Amy Sedaris Interview

 1/21/04| The Onion A.V. Club | Volume 40, Issue 03by Nathan Rabin  
Separately and together, Amy and David Sedaris have cultivated a loyal fan base, which vocally asserts the siblings' right to their self-proclaimed title, "The Talent Family." A prominent figure in many of David's autobiographical stories, Amy Sedaris met friends and collaborators Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello when all three worked for Chicago's famed Second City troupe. The three writer-performers reunited on the Comedy Central sketch-comedy show Exit 57 and later co-created (with Mitch Rouse) and starred in Strangers With Candy, a warped parody of after-school specials that developed a cult following during its three-season run. The series starred a nearly unrecognizable Sedaris as a deluded, widely despised fortysomething ex-junkie prostitute who re-enrolls in high school after a 32-year absence and fights a constant battle to preserve her waning virtue. The second season of Strangers With Candy has just been released on DVD, and a big-screen adaptation is in the works. Sedaris, Colbert, and Dinello also recently collaborated on Wigfield, a funny, photo-filled book about the imperiled fictional community of Wigfield, a rancid collection of strip clubs and auto-parts stores. In addition, Sedaris has co-written a series of plays with her brother, and has appeared in several films, including the 2003 hits School Of Rock and Elf. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Sedaris about waitressing, her rabbit, and her signature role on Strangers With Candy.

The Onion: Are you still working at a seafood restaurant?
Amy Sedaris: Only when they need me.

O: What do you enjoy about being a waitress?
AS: I don't have to do it. I used to have to do it all the time, so now it's more like I get to act like a waitress, you know what I mean? I like working with the public, and I like that it's really hard work. I love working with food, and I love making tips. And the connections: I can get my vanilla wholesale from there.

O: Are your coworkers aware of your secret life as an actress?
AS: They're all great. They all do different things, too, so it's nice. I don't get to work there as much as I'd like, but once in a while, they'll call me, and I get to wear anything I want.

O: So there's an element of performance in being a waitress?
AS: I just like it when people get upset, and I like it when they're cheap, and I like it when they ask stupid questions, because I just can't believe it. It keeps you in reality, because the more you work in TV and films, the more you're like, "These people are friggin' out to lunch." It's kind of nice to deal with real people and watch what they get angry about. It's good for me, because I don't let it get to me. It's like today: I was late, because I have a cupcake business, and I was making deliveries, and I was walking home today thinking, "Okay, I busted my ass for $24." That's not what it's really about. It's just a good feeling. It's like, the more money you make sometimes—it's just pretend money, and it comes in checks, and you never get to really see it and enjoy it. I just love making cash. I love everything about it, and working hard for it, and having a job you can complain about. "Jesus Christ, look at what butter costs!" I can go to a grocery store and bitch to people about it, and people will listen to me. If I went to work on a movie tomorrow, I'd ask somebody how much butter costs, and nobody would know.

O: On the Wigfield book jacket, you're described as half of The Talent Family. Where did that name come from?
AS: David was like, "We need a name, quick!" So he came up with it because it's so ridiculous.

O: One of the running gags in Wigfield involves the faux-author's frustration and anger about having to write 50,000 words to get paid. Was that based on you and your collaborators' own experiences trying to finish the book?
AS: Yes. Because when they called me about a book idea, I originally wanted to do this little kids' book about a worm. I was real passionate about it. Then another idea I had was, I wanted to do a picture book. Just photographs, like a catalog. And then Paul and Stephen were like, "No, it has to have words." And then, when we found out how many words, that's when I stepped back. In the book, that came from, "How many more words do we have to do?" And then they decided to make the guy a poor writer, so they could hide behind that, like, "Hey, it's not us." Yeah, right.

O: It's fun, though, to write from the perspective of a bad writer.
AS: I know. Anybody bad. I used to like it when I was younger, and I used to go see people's shows, and there would be really pretty girls trying to play incest victims, and they would have Band-Aids on their knees and their hair in pigtails, but really pretty, and I was like, "That's your version of an incest victim?" It was so funny, because here's your opportunity, but you still want to look good.

