Amy Sedaris' far-flung comedy makes her a crass act

One of comic actress Amy Sedaris' favorite possessions is something she calls a "fatty suit." She acquired it so she could play a practical joke on her father, who hadn't seen her for a while.

She came home for the weekend wearing an elaborately padded undergarment that made her look like some unholy union of Greek mythology and Laz-Z-Boy technology: half-woman, half-Barcalounger. Her father was thus led for several days to believe Sedaris had put on a startling amount of weight.

"I loved the idea that someone could be wearing it standing behind a bar, flirting with a guy," she says, "and then when she came out from behind the bar, it would be all over."

Sedaris, 41, loves comedy like that: excruciating, filled with tension and flirtatious with tragedy. She is by most first-hand accounts, a beautiful woman. But she prefers to lose herself in greasepaint deformities and fashion disasters.

"I will do anything for a laugh," Sedaris says. "People ask me, 'Would you get naked?' Sure, if it was funny. I never really analyze it. I'm willing to do anything to be funny.

"I have enormous admiration for people who can be funny and beautiful at the same time - like Cameron Diaz or Jennifer Aniston - but I couldn't do it. I have to hide behind something."

She evokes the late guerrilla comic Andy Kaufman, except that she's funnier in performance and more personable in person.

The first season of Sedaris' excruciating, tension-filled, wonderfully funny and criminally defunct Comedy Central series "Strangers With Candy" was recently released on DVD.

It stars Sedaris as Jerri Blank, a tenuously reformed drug addict and prostitute who decides at 46 to return to high school.

The show was satirically inspired by the ABC's series of Afterschool Specials, in which earnest children suffered earnest problems for 20 minutes and then were rewarded with earnest solutions. Like Afterschool Specials, episodes of "Strangers with Candy" always end with morals, albeit poorly reasoned ones, such as: "Being a virgin is a wonderful and precious thing to hold on to . . . as long as it doesn't interfere with your having sex"; "Only losers do drugs. Unless they help you win. Then only winners do drugs"; and, "Violence isn't the only way to resolve a conflict, but it is the only way to win one."

Jerri Blank is an extraordinary comic creation: a likable person who does unlikable, even abominable things, on a weekly basis. Sedaris says it's hard to hate Blank because everything she does is inspired by her quest to become a better person.

"She's an innocent. She's child-like. Nothing sticks to her. She's trying to be good, trying to learn, and you're on her side. Then she does something truly reprehensible, and you're like, 'Oh, Jerri.' "

"Strangers with Candy" exuded such an exuberant cynicism, such a joie de venom, that it never found its audience and was canceled after three seasons.

There is both nature and nurture in Sedaris' inability to see the sacredness in any cow. She's the sister of deadpan confessional humorist David Sedaris. David Sedaris has written several plays expressly for his sister, many of them full of the same lack of decorum "Candy" displayed.

"Dave and I have an anything-goes rule. We'll use anything that works even if it doesn't make sense. We'll bring a horse on stage if its funny."

Sedaris says it was somewhat inevitable that she went the exhibitionistic route and David, the laconic.

"He performed in high school and hated it. He liked that I could be his puppet, and it was great to have him write stuff specifically for me."

She feels no jealousy over her brother's astounding literary success.

"I am so happy that he has become one of the funniest writers ever. He's never compared to anyone living. I never get tired of people asking about him."

David has written about Amy in his essays (an account of the fatty suit prank can be found in "Me Talk Pretty One Day") and Sedaris says she has given her brother leave to mine her life for material.

But there was one time . . .

"He went on NPR and talked about my rocking habit. I had never given it too much thought. I'm in a rocking chair right now. In bed, I rock at a rapid pace. If I have to be on Letterman, I'll rock 4 or 5 hours beforehand.

"So he was on the radio talking about it and I thought, 'Uh huh.' He usually checks with me first. I think we've gotten to the point where he doesn't have to check with me. But I was still a little shocked."

David and Amy, who refer to themselves waggishly as The Talent Family, specialize in comedy that is so real it's almost painful.

Sedaris says she gets all her comic inspiration from drama (Blank was based on a motivational speaker whose horrific presentation was not exactly bursting with obvious humor).

She doesn't even like to watch comedy.

"Whenever people want me to go see a movie, I always say, 'Is it funny? Then I don't want to go.' I would rather watch something dramatic and see what's funny about it. If someone asked me to teach a class in comedy, I would have no idea what I was talking about."

The growth of "Strangers With Candy's" cult audience surprised everyone involved with the show.

When fans meet Sedaris, they expect her to be bitter and acid-tongued. They are usually unprepared for the real Sedaris, a goofy optimist who likes to bake homemade cheese balls, cupcakes or chocolate-covered pretzels in her free time.

"I've had people be very disappointed when they show up to my apartment. I have an apron on. I'm cooking cupcakes. I'm talking to a rabbit and my imaginary boyfriend."

 

Steve Penhollow is arts and entertainment writer for The Journal Gazette. His column appears Sundays in Encore. He also appears at 5 p.m. Fridays on WPTA-TV, Channel 21, to talk about area happenings. E-mail him at spen@jg.net, or go to the "Rants & Raves" topic of "The Board" at www.journalgazette.net.