Unitard's Nora Burns chats up Strangers With Candy alum Amy Sedaris about her new book (and its traveling stage show), the white trash opus Wigfield.
Few talents are as gleefully twisted as Amy Sedaris. If her sole contribution to our culture were only the demented and now classic Comedy Central anti-sitcom, Strangers With Candy - which told the tale of Jerri Blank, a self-proclaimed "boozer, user and loser" who returns to high school in her 40s - we would still be in awe of
her. But in addition to that legendary show-created with collaborators Stephen
Colbert and Paul Dinello,Sedaris has won accolades for her theatrical efforts
which include her Obie-winning production One Woman Shoe, and her
collaborations with her equally daffy brother David Sedaris (they're known
jointly as "The Talent Family") on shows like The Book of Liz and
Little Frieda Mysteries. Plus, she pops up in supporting roles in fare
as varied as Sex and the City and the fluffy big-screen J-Lo vehicle Maid
in Manhattan. She's also a gifted waitress and chef having worked the
tables at Marion's Continental on the Bowery, and garnering singular acclaim
for her cupcakes and cheese balls (which she oftens sells at her theatrical
She's back onstage in New
York this weekend and next for a new collaboration with Colbert and Dinello as the trio present staged readings of work from their new book, Wigfield - a mad collection of monologues, clippings, and all manner of snippets. The story of "the can-do town that just may not" Wigfield is a sordid and whacked-out tale of a skanky West Virginia village peopled by rednecks, freaks and hilariously disturbed normal folks. Lake Wobegon, it ain't.
Sedaris, Dinello and Colbert portray all of Wigfield's residents in the book, thanks to photos shot by
designer-turned-photographer Todd Oldham.
To find out more, we called upon another favorite twisted performer, Nora Burns. One-third (along with David Ilku and Mike Albo) of the brilliant Unitard comic performance troupe (appearing Thursdays all this month at The Marquee in the East Village), Burns is also a veteran of the comedy sketch ensemble The Nellie Olesons, and was more than happy to quiz Sedaris on our behalf. Here's what the two had to say about wigs, Wigfield, the future of Strangers With Candy and why comedy should not be pretty.
Nora Burns: S0...tell me about Wigfield and how it came about. It's a book and you're also doing a theatrical reading and playing four or five characters?
Amy Sedaris: Originally, it was an idea for a children's book I wanted to do about a worm who was an alcoholic and it was all about reaching for the lowest star. But Hyperion wasn't too crazy about it. And so I said that
I'd always wanted to do a book-like a Cindy Sherman type thing - where I could do
all the characters and I thought it could be called Wigfield because I'd
wear a bunch of different wigs. And there would be monologues to go with each
char. acter. And they loved that idea. So then Paul Dinello and Stephen Colbert
turned it into being about something more than just a caffee-table book. They
came up with this whole story based on a town in West Virginia that Stephen
discovered when he was working on The Daily Show.
NB: An actual town?
AS: Yes, it's called Jefferson, West Virginia and it was
literally just a mile long and it was full of strip clubs and used auto parts
stores. It was just riff-raff galore. So then we just made up this fictitious
town and the people who live there and then came up with a plot.
NB: Where the town is going to be flooded by the dam...
AS: Yeah, it's on the verge of extinction and the people have to fight to keep it. Well-they're acting like they want to save it, but they really don't. If they destroy the dam then they can collect money from the government.
NB: S0 tell me about some of the characters that you do.
AS: A prostitute named Cinnamon. She's really tired and haggard. And I get to dress up like a
retarded person, which is my favorite character.
NB: [laughs] How do you do that?
AS: Well, Todd Oldham's team made me look retarded from head to toe and it was so much fun, because the character has a briefcase full of fudge, so I got to eat chocolate all day. Then I get to play an arsonist, and a 17-year-old girl who writes poetry, and I play the oldest woman in town - who's 47 - and she's kind of a Jerri Blanktype woman.
NB: And who are the other guys doing?