O: What was your process when you were writing Wigfield?
AS: I'll give you an example from last week. We're supposed to meet at Paul's at 1. We're writing a Strangers With Candy movie. So everyone's running late, but of course I'm on time. Then Paul shows up at his house at 1:30, Stephen gets there at quarter 'til, Stephen decides he wants to get something to eat, and Paul has to walk his dog. Then we go inside and their cell phones go off, and then we start talking about anything but what we're there to talk about. Then, maybe around 4, we'll start to think about what we're supposed to write. Then Stephen's got to go and Paul gets tired. It's really frustrating working with other people. When you're in the mood, you're in the mood, and we'll just sit around and improvise, and we'll laugh really hard, and then we'll write down what we're laughing really hard about. Usually, Paul's the one who puts it into any kind of a script form. Stephen will do it with him sometimes, but he'll go off on some tangent, and then Paul will put that down, and I'll improvise something. We all have different duties. Usually, what we laugh at, we'll put down. A lot of it is based on improvising. I don't type, so they do everything. I literally lay on the couch and throw out something.

O: You guys all met at Second City, right? And you didn't hit it off initially with Stephen?
AS: Yeah, it was 16 years ago. We were just looking at pictures. Paul and Stephen didn't hit it off right away. It took a few months, and then they were inseparable. Paul and I dated for, like, eight years. We always work together. Whenever the phone rings and it's a project, I always call them, and vice versa.

O: What are the good things about owning a pet rabbit?
AS: They're quiet. They're clean. You can train them. I was so used to having cats and dogs, so when they do something, like hop or jump up and spin around, it's just fascinating. They eat vegetables. Their breath always smells really good. If they go to the bathroom on the floor, it's really easy to clean up. She sleeps with me. She's really a cool rabbit. Their personalities are just inspiring. They have lots of energy, and they're always looking behind their backs. They eat hay. She's a perfect pet to have. They don't live long. That's the only problem.

O: Can you take her for walks?
AS: I don't. She just stays in, pretty much, but I know people who do. I'm an honorary rabbit educator, which means if you've got a rabbit, I could go to your house and help you rabbit-proof it and tell you what to feed your rabbit. I have the badge and everything.

O: How do you become a rabbit educator?
AS: The House Rabbit Society is where I got my rabbit, and I became obsessed immediately, so they asked me if I would be interested, and I said "Of course." So I've gotten a few calls, and I've gone to people's houses. I go to conventions and stuff.

O: Wigfield includes pictures of rabbits. Were you the rabbit wrangler during that shoot?
AS: No. Paul went to some Petland place and got them. I felt so bad for those rabbits. They looked drugged, and they were really skinny. It's like, "Four rabbits were injured during the making of this book." Yikes. But I did save the costumes.

O: Have you visited the Strangers With Candy web sites?
AS: No. I kind of don't want to do that. That's why I like live theater: It's done, and it's over. It's not going to follow you for the rest of your life. That's how it used to be with interviews and stuff. Now, I guess you can get everything on the Internet. It's kind of scary.

O: Some of the sites are really impressive. They seem very professional.
AS: Yeah, when we did the [Wigfield] tour, we got to meet a lot of those people, I guess, that run those sites. One lady gave me some stationery—she already addressed it to herself and put stamps on it. She said, "Please, anything that's going on with you, all you have to do is write me. It's not difficult, Amy." I went, "Okay, I did Letterman last night," like it's a diary. It's nice, and I do try. There's one guy, Tony, he's really nice, and if something is going to happen, I try to make an effort to let him know. Like I sent him a DVD [of Strangers With Candy], because I knew that would mean a lot to him, and he would want to write about it and put it on his site. It's the whole first-to-know kind of thing.

O: Actually, Tony's web site [] says that your Strangers With Candy character is based on a real inspirational speaker. What can you tell me about her?
AS: Yeah, her name's Florrie Fisher. She looks like Mike Dukakis, right? That's my original look. That's what I look like in the pilot, and then we changed it. Paul found her video at Kim's Video, and it's like 20 minutes long, but you can't watch it completely, because when she talks, she's yelling at you. You have to turn it off and walk around the house a little bit and turn it back on. She was a boozer, a user, and a mess, and then she decided to get straight, so she went around to high schools and talked to students. We based it on her. I've never done heroin or slept with people for money or anything. The interesting thing is, you could just look at her and figure that all out. Her book [The Lonely Trip Back] is poorly written, and I don't know that I believe a lot of it. I don't know if she's alive anymore. She was in Florida, and she'd stay in one of those little tin boxes. She'd stay for six months, and she'd be like, "I weighed 76 pounds when I came out." You're like, "Is that true? You'd be cooked."

