Talk to Strangers
Amy Sedaris creates a loser on her second time around
by Patrick Folliard
Picture this: Jerri Blank, a 46-year-old, bisexual high school student, falls off the wagon because she wants to get close to a sexy stoner named Trish. Throughout the final exam period, Jerri parties nonstop with Trish and her crowd, fails all her exams, and is destined to repeat her freshman year. Even so, she doesnít learn her lesson until, sparring while heavily intoxicated with her only friend, Orlando, she accidentally connects with a sword to his throat and sends the martial arts novice to the emergency room.
Although this synopsis may sound like a warped senario from director John Waters, itís not. Itís the plot for a typical episode of Comedy Centralís live-action narrative series, Strangers With Candy. Created by and starring Amy Sedaris, Strangers is an absurdist satire, a twisted send-up of the preachy í70s After School Special, complete with its own upside-down moral at the close of each show.
"I donít label my sense of humor as dark or subversive," Sedaris chirps, while sitting in the lettuce-green living room of the New York apartment she shares with a dwarf rabbit, Tattletail. "I just write and perform what makes me laugh."
Clearly, the notion of a middle-aged woman who ran away from home at 14 and returns after 18 years of "shooting up, turning tricks, and doing time" to pick up where she left off, heartily tickles Sedaris.
"Jerri, a former user, boozer, and loser, goes back to Flatpoint High and makes the same mistakes all over again," says Sedaris with a laugh. "She moves in with her father and stepmother, sleeps in her old room, and frequently opens an urn to speak to her real motherís remains."
Long before Strangers With Candy premiered last spring, Sedaris realized that a satire of the After School Special would be the perfect showcase for a character like Jerri.
"Those shows tried to teach us something in 22 minutes, and of course we never learned anything," she says. "They were somber and sometimes arty, just really ridiculous. I thought to try to teach Jerri a lesson in each episode that she missed in her teens, and to then have her miss the message all over again as a middle-aged woman, could be pretty funny."
In one episode, Jerri writes a racist word beginning with "n" on a wall at school. When a boy she wants to bed is blamed for the offense, Jerri owns up. "I donít like black people," she says to the black principal, Mr. Blackman (Greg Hollimon). When Jerri learns that her crush is, in fact, a light-skinned black guy, she says, "I guess I do like black people; it just took a white one to prove it to me." Everybody laughs, and all ends well.
"I wanted to make Jerri Gay," says Sedaris. "I thought it would be funny for an older Lesbian to drool over all the cute teenage girls, but my co-writers [Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello, who also play Jerriís ambiguously Gay teachers] pressured to make her bisexual in order to open up more story lines, so I relented. Now Jerri likes the pole and the hole."
Jerriís romantic yearnings are seldom reciprocated, however, and her clumsiness combines with her vulnerability to make her seem less than predatory.
Luckily, according to Sedaris, the Comedy Central network gives her and her co-writers lots of freedom with the show -- "Weíre very happy there," she says -- so much freedom that she actually feels more comfortable as Jerri. This is despite the fact that being Jerri requires her to contort her mouth into an impossible overbite and slip into a lower-body "fatty suit." As Jerri, she wears a short, brown wig with silver streaks up front, and a superbly bad retro wardrobe of cow necks, macrame vests, and baggy, acid-wash jeans.
"Jerri always wears long sleeves because her arms are riddled with scarred-over track marks," explains Sedaris. "Most importantly, I wanted Jerri to dress like someone who owned snakes, and my costume woman got it just right." Her make-up people got it right, too: "They heavily shadow and line my face to age me and smear some yellow crud on my teeth, but nonetheless Jerri considers herself very attractive."
In the Strangers With Candy pilot episode, Jerriís look was even more severe. "Even I was in favor of toning her down a bit," Sedaris recalls. Jerriís creators received lots of mail decrying her lack of conventional beauty.
"People tell me they canít watch the show because Jerri is too unattractive," Sedaris says, giggling. "Well, too bad. I think our show is a show for ugly people. Iíd rather go for an ugly audience -- itís bigger. Of course, Jerri could never be the lead character in a network sitcom -- she would have to be beautiful."
Whether itís donning a fatty suit or taping her nose into a snout, Sedaris is willing to take outrageous measures to get laughs.
"When creating a character, I look for a visual hook," says the 37-year-old performer, remembering that she once acted in a play where her aged characterís withered face was framed in cascades of real sausage curls. Even before her days with Chicagoís Second City comedy troupe, where she met her collaborators Colbert and Dinello, Sedaris began assembling a stable of characters. To date, she counts about seven. Among her stock characters is a donkey; a foul-mouthed teenage girl know as Piglet; and Jocelyn Hershey Guest, an older character actor who can play only one character. She hopes to add a cool blond, Pepper Anderson-type to her repertoire.
"Then," she says with a sigh, "I can start playing the sexy blonde roles. But maybe Iíll wait until Iím 57 for that. It will be funnier that way."
Before anyone else can deflate Sedarisís dream of playing a beauty, she offers up her own, somewhat self-deprecating assessment.
"I donít consider myself an actress, Iím more of a performer, a ham," she says, placing a tray of homemade pink frosted cupcakes next to a taxidermically stuffed squirrel resting on her new, boomerang-shaped coffee table. "I donít have the training to be an actress. I canít say, ĎI lost the baby,í seriously before an audience without laughing. I lack a certain confidence to cry onstage."
She loves to take serious subject matter and make it funny, and thatís partly why she prefers working in live theater to television.
"Iím very quick on my feet and I have good instincts. When I write, I donít sit at a computer, I act it out; and when Iím onstage Iím very aware of the audience, and I feed off their laughter. In fact, my characterizations arenít fully formed until Iím performing in front of an audience."
At this point, Sedaris probably still has more experience in theater than on television. In 1990, she left Chicago for New York to do plays with her older brother David, the openly Gay humorist and best-selling author of Naked and Barrel Fever. When working together, they bill themselves as "the Talent Family."
"Davidís plays are kind of silly and character-driven, whereas Strangers -- in addition to being silly and character-driven -- consists of sketches and bits." The Sedaris siblings usually do a play together about once a year. In 1996 the Talent Family won an Obie for One Woman Shoe, the story of mothers who, under a new government program, must learn to perform shows to earn money when their welfare checks are cut off. Incidentally, all the women live in large, state-subsidized shoes. Last September, Sedaris earned rave reviews playing Froggy, a grimacing, party-planning WASP nightmare, in openly Gay playwright Douglas Carter Beaneís The Country Club.
Growing up middle-class in North Carolina, Sedaris says, she was an extrovert who began an early love affair with characters and costumes.
"I used to put on a red wig and cocktail hat and go with my dad to the grocery. I took it very seriously," recalls Sedaris. "Sometimes Iíd slip on my motherís evening gown -- I had to get into character -- and call my dad at work, pretending to be a woman from our country club, and ask him to meet me/her for a tryst. Being a gentleman, he always let me/her down gently. He claims to never have known it was me."
Playing Jerri Blank has made Sedaris a star.
"The other night I was washing dishes and the phone rang," Sedaris says as she prepares an envelope for a fan. "Itís a teenage girl from Oregon who wants to talk about acting, and the show. This happens more and more lately. I guess itís time for an unlisted number."
Sedaris has a strong Gay following that continues to grow, she says, adding, "I donít know why. Maybe from my brotherís fans. But Iím glad, because Gay men are loyal and go to the theater." And with that, Sedaris artfully signs her headshot in a bold, childlike print, "Pee on me -- Jerri Blank."
Strangers With Candy airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on Comedy Central.
© 2000 The Washington Blade Inc.
This article appeared in the issue of: