Gaywatch: Amy Sedaris, stranger than ever

by Christine Champagne
July 15, 2003

Comedy Central's series "Strangers With Candy," which offered a delightfully twisted take on the old "Afterschool Special" format, was one of my all-time-favorite TV shows. I have to admit, I developed a curious fascination with self-described "former user, boozer and loser" Jerri Blank.

If you, too, were obsessed with this outrageous show and its offbeat lead character (and I know many were from the e-mails Gaywatch has received over the last three years), you'll be thrilled to learn that "Strangers With Candy" has found new life. In June, Comedy Central released "Strangers With Candy's" first season on DVD, and now comes word that Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello -- who co-created and starred in the series -- have committed to writing and starring in a "Strangers With Candy" feature film that could go into production as early as this fall.

Amy, the sister of David Sedaris, bravely made herself ugly to portray bisexual Jerri, a former drug addict and prostitute who decided to pick up life where she left off when she ran away from home, returning to high school as a 46-year-old freshman. Supervising the misguided misfit through her school daze at Flatpoint High were Chuck Noblet (Colbert) and Mr. Jellineck (Dinello), two bizarre teachers involved in a gay love affair. Gaywatch recently chatted with Amy about these exciting developments.

I was excited to see the first season DVD includes the show's original pilot. In it, Jerri had a harsher, even more unattractive look than she did on the actual show. Her teeth even looked more yellow, if that's possible. Were they?
Probably. I was always doing everything heavier, then people -- the big wheels at Comedy Central -- would come down and say, "Amy, let me see your teeth. Let me see your tattoos. Let me see your hair. Go back in there and redo it!" I was always trying to be uglier.

I must say you have such beautiful teeth in real life.
Oh, thanks!

A lot of my readers -- gay men in particular -- are obsessed with Jerri. I think that's funny, given that she's hardly one of the glamorous women, like Cher and Marilyn Monroe, that gay men usually adore. Do you have any clue as to what the attraction might be?
I get asked that question all the time. The only thing I can think of is that Jerri Blank is such a misfit. That's probably why. That's my guess. Everyone has a little bit of Jerri Blank inside.

I have to admit that Jerri creeps me out, yet I'm drawn to her -- and have imagined myself dating her.
What creeps you out about her?

Oh, I don't know. Maybe her lack of personal hygiene. I remember the episode where she got waxed. That creeped me out. Still, I find her attractive because she is a good person -- and strangely enough, I think my parents would like her.
Oh, wow. Well, she is an innocent, and she really does want to do the right thing. You can't hate her for that.

When the show went off the air after a three-year run, was that your decision? Or was that Comedy Central's choice?
One thing I like about Comedy Central is that nowadays on networks, if the first or second show doesn't go well, they yank it. But with Comedy Central, their pattern seems to be that they give everybody three seasons to see how it's going to happen. So in our heads we felt like we only had three seasons, and it wasn't a high-rated show. It came on at like 5:30 on Friday and like 3 in the morning on Sunday, so the times were kind of weird. But I liked the audience we had, and I liked that it was kind of low profile. And when the [management] teams at Comedy Central changed, I think they just wanted their own programming, and they felt like we weren't pulling in the ratings enough, so they just decided not to do anymore. But Paul, Stephen and I didn't expect to do any more. We were like, if we got to do 10 more [episodes], that would be great, but we were fine doing 30.

When "Strangers With Candy" went off the air, I figured that was the end of it, so I was stunned and happy when I found out the show was coming out on DVD. How did that come about? I'm wondering if the people at Comedy Central might have realized what a following the show had after they pulled the plug on it.
I have no idea how it happened. I just got a phone call asking us if we wanted to do commentary [for the DVD] at 9 o'clock in the morning, which is not our hours. So we did it, and that's all I know. I don't know who is really responsible or anything. How was the DVD? I don't watch DVDs.

It was great. It had all of the episodes from the first season, and I liked the fact that it included the original pilot. That was a fun extra. Now I hear there is going to be a "Strangers With Candy" movie. How did that happen? And are you surprised that, all of a sudden, the show seems to be experiencing a revival of sorts?
Yeah. A little bit. I don't know where it comes from, but we are excited it's out there again. We did a signing for the DVD a couple weeks ago, and I'm doing interviews for it. But we didn't even lift a finger for it, and already it was like number 15 or something on Amazon. We were like, "Really?" It's interesting. I don't think we had any idea.

Can you tell me anything about the movie? Have you started writing it yet?
We haven't. We're going to wait until it's overdue to start writing it, which is how we do everything. Seriously. We don't know what it's going to be about yet. We've been reading a lot of books and watching a lot of "Afterschool Specials" and stuff, and thinking about what we want to change and what we want to keep. We're going to have to recast all the kids because they have to look much younger. When something has a cult following, and you change one little thing, everyone goes bananas. But I think there will be a lot of changes in this one. We're definitely going to change the dad, because the dad seems more sitcom-y, too TV-like for a film.