O: You've said that you admire women who can be funny and pretty at the same time, but that you always felt the need to hide behind something. Why do you think that is?
AS: I'm personally just more comfortable when I'm hiding behind something. Real actors will always throw it in your face, like, "You're just hiding!" and I'm like, "Yeah, that's exactly what I'm doing. So what?" If I want a mole on my face the size of a steering wheel, then that'll give me what I want. What's wrong with that? I can't act like Jennifer Jason Leigh or something. That's why I like to go see her movies, or movies from people like that, because I'm just amazed by it. When people try to make me do that, it's embarrassing. You do that at home when you're by yourself. You cry. You don't want to do it in front of all these people. So if I have to do anything like that, it's easier for me to hide behind something, just to know it's there, because then I feel different. I don't feel like myself. Have you seen Mystic River yet? Shit, Sean Penn in that, God. Everyone in that—Kevin Bacon, Tim Robbins. I've never heard a guy cry like Sean Penn did in that movie. Can you imagine reading that script? It's like, "Okay, now I have to react to my daughter being dead." I wouldn't know what to do. I love depressing movies and depressing books.

O: Why?
AS: Because I don't do it, and sometimes afterwards, I think to myself, "What's funny about that?" When you go see a comedy, and they're telling me what's funny, you have to drag me to that. But once I'm there, I'm like, "Okay." Like, I thought Jack Black was fantastic in School Of Rock. Will Ferrell's one of my favorite comedic actors. I love seeing anything those two do.

O: With Strangers With Candy, what appealed to you about the after-school special as a target for parody?
AS: I just remember them from when I was little, and I was making fun of them. I remember thinking that everyone was really queer, and being grateful that my parents weren't like that. They would try to teach you something in, what, half an hour or an hour? I remember that used to confuse me. Originally, we were supposed to act it as straight as possible, and I know as the seasons went on, I tended to get goofier and goofier.

O: What are some of your favorite after-school specials?
AS: In real life? I remember Jennifer Jason Leigh doing Best Little Girl In The World, about anorexia. I loved that. I liked that it was set during the holidays, and they went from Halloween to Christmas. I was like, "Wait a minute. Where's Thanksgiving? That's all about food. You left a major holiday out." I always wanted to ask her about that. "What happened? You obviously shot something and it got cut out, right?" That was a favorite. Also, Helen Hunt did one on angel dust [Angel Dusted], which I haven't been able to get my hands on, but she jumps out of a window. And, of course, my favorite is Go Ask Alice, but that was more like a movie than an after-school special. That was the one about a 15-year-old girl who moves, meets up with the wrong people, and falls deep into drug addiction. It's based on a book that's the diary of the girl. I read the book, which is really different from the movie. I would love to remake that movie and not change a word of it, just because it's a really good anti-drug movie.

O: You originally made the Jerri Blank character much uglier. Were you asked to make any other changes to soften her up a little?
AS: Mostly that. I had more tattoos. I had a lot more of that. I wanted track marks, which Comedy Central didn't want, which is why I wore turtlenecks all the time, just to cover that up. So I ended up looking like a professional golfer. I wanted to look like a professional golfer who owned snakes. Wardrobe and makeup basically created the rest. I had the fatty suit already. I just like those kind of figures, small on top and large on the bottom, and I wanted to play somebody who thought she was really sexy and had a lot of style.

