whatever choice they want me to make. Because honestly, I really don’t know what they expect. I don’t have a handle for that kind of stuff.
BLVR: I noticed that you looked a little uncomfortable in Maid In Manhattan. I just assumed that it was because you weren’t allowed to wear a fat suit.
AS: Maybe, I don’t know. I tried to convince them to let me put a big mole on my face, but they wouldn’t do it. I know that a lot of real actors will say, “Oh Amy, it’s just fear. You’re hiding behind your costumes. You don’t need the prosthetic humps and the false teeth. You should be more vulnerable.” I’ll admit to that. Yes, I’m hiding behind costumes. But that’s what’s comfortable to me. It feels more like dressing up and performing, and that’s what I like. I need a costume to be convinced that I’m somebody else. Otherwise, it’s just me. It’s just Amy saying lines. I haven’t really become somebody else. And what’s the fun in that? It’s a mental thing, I know, but I need it.
BLVR: Am I crazy, or have I seen Jerri Blank before Strangers With Candy? I could have sworn that you’ve used a very similar character in one of your stage plays.
AS: Oh, I’m sure. I have only five or six different character types that I use all the time, and Jerri’s at the top of the heap. I haven’t come up with anything new in awhile. Sometimes it’s just laziness, and sometimes I do it because it’s part of my creative process. When David and I do plays together, I’ll use Jerri as a starting point. I feel very, very comfortable in her skin. I can separate her from myself, and that makes it more possible for me to relax and perform. You know what I mean? She’s the actress, and then she gets to invent a role. [In Jerri’s voice] “Oh, I get to play a junkie whore.” Or “in this one I’m a woman who collects doll furniture.” Does that make any sense?
BLVR: So it’s not your interpretation of a character, it’s Jerri’s?
AS: Yeah. It’s like Morgan Fairchild. She’s played dozens of different characters, but she’s always more or less the same person in every role. That’s how I use Jerri. She’s one person taking several different paths. But it’s always the same voice, the same overbite, the same posture. You can put a wig on her but you can’t disguise her. I’ve even started using her in auditions. I’ll read for a part with her voice, because it helps me see the pauses. If I have to read it as myself, I can’t get through it. But Jerri gives me focus.
IV. SHEBA WAS A BOSTON TERRIER
BLVR: Let’s talk a little more about your so-called lack of ambition. As someone who has produced books, TV shows, sketch revues, and several off-Broadway plays, you certainly don’t seem to be suffering from anything like creative apathy. Most writers would be happy to succeed in one genre, but you’ve proven to be adept in several. So why do you still see yourself as unmotivated?
AS: Sometimes it’s just enough for me to have the idea. I don’t need to see it through to the end. Strangers With Candy never would have happened if it wasn’t for Paul and Stephen [Colbert]. I was perfectly content with just coming up with the idea. When it actually happens, I’m always disappointed because it’s never like what I imagined in my head. When an idea becomes a reality, then it’s a job. I’d rather just think about it. I know that makes me sound like a pothead, but I’ve always been that way. That’s why I love improvisational theater so much. You do it once and then it’s done. You don’t get bogged down with a lot of pre-planning and repetition. If I do something and it gets a laugh, I don’t want to do it again. Why bother? I’m just repeating myself. It’s boring. When I was doing Strangers and the director would say, “Okay, Amy, you have only one take to do this,” I would get so excited. It’s an absolute adrenaline rush. It’s the single best thing you can tell me.
BLVR: There are a couple of ways you could interpret that. Either you have an exceptionally short attention span, or you just have the type of personality that needs to be constantly stimulated by new ideas.
AS: It’s probably a little of both. When I’ve done stuff with Paul and Stephen, I’ve always been the most satisfied when we’re trying something for the first time. With Wigfield [published last summer by Hyperion], it was the first time we wrote a book. Strangers With Candy was the first time we wrote a 22-minute show. And now the movie. We’ve always been way over our heads, and somehow – at least for me – that can help you remain true to yourself. When Strangers first came out, people were always telling us, “I can’t believe you got away with that.” Well, we didn’t know the rules. We never did a TV show like that before, so we were treated like kids. And somehow, perhaps because of that naiveté, we got away with whatever we wanted. We never fought with Comedy Central for anything because we never knew it was necessary to fight. Once you understand the limitations, it becomes a job. And when it’s a job, I’m no longer interested.