When you were doing the show, did you ever imagine you'd have to translate it to the big screen?
No. Never. Ugly people never get to be in films. The good thing about Jerri Blank is that she thinks she is pretty, and she dresses really nicely and she's really stylish -- but maybe not everyone wants to look at her. It's really hard to have someone like that be the star of a movie.

The show broke so many boundaries in terms of how far you could go on TV. For example, Jerri got a bikini wax and made out with her long-lost son. But when you were doing the show, was there ever anything you had in the script that you couldn't get by the network censors?
Not too much. We were really easy to work with. Usually, it was a prop that cost too much money. We were like, "Oh, fine, we'll make it a boat. We can't have a pool? Great, we'll make it a track team." So we were easy like that, and they only got on us for a couple of things here and there. But nothing major, nothing that threw us out of whack. I think now that we're allowed to do those things for the movie, we won't want to do them. I'd like to try to make it as G as possible, but I don't know. We'll see.

Did you find that a lot of young kids watched the show, in addition to adults?
Mostly, it's gay people who liked it, and some older people in their late 40s and some young kids like 17, 18. I'm always surprised when I meet somebody [who was a fan]. They usually look like misfits. That's for sure. I'm always like, "Wow. What made you watch that show?"

Do you get a lot of people demanding you act like Jerri Blank when they meet you?
Not too much. I don't get recognized too much because she's such a disguised kid, but naturally I'll go into it, because I do that character all the time.

It will certainly be interesting to see Jerri Blank's face looming large on a big movie screen, as opposed to a TV screen.
I know. That's why I'm going to tone her down. I probably won't have any makeup on, other than my eyes. I won't have stuff on my teeth because the face is enough, and the reason I wore turtlenecks in the TV series is because she was a heroin addict -- they didn't want to see all the track marks on TV. I'll probably do the same for the movie, too.

I know you haven't written the script yet, but do you suppose Jerri will still be in her freshman year at Flatpoint High?
Yeah. There may be some back story, too. She might be looking out a car window and thinking about something from her past. We'll see little glimpses about how she got hooked on stuff. But I don't want to start with her being born. That's like doing episodes in a mental ward. You've seen it. You don't want to go back there.

Is it true that you bought the movie rights to the book "Love Junkie?"
No, I wanted to. I looked into it because I love that book so much, and I think it's really funny, and it would really work today. But nothing ever happened with it.

I never read the book, but I read that you would have been playing a straight old woman who falls in love with a gay man.
Yeah. It's one of the funniest books I ever read. Robert Plunkett wrote it. It's not in print. You'd have to get it off eBay or something.

You and your brother David have written plays together. Do you have any plans to collaborate on more projects with him?
Yeah, we'll do another play. Because I'm so busy with TV stuff and he's so busy with his books, we don't get to do as many as we used to, but we'll do another one.

Given the fact that you are best known for playing such a strange, unattractive woman on "Strangers With Candy," are you amazed at the success you've had in your career? You've been on "Sex and the City" and appeared with Jennifer Lopez in the film Maid in Manhattan.
Yeah, I guess if I think about it too much I'll become aware of it -- and when you become aware of things, you change. So I don't pay much attention to it. I still sell my cupcakes and stuff.

Have you ever turned down parts that are too commercial? I can imagine a TV network seeing you and wanting to create an Amy Sedaris sitcom.
I have been approached to do that kind of network stuff, and I'm not saying I would never do it. But it just seems like it's always more fun to do things on cable. You get away with a lot more, and it would just be hard to do something mainstream. But maybe it would also be a challenge to do something like that in the long run. But when it is on a network, more people have their hands in it -- and then you lose control, and that would be really difficult. I'd like to do a hospitality show.

What do you mean by a hospitality show?
I don't know if you remember a show called "Peggy Mann." It was this woman in North Carolina, and you'd go to her home, and she'd sit on her couch and just talk about things like -- let's say you're having a party, and you don't have room for vases of flowers. You might want to put paper flowers up on your drapes. Or she'd tell you to open your liquor bottles early, so no one feels like they're the first ones cracking them open. Little hospitality tips.

Got it. So you are still making and selling your famous cheese balls?
Cheese balls and cupcakes.

When I last interviewed you a few years ago, you were making cheese balls. I assume this will be a lifelong pursuit, no matter how successful you become.
Yeah. I'm selling them in my neighborhood. People used to order them and come to my house [to pick them up]. But I've cut back on that, just because I can't keep up with it -- and sometimes I don't know these people that come to my home, and I thought maybe that's not a good idea.

© 2003