Amy on the cover of Metro Source, photographed by Todd Oldham

Amy, photographed by Todd Oldham

Amy, photographed by Todd Oldham

Amy, photographed by Todd Oldham
 

STRANGER THAN CANDY

INTERVIEW BY PAUL HAGEN         PHOTOS BY TODD OLDHAM

Funny lady Amy Sedaris gets serious
about baked goods, Crafty Beavers, and
how to keep Todd Oldham extremely busy.

Amy Sedaris is sitting in the middle of Todd Oldham's studio covered in straw and burlap—including a limited-edition pair of burlap Prada pumps—and has the entire room hanging on her every word. She's telling the story of a maintenance man who once tried to sell her some high-quality hashish—high-quality because it was rolled by children, and apparently, when it comes to hash, child-rolled is where it's at.

I'm standing to the side, shaking with laughter, and she smiles at me (possibly because I am unaware that I've spilled pizza down my front). I'm reminded of the first time I saw that smile in person. A week earlier, Sedaris had been expecting me at her apartment for our first interview. I step out of the elevator in her apartment building and have no idea whether to turn right or left. I hear something rattling and turn to see her arm, sticking out into the hallway, shaking a can of change. And that is how I found Amy Sedaris' apartment.

"Oh, I'm so embarrassed by my apartment right now. I'm working on the book, so it's kind of like an office and everything is really messy," says Sedaris as she leads me into the living room. It's true that there's a lot going on in here—stacks of books, bins of supplies, craft projects set out to dry—and since I'm here to talk to Sedaris about her forthcoming guide to hospitality, tentatively titled I Like You, it makes a certain amount of sense that I'm catching up with her a few hours before her craft club comes over. "Today we're making phone book covers," says Sedaris of the club. They call themselves the Creative Daze these days, but in an earlier incarnation they were called, well...

"Crafty Beaver is a club that I started," Sedaris says as we settle down across from last week's projects—"grieving bags" to give to friends who've lost a small beloved rodent or reptile. "I have a lot of friends that are really talented. I have good ideas, but my hands—I don't have the skills to do 'em. But I know a lot of people who can," says Sedaris. She enthusiastically praises the club's members and their past projects. Then she sighs: "It was just really an excuse to get together and smoke pot."

Sedaris' affection for her craft club begins to explain how this multitalented performer—best known as the outrageous star of Comedy Central's Strangers with Candy—ended up writing a book on hospitality. But as she shares her thoughts on the domestic arts, it becomes clear that she has some passionate and very specific ideas on the subject.

"I've never seen a Martha Stewart book or anything and I wouldn't read about how anyone else does it, really, because it seems like it's gotta come from you," Sedaris insists. Then why write a book teaching people how to entertain? "My book is basically how to entertain in your home, your own style." The idea, it would seem, is to mix her sure-fire good-time ideas with your personal touch. And what kind of ideas does she have?

"I have this thing called Beauty Night that I do. I'll have an index card, and it'll have your name on it and the personal questions you have to answer. And it'll get real personal," says Sedaris, emphasis on the real. "Then I go into the back bedroom, I take my lab coat off and I come back, and my dress is really low. A lot of cleavage." Amy grabs hold of her bosom and hikes it up by way of example. "Tons of friggin' perfume. Lots of makeup. And so, then what I'll do is, I'll get up in your face, oblivious to it, right? And then I'll do a beauty mask for you. Maybe I'll wash your hair. Massage your shoulders. Whatever you need."

But a trip to Sedaris' apartment for a good time might not be all beauty masks and shoulder massages, she tells me (as she lights a candle she's been aggressively trying to melt over a wine bottle for that vintage Italian-restaurant effect). "I was scraping some wood off that shelf, and the three-in-one tool went right underneath my nose and blood went everywhere, and so that was kind of like a bad accident. That's why I was like, 'Amy. You gotta get people to do this for you. You're just not good at it.'" So, rather than risk further personal injury, she puts her friends to work.