BLVR: Your love for spontaneity has to work against you when you’re performing in a play. Even when it’s your own script and you have the freedom to alter the occasional line and go off on the occasional improv tangent, you’re still doing the same story night after night after night after night.
AS: Yeah, it can be tough. In an ideal world, all theater would be one night only. I’ve actually tried that. There are certain plays that I’ve always wanted to do, but either I’ve never had the opportunity or the patience to make it happen. So I decided to do them for one night only. My first was ‘night, Mother. I cast it and booked the theater and did all the promotion. I even cooked dinner for the audience. I figured it’d be a distraction from how bad my acting was. I also did Come Back, Little Sheba. Again, one night only. We served spaghetti. That’s how all theater should be done. You only have one chance to see it and then it’s gone. And if you show up, you’ll get a hot dinner.
BLVR: ‘night, Mother must have been a challenge. It’s a pretty intense play. You’re not going to find many laugh lines in a story about suicide. Did you play it straight, or did you add a few winks to the audience?
AS: I didn’t mess with it at all.
AS: Well, I wore a fatty suit. And we added an extra gunshot at the end. But we didn’t change any dialogue. I played it completely straight. No irony whatsoever.
BLVR: [Laughs] Well, maybe just a smidge of irony. That extra gunshot makes it a very different play.
AS: [Laughs] I love stuff like that. When I did Come Back, Little Sheba, I had the painting of Sheba on the wall, but it was a Boston Terrier. You know how their eyes are far apart and bulging? That’s always how I envisioned Sheba. It didn’t really affect the play. The story didn’t change. It’s just that whenever I talked about Sheba, I was picturing a Boston Terrier in my head. It never needed to be explained.
V. BABIES WITH SYPHILIS
BLVR: Do you consider yourself a comedian?
AS: Oh god no. I hate it when people call me that. Please, please don’t associate me with comedy. And please don’t say actress. I would never call myself any of those things.
BLVR: Is it because by calling you a comic, there’s an expectation that you’ll be funny?
AS: Absolutely. If you say comic, you better be out there making an audience laugh. It comes with too much baggage. There was one time when a magazine called me the “Sexiest Comic.” That was like a double-whammy. I do everything in my power not to be sexy. And then it add “comic” to that, it was so embarrassing. I didn’t leave my apartment for weeks.
BLVR: So I guess it’s safe to assume that you don’t consider Strangers With Candy to be a comedy?
AS: You can call it whatever you want. I just hate the whole idea of labeling anything as a comedy. If you tell me something’s funny, I’ll want to rebel against it. When I go to a bookstore and see books categorized as humor, I get furious. Don’t tell me that a book is funny. Let me decide if it’s funny. It’s the same with sitcoms. You call something a sitcom and people expect it to be funny. And that ruins everything. I’d rather have a show on the Lifetime Channel, where people aren’t expecting you to be funny. When we came up with Strangers With Candy, we wanted to play it dead, dead serious. No laugh track, nothing. But Comedy Central didn’t go for it.
BLVR: And that’s where the lines get blurry. You’re doing a show for Comedy Central, and yet you don’t want it to be a comedy. There’s a certain expectation that comes with doing a half-hour show on a comedy network. It must be difficult to give people what they want while still being true to your dark sensibilities.
AS: What do you mean by dark sensibilities?
BLVR: You like your humor with shades of horror. You walk the fine line between comedy and tragedy.
AS: You see, I never think of it that way. My apartment is full of things that I don’t find to be dark, but people come over and they’re like, “Ughh.” They want to leave. They say, “Amy, what could you possibly think is pretty about that picture of a baby with syphilis on her face?” I don’t know why I’m drawn to it, I just am. I have friends who have babies and a few of them are offended by it. But I think it’s so beautiful. I finally took it down because I was sick of their bitching. But I’m always bringing home new things that seem to rub people the wrong way. I have a few waxed heads, one with a growth on her lip and the other with a bad tooth decay problem. I have a really nice stuffed squirrel that’s in tip-top shape. I also have a stuffed weasel and chipmunk that I bought at Mr. Potter’s Museum of Curiosities in London. Oh, and I have a nice pair of correction shoes. One’s really big and the other’s small and flat. I like putting them outside the front door of my apartment.