AS: Stephen is doing a prostitute called Raven. And he's doing a witch. And he's playing one of the mayors. And Paul Dinello is playing this guy who runs the theater in Wigfield. And he plays a teenager with a lot of tattoos, and this guy who's this big racist with a sign behind him that says "No dogs, Negroes, or Mexicans." A total thug.
NB: Any gays in town?
AS: Just the guy who runs the theater. He's the one homo.
NB: That's a stretch.
AS: [laughs] I know, really. We couldn't resist.
NB: Is there any politics in this?
AS: In the show? The characters in the show are really racist, they're just ugly, mean, horrible people, even though they don't think they are... So it's pretty political, but in that way. I can't believe the stuff we're getting away with.
NB: Where are you living? Are you in New York?
AS: I'm in the West Village. Where do you live?
NB: In Little Italy.
AS: Oh, that's nice. Is your bathtub in the kitchen?
NB: My shower is! It's that rentcontrol thing you can't give up. And I have a baby, so it's a little crowded in there.
AS: How old is your baby?
NB: A year-and-a-half.
AS: Oh my god! You're the first one who's said "a year
and a half" instead of 18 months.
NB: I fucking hate that! Those people who are like, "She's 27 months, four weeks and three days..." I can't do that math!
AS: I'm 505 months. I figured it out. I was talking to
someone who had a baby, so I figured out that I was 505 months old.
NB: And are you still baking cupcakes?
AS: Yep, and cheeseballs. When I was working at Marion's - which I loved, and I was still able to do during Strangers with Candy, even - then it kind of become a "bit" to people, and they would want to start coming to the restaurant and interview me there and take pictures and it kind of felt like I was doing it for attention. I wasn't, but that's how I felt. So then I decided I would just take my business elsewhere, so I just make the cupcakes and cheeseballs out of my apartment.
NB: What else are you doing? You keep popping up on TV and in movies.
AS: Well, I'm going to do another episode of Sex and the City soon. And then I'm going to LA. and do an episode of Monk; and we've signed a contract to write a Strangers With Candy movie.
NB: You're kidding! Yay!
AS: Yeah. We can't wait. So we're going to start working on that soon. But we have no idea what's going to happen.
NB: And Strangers With Candy is coming out on DVD, right?
AS: Yes, on June 13th. It's going to be the first ten, the
first season. And we do commentary on four or five episodes.
NB: It's so encouraging that an edgy talent like you can actually break through and get on TV.
AS: Well, that's nice, but on TV they always want to try... You want to make it really funny, and you get there and you're like, "Oh, I have to wear that?" And they put pretty make-up on you and straighten your hair, and then they're like, "See how great you can look?"
NB: Like, "You're such a pretty girl!"
AS: But that's not fun. And it's not like I'm trying to be ugly, it's just that feel like I need something to hide behind, like a prop or something so I can disguise myself and then just do it. But if I have to be just me then I have a really hard time. It's not as fun. That's why I don't
really work that much, unless I just create it myself.
NB: And you've done that! You watch Strangers and you go, "Oh my god, I can't believe they let her do that!"
AS: We got away with so much on that show. There were no grownups around.
NB: And where did you begin developing your whole thing for characters and wigs and...
AS: Actually, they're the same ones I've been doing since I was five. Very seldom do I ever come up with anything new. It's pathetic.
Anyone who knows me will say, "God, Amy - you're doing the same characters..." They just have different backgrounds. But you know... I'm trying.
Wigfield will be staged at the Jane Street Theatre (113 Jane St.; West Side Hwy/Washington) May 9th - 10th and May 16th - 17th, with shows at 7pm and 10pm. For tickets ($30), call 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com. There will also be a reading/book signing at Barnes & Noble (4 Astor Place; Broadway/Lafayette; 212-420-1322) on May 13th at 7:30pm; and there will
be staged reading on May 14th at Symphony Space (2537 Broadway; @ 59th
St.) at 8pm. For tickets and info, visit www.symphonyspace.org.
Nora Burns performs in Unitard: Showdown at The Marquee (356 Bowery; Jones & 4th St.), Thursdays, May 8th, 15th, 22nd, 29th at 8pm. Tickets ($15) can be reserved through 212-475-7621.
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