"Like, I would ask, 'Do you sew?' And if you said, 'Yes,' I'd be like, 'Will you make me a curtain real quick? Just for that rod? I bought the material. Here's the needle. I'll pay you in Xanax,'" says Sedaris. "The trick is—for me, anyway—I have to make sure I have the supplies here for them. You know, it's like going to some one's house—a boyfriend's house—and they don't even have a pan and they want you to make dinner, and you're like, 'Come on, if you want me to cook, have some decent knives and a pan at least.'"

But as long as she's got the goods, Sedaris' friends don't seem to mind ponying up the time and energy. "I have so many generous friends like that. A lot of times I think they like it, because who else is going to ask them, 'Will you make me a tree out of pipe cleaners and hang a noose in it?'" Sedaris chuckles as she points out certain projects that others may have made but she definitely... orchestrated. "Todd Oldham, a good friend of mine—he put these floors in—he's the best I can give him a wish list and he can just check it off. So I would literally lie on the couch like this, ask him, 'Let me know if you need anything.'"

Which brings us to another of Sedaris' firmly held theories on entertaining: You're far more likely to have fun chatting over a project than sitting around waiting for fun to just happen. The monster stereo system, the fully stocked DVD library, the fully tricked-out PC—in Sedaris' world, these can be enemies of a good time. "I don't rely on the music to make my party successful. And to kill a party, all you have to do is turn the TV on and it's over. Or someone says, 'Listen to the words of this song' or 'Let me show you this thing on my computer.' It's over."

But even though she speaks with great conviction on entertaining, when it comes to a certain related subjected—her famous cupcakes—she can be downright self-deprecating. "I have a friend who's a chef and she'd watch me do my cupcakes, and she'd be like, 'Oh my God!' She's like, 'You're doing everything wrong. I can't even believe your cupcakes come out the way they do.'" And, though her cupcakes make a killing at Joe's Coffee in New York City (you can also buy her cheese balls at the Gourmet Garage), she still worries. "I made cupcakes for delivery today, but because of the humidity, they didn't really rise very well. So I'm sending you home with four, but just know, they're not as good as they could be."

Back at Todd Oldham's studio, Sedaris—again cursing the lack of cupcake-friendly weather—has brought stand-ins from the Polka Dot Cake Studio and she wants me to know they're not hers. She's busy getting ready for the release of Strangers with Candy: The Movie (due in theaters in 2006), finishing a book, brainstorming for her next TV show, and mid-photo shoot she's worried about not getting credit for cupcakes she didn't make.

While I observe Sedaris, Oldham and the team at the photo shoot, it becomes clear that this sense of fairness is every bit as endearing to those who love to work with Sedaris as her outrageous stories and crackerjack one-liners. And as for her much maligned cupcakes: When I return to my office after our talk, the staff pretty much inhales them (careful to preserve their "pokes"—toothpicks with wacky pictures of Sedaris attached to them). Despite her warnings about the ravages of humidity, the cupcakes turn out to be, like their maker, absolutely delicious.
 

BETTER LIVING THROUGH HILARITY

A FEW MORE TIPS ON HOW TO LIVE GRACIOUSLY, THE AMY SEDARIS WAY.
1. "Odd numbers look better on a plate. So three chicken legs are gonna look better than two. Five are gonna look better than four."
2. "People always think it's good when you go to someone's house to bring flowers, and really it's the worst thing. It takes the hostess out of commission. She has to react to the flowers, cut 'em down, find a vase."
3. "If you have any dead animals in your freezer waiting for spring burial, uh-uh, get it out, because that will really turn somebody off."
4. "Supply your neighbors with products that you might run out of."
5. "If you have pharmaceutical goods, a good trick is to fill your [medicine cabinet] with marbles, so that when they open the door the marbles will come out and hit the sink, and then you'll know which one of your friends is a junkie whore."

© October/November 2005 — Metro Source