BLVR: So you like freaking people out?
AS: Well, I don’t mean to freak them out. I don’t want them to gasp when they come over.
BLVR: Somehow I have a difficult time believing that.
AS: [Laughs] Well, I’m getting better. There are some things that I don’t let people see if I know it might bother them. I had a friend come over once and she was looking around my bedroom. She finally looked at me and said, “Amy, it looks like you lost a baby.”
BLVR: What does your family think about your fascination with morbidity?
AS: Oh, we’re all like that. We read everything we can about diseases and physical deformity. David’s really into it and so is my sister Gretchen. We were so protected in North Carolina. In New York, you see it all. But growing up in Carolina, we were never exposed to much fringe culture. I remember when David brought home that first Diane Arbus book of photographs, the one with the twins on the cover. What was that called?
BLVR: The Aperture Monograph.
AS: Yeah! I’d never seen anything like that. That changed me. It was a big turning point in my life. I couldn’t put it down. I was just like, “Woooooow.” David and I still collect anything we can about physical abnormalities. There’s a place here in New York where you can get antique skin disorder books in color. They’re really beautiful photographs. But they put black tape over people’s eyes so you couldn’t… [Laughs] so you couldn’t recognize them. Like they needed the anonymity because [Laughing] who else is going to have that growth coming out of their neck, right? Somebody is going to be reading it at a party and say, “Is that you Linda?” “No!” [Breaks down laughing] It’s really, really funny.
BLVR: Joking about diseases is one of the only surefire ways to make people uncomfortable. It’s taboo even among staunch anti-PC comics. You can mock someone’s ethnicity or sexual orientation, but very few people can find the humor in dying. There’s this assumption that by making light of cancer, you’re asking to get it. Laugh about being sick and you’re going to become sick.
AS: I had a dental problem recently. It got really infected and my whole face swelled up, but nobody felt sorry for me. “You see? You see what happens? You better be careful what you wish for.” It’s weird, but I’ve never been scared about getting sick. It’s such a waste of time. The only thing that scares me is planning for the future. It’s always seemed like setting yourself up for disappointment. I try to exist day to day. Whenever people tell me that they’re making vacation plans for 2006, I’m like, “How do you know you’ll be alive?” Really, I never understand that. I don’t think that far in advance. Even if they’re talking about what they want to do for Easter. I would never assume I’m going to be alive, because that would make it so sad if I didn’t make it.
BLVR: Maybe your comedy comes out of a need to protect yourself from potential sadness. There’s that oft-quoted Thomas Gray line about laughing wild amid severest woe. Sometimes the only logical response to unimaginable horror is to laugh at it.
AS: I suppose. I’m not sure, to be honest. I know that when I get bad news delivered to me, my first instinct is to laugh. Whenever I’m uncomfortable, I have to laugh. But it’s not because I need protection. I think it’s because I was involved with somebody once who got really sick, and he almost died. It just made me look at everything differently.
BLVR: By “involved” do you mean a boyfriend?
AS: Yeah. This was back in Carolina, when I was just 22. We were dating for a few years and he was completely healthy. And then, out of nowhere, he had several brain aneurysms, one right after the other. All of a sudden he was like a newborn baby. He lost his language, he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t use the bathroom. I took care of him for three years. Having that happen to me at such a young age, I just look at the world differently.
BLVR: I’m sure that losing your mother also had something to do with it.
AS: Of course. I tend to separate people all the time. “Are both your parents alive? Okay, you sit on that side of the room.” Because there’s an understanding between people who lost a parent. When the anniversary of her death comes along, it’s always such a special day. Are both your parents alive?
BLVR: No. My father died a few years ago.
AS: So you know what I mean. You know he’s still there, it’s just a different way of him being around. Whenever I think that I need money or I really want to buy something fancy, money always comes in the mail. And I’m like, “That’s from my mom.” It’s hard to explain, but it gives me a wonderful sense of calm. I’m not afraid of dying at all.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the March 2004 issue of The Believer Magazine.)