By Edward Guthmann
Published: September 2004

Amy Sedaris has this thing about her looks. She's kind of cute -- oh brother, she would hate that -- but does her best to disguise that when acting. In "One Woman Shoe," a screamingly funny off-Broadway play about hillbilly women qualifying for welfare, she taped her nose up, greased her hair and disguised herself in classic trailer-trash couture.

In "Strangers With Candy," a series that ran on Comedy Central in 1999 and 2000, Sedaris played Jerri Blank, a 46-year-old ex-junkie turned high school freshman. To look the part, she wore a dental appliance with chipmunk teeth, a fat suit with meat-loaf thighs and a variety of '70s outfits resembling funhouse versions of "The Brady Bunch."

The younger sister of comic essayist David Sedaris, she follows the Lucille Ball formula for comedy: It doesn't matter how bad you look, so long as the gag works. She's not a household name, but she's hands-down one of the funniest women in America -- right up there with Catherine O'Hara, Tracey Ullman, Andrea Martin and Elaine May.

Sedaris, 43, just finished a movie version of "Strangers With Candy." Produced by David Letterman's Worldwide Pants, it co-stars Paul Dinello and Stephen Colbert ("The Daily Show"), Sedaris' fellow satirists since her days at Second City in Chicago. Dinello, Sedaris' ex-boyfriend, directed and plays art teacher Geoffrey Jellineck, clandestine lover to Colbert's fellow teacher Chuck Noblet.

The trio also collaborated on a book, "Wigfield: The Can-Do Town That Just May Not," a parody-with-pictures about a dead-end town of strip joints, used car parts stores and warped residents. Sedaris appears Monday at the Herbst Theatre, where Bay Area author Ayelet Waldman will interview her for the City Arts & Lectures series. The actress spoke by phone from her Greenwich Village apartment.

Q: How'd the "Strangers With Candy" movie go?

A: It was a pretty ambitious schedule -- less than five weeks -- but we did it and it was jam-packed with celebrities (mostly in cameos). Everyone's really good in it: Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Allison Janney and Sir Ian Holm. So, it was a lot of fun. I'm the weakest link in the movie.

Q: But doesn't working with great people make your acting better?

A: Yeah, you'd think so. Also, it was really hot and I was in that fatty suit. I had a wig on, boots and socks and a fatty suit and a turtleneck. And no air conditioning. I just had to be a good sport about it.

Q: Was there pressure to make "Strangers" softer, more mainstream, to attract a big audience?

A: No, actually the Letterman people were great. They completely left us alone. It got to the point where I would call and say, "Do you think someone could come out here?"

Q: Where did the idea originate?

A: Well, I had the idea to do a spoof on after-school specials. And then Paul had the idea of Jerri being 46 and doing that kind of character. And then Colbert had the idea of learning the wrong (life) lessons. So we each brought something to it.

Q: Do you ever get offered noncomic roles?

A: Sometimes. Like, my dream was to do a "Law & Order." All I wanted was for someone to show me a Polaroid and I could be like, "No, I've never seen that person before in my life." And then Juan Jose Campanella, who directed a lot of "Strangers With Candy" (episodes), directed a "Law & Order," so I got to do it.

Q: Do you have a knack for drama?

A: My first instinct is to make fun of that kind of stuff and to laugh. I don't believe a second of it -- I mean, coming from me. Maybe that's why I like watching it so much. I hate going to see comedies and I just love serious, depressing dramas.

Q: Seriously? You don't like watching comedies?

A: I can't stand it. I go kicking and screaming. Maybe because I do so much of it, I would be influenced in a way that I wouldn't want to be. Or, "Wow, I had that idea five years ago. That's been done?"

Q: Do you turn down a lot of stuff that's offered to you?

A: It depends what it is. If it's a small thing in a movie and I think I can have fun with it then I'll be like, "Yeah, this'll be OK.' " But if it's, like, more than five lines -- this is why my agency hates me -- I'm like, "Oh no, that part's too big." I don't want to carry something if I don't have any input in it.

Q: Do you have any guilty pleasures?

A: Lifetime Channel and Vicodin. I had to see a plastic surgeon for some dental work and he gave me 30 extra-strength Vicodin. God, that stuff makes you crazy. I couldn't wait until those things were gone. But it's a fun thing to give away as a present. You know the Pez dispensers? Vicodin will fit in that.

Q: You and your brother created off-Broadway plays together ("One Woman Shoe," "The Book of Liz") and called yourselves the Talent Family. What was your collaboration like?

A: David's, like, more of a writer. We would exhaust an idea for months - - you know what I mean? -- and just laugh and laugh and take notes. And then he'd write something and hand it to me and I would improvise with it. And then he would take notes off my improvising and go back. So our minds wrote it together. And it's great working with David because anything's possible.

Q: Will you write another play with David?

A: I would love to. Our last play was "The Book of Liz" (2001) and I don't know when we'll have time to do another play. I'd like either to go back to La Mama (in New York) or go over to Paris or London where he lives, and just get that feeling back of doing a first play and trying to get an audience together and that kind of stuff. We'd be so happy if people came. We'd be stitching the curtain at the last minute.

Q: Has David's mega-success been good for him?

A: David's always been a really hard worker. I can remember when he was 14 years old he was always in his room writing. He likes coming here (on lecture and book-reading tours) and he gets to go back to his quiet life (in France). But it hasn't changed him in any way. He's still just as approachable as he's always been.

Q: When you were growing up, were you and David the tightest of the siblings?

A: No. We kind of re-met each other when we were older. We were divided (as kids): It was like David and Lisa and Gretchen, and then there was me and Tiffany and Paul. David was closer to Gretchen because she's the artist in the family. And then when I got older, that's when he made me move to Chicago and get involved in Second City. And then I came to New York. So that was all inspiring me to do something other than waitressing in Raleigh, N.C.

Q: How was that?

A: I love waitressing and I still waitress at a place here called Mary's Fish Camp, right around the corner from my house. They only call me when they need me. It's perfect.

Q: Do people expect you to be "on" all the time? Are they disappointed when you're not nonstop brilliant?

A: They're disappointed when they come to my house and they find out I'm not like Jerri. You know what I mean? That I'm not a junkie whore.

Q: You're playing Gladys Kravitz, the nosy neighbor in the new movie of "Bewitched." Are you going to be frumpy, like Alice Pearce in the original series?

A: Well, I hope they let us do that. The thing that always happens with me is, you get these character parts and all they want to do is make you pretty. No matter what it is. It's like the incest victim with the cute, crisscrossed Band-Aids on her knee. I'm just so sick of looking at pretty people all the time. It's relentless. Or even if they do epics that take place in another time or place -- especially in England -- they have perfect teeth. And you're like, "Wait a minute! Where are the icky teeth?" Where were the icky teeth in "Cold Mountain"? It would've been so much better if Nicole Kidman smiled and she didn't have a tooth in her head.

AMY SEDARIS appears at 8 p.m. Monday at Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. $18.50. (415) 392-4400; www.cityboxoffice.com.

© 2004 — San Francisco Chronicle