O: You're in a movie called My Baby's Daddy...
AS: I do not know anything about the film. [This interview was conducted late last year, before its release. —ed.] I did it last year, and I wish I hadn't done it. It's really bad to say that, but I love black movies—they're my favorite, like How Stella Got Her Groove Back and all that stuff. I love movies like that, and I love going to see them on opening night, because there'll be like a sex scene in the shower, and the whole audience is laughing, and you can hear liquor bottles coming down the aisle. So that's why I wanted to do it, but it just wasn't that interesting, or that much fun, really. I got to meet some great people who are in it, and that was fun, but I just didn't really feel like a part of it, so I don't really know anything about it.

O: Growing up, did you feel a sense of competition with your brother?
AS: No. We always just stuck together. Dave and I played a lot together. We were never competitive.

O: Did you realize then that he would become a beloved humorist?
AS: I guess when you're little, you never think like that. You never think that someone has a goal, or that's what they're going to grow up to be. You just kind of do it and then go, "See, I figured as much." He was always writing, and I was always dressing up. The next thing you know, you're 42 and doing exactly what you did when you were 8.

O: How did you feel about your family life providing the fodder for much of his material?
AS: I look at it all like we're just characters. The stories are true, and sometimes things are a little different, like sometimes he'll say that something that happened to Gretchen happened to Lisa, or little facts like that. So when I'm reading it, I'm reading it differently than someone outside my family would read it. I'm looking at it more like, "David, how do you remember that?" I guess I look at it like he just made a character out of me, or anyone else in the family. I love David's writing, and I know how much work goes into it. He can sit in front of a typewriter for four hours and get down two words in a day. He really obsesses about every little detail. He never thinks anybody will show up at his readings or buy his books, and he's so good.

O: Even at this point in his career?
AS: Yeah. He's always shocked when somebody's there.

O: You've collaborated with him on a bunch of plays.
AS: We've done eight or nine plays together. That started in Chicago, when we would do readings at the Lower Links. Then David moved to New York City and said, "Hey, there's this place and they want me to do a play, so let's do a play." I was at Second City, so I would take a leave of absence and go to New York, and we would do a play together. Then I finally moved here and continued to do them. I don't know when we'll do our next one, but I hope it's not in New York. He has a place in London, and I think it would be exciting to do something somewhere else for the first time, just to get that feeling back, like it's the first time.

O: What's your collaborative process like?
AS: We come up with an idea. Sometimes I'll be like, "I want to do something with miniature doll furniture," or "I want to do something where I live in a shoe." I'll throw something out and we'll obsess about it for three months, and we'll exhaust it, joke-wise. The whole time, David's taking notes. Then, when it comes time to get together and start writing, which is usually two weeks before they need a script, we'll just sit down and laugh and improvise. He'll go off and write something and come back with it. I'll read it on my feet, add to it, take notes. Then, when it comes to casting, we usually use the same people, and we read it, and then we throw it away, and then we start again. We ask everybody in the group, "What do you think you do best?" And then we'll take advantage of their talents and write specifically for them, and then we'll have a script. We usually don't have previews. Our last play was the first time we had previews. We're always still working on it, constantly, throughout the show. We don't even have full scripts of anything we've done. We've got pages with misspelled words, and pages are missing. Little, Brown wants to do a collection of the plays eventually, so what'll happen is we'll have to sit down and write those. David will write a new ending or something that never existed.

O: What was your high-school experience like?
AS: I wasn't a cliquey person, and I think that's because I came from a large family. I got along with everybody, and I usually got along with the people that people didn't like. I always liked my teachers, and I was in a lot of after-school projects. I was a Girl Scout until my senior year, when I couldn't be a Girl Scout anymore. I was in clubs like Junior Achievement, and I ran track and field. My grades were good, but then toward 11th grade they were nothing. I always went to summer school.

O: That sounds pretty different from Jerri Blank's experiences.
AS: Yeah, it was very different. I don't even remember a lot of that stuff. Some people, it's amazing to me what they remember. There's a certain age I don't remember: I don't remember 11 to 17. I know I still played with Barbie dolls. I think that's why I think of everything in terms of stories, no matter what it is. Like if I see something on a wall, I'll make a story about it in my head. I guess you get that from playing dolls and stuff. I didn't go to the prom, but I worked the prom. It's the sort of thing I like to do now. It's like, "Don't invite me to the party. Let me work it, so I have a job to do and I don't have to talk to people. I have something to protect me."

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