A new brand of comic genius: from Charlie Chaplin to Amy Sedaris

 

Wild Thang
Strangers With Candy

Interview by contributing editor Gary Kon.
Photos by John Scott.

Career waitress Amy Sedaris is forcing TV land to take its medicine. As creator and star of Comedy Central's satircal after-school special Strangers With Candy, she's giving comedy a new morality, and it's sure to be a shock treatment.

"Fuck you!" screams Amy Sedaris to the camera as a startled photographer and his assistants look on. Then, assuming her woman-done-wrong demeanor, she begins a long list of expletives — some of which I've never even heard before. She's dressed for a cotillion in a deep purple gown, and she's smiling a demented prom-queen grin. In her arms she carries a dozen crimson roses. "Fuck you, motherfucker!" she drawls as she flips the photographer the bird. The studio erupts into laughter, loud enough to drown out the click of the camera shutter. At 37 years old, Amy's repertoire of characters seems endless. There's the trailer-trash foulmouth who wields obscenities like fire. There's the toothy Enid Buckjaw whom she becomes after suctioning a Chapstick cap to her upper lip. "See, it looks like a big tooth," she quips. But the character for which she's garnered the most attention is Strangers With Candy's Jerri Blank, a 47-year old high school freshman who, after 32 years of being a teenage runaway, prostitute, drug addict and ex-con — a self-described boozer, user and loser — has returned home to finish her education.

"Everyone knows a Jerri," she says. "You know, an outcast." Well, sure. After all, it's high school. But a dumpy middle-aged freshman with a catatonic father and the fashion sense of a church lady? I ask the obvious next question. Was she the outcast in high school? "No," she says. "It was pretty normal for me. I was in a lot of clubs and the drama department. I got the drama award. I was never really cliquey; I kind of did my own thing. I got along with people."

I come to find out that Jerri is based on a real person. "She was a 50-year-old motivational speaker who turned her life around," says Amy. "This woman went around to high schools and preached; she'd been a prostitute and a drug addict and had run away from home when she was 15. And we were laughing, saying, 'Wouldn't it be funny if she actually went back to high school?'"

With fellow writers Paul Dinello and Stephen Colbert, she took on the task of creating the woman's story on the small screen. Donning an overbite that could pay off an orthodontist's mortgage, she became Jerri Blank. Comedy Central took a chance on their first live-action series, and Strangers With Candy was born into its after-school-special format.

Off set, all traces of Jerri vanish, and Amy is left alone. It is then that the contrast between the two becomes clear. Jerri's bawdiness and outright chatter is replaced by Amy's quiet sensitivity. While Jerri is just setting out to learn teenage lessons, Amy's already been there. "What do you do for entertainment?" I ask her. "I bake," she replies. I realize that if I had asked Jerri the same question, her answer would have been "I get baked" instead.

"It's our lives that create the characters," says Amy. "As we write the show, we pull from each other's lives." It's a scary thought, since Jerri spent much of her life in the joint "cooking up her breakfast in a teaspoon." Amy's life took a slightly different path, but the connection to her character remains. "I wanted to work for a women's prison," she says, "so I started taking a few classes in criminology and sociology. But school just wasn't for me, so I just waitressed in North Carolina until David [her brother] called and made me audition for Second City. I moved to Chicago and started to perform, and that sort of turned into what I'm doing now."

Her work is more than just acting and writing. Amy is pushing the boundaries of comedy by creating characters who dare us to find humor in the saddest places. After all, there's something wonderfully pitiful when a middle-aged woman tries to become Homecoming Queen. "No one really brings attention to Jerri's age on the show; she's treated by the other students like she's 16 or 17 years old--which is how I think anyway."

When Amy's not behind the camera, she's in the kitchen, working as a waitress for Marion's-- a haunt on Manhattan's Lower East Side. "I'm always interested in what people like to eat or what they're wearing or how fucked up they get." I ask her if any of Jerri's quirks were drawn from her customers. "No," she says. "But there's plenty of material that comes out of there."

Back at the school, the stylist gets Amy changed into a black mesh chiffon skirt like Madonna wore in her "Lucky Star" days. Her hair is ratted up into spikes, and her makeup makes her look like a victim of domestic abuse. We throw on Rage Against the Machine and she gets wild--thrashing and flipping us all off until she collapses on the studio floor.