Amy Sedaris Goes Blank
By Jack Pelham
"The popular rich girls at school have these sneakers called flares (sic). I want a pair, but I can't afford the flares, therefore, I can't go to the rich girl's party. But my best friend, Orlando, is having a party and his parents are really poor. I'm kind of torn about what to do. I end up going to Orlando's house, but then I steal a pair of sneakers and go to Melissa's party. I throw a brick through a store window and take them. I learn my lesson: 'The rich are very dangerous people. The poor are very dangerous people.'" So goes the life of high schooler Jerri Blank, your typical 47-year-old ex-con, ex-prostitute freshman.
Jerri is the creation of Amy Sedaris, whose comic talents manifest themselves weekly on cable network Comedy Central's "Strangers WIth Candy." The half-hour comedy chronicles Jerri's attempt to better herself by starting her life over at the point when she left high school 32 years earlier. She moves in with her catatonic father (now recently deceased) and evil stepmother, while doing everything, or everybody, she can to make people like her, even generously offering her teen peers crack.
"The idea for the show came from us liking after-school specials and loving their moral lessons. We liked the idea of playing something serious but having it be funny," explains Sedaris. "Then, Paul Dinello [who along with Sedaris and Stephen Colbert make up the program's creative trio behind the scenes and in front of the camera] found this documentary of a woman with a past, like Jerri Blank has, and we just married the two."
It's a Monday morning, and Sedaris is taking a short break to talk to Etcetera during the writing of the last episode of the second season of "Strangers With Candy," the plot of which Jerri described at the start of this article.
"Tomorrow we start shooting, and Saturday we'll be finished. We shoot 14 hours a day, and we're all really tired," says Sedaris, before happily announcing Comedy Central has ordered a third 10-episode season of "Strangers." Maybe by then Jerri will pass her freshman year and become a sophomore.
"I knew I wanted my character to be named Jerri or Toni," Sedaris explains. "We'd just write 'blank' in the script, planning to fill it in later. Then we realized Blank's go to be my last name."
Oh, and Jerri Blank is bisexual, which, according to Sedaris, "allows for more story lines and more character choices for Jerri to do whatever. She'd fuck anything.
"I'm glad we opened it up, but I always tend to want Jerri to be more in love with girls and not guys. You see enough of that on TV and in movies. It's just more interesting for me to have Jerri drooling over girls. I mean, who doesn't?"
This season's "Yes You Can't" episode (about picking a career) depicts Jerri's typical flirtatious behavior. One scene shows Jerri inaudibly talking to a girl while zipping and unzipping her Old Navy fleece top before being called away to discuss something serious: Art teacher Mr. Jellineck (Dinello) has quit his job to pursue his dream of being an artist. He says goodbye to Jerri as he's loading up his Ford Pinto (sic it was actually a GMC Pacer) with his pottery kiln.
"Those girls are so cool," remarks Sedaris about the extras hired to play her Flatpoint High classmates. "I'll ask, 'Can I stick my finger in your mouth? Can I rub my hand on your ass?' They are so great when we're shooting."
Jerri's makeup takes about 40 minutes and Sedaris is in wardrobe approximately 10 minutes, the time it takes her to don two fatty suits and retro costuming made up of what looks like the clothing Jerri wore during her first try at high school. The effort hilariously turns the attractive Sedaris into "boozer, user, loser" Jerri Blank.
"I always put my turtleneck on first. I chose a turtleneck because I figured Jerri Blank would have a lot of tattoos and track marks, and I didn't think Comedy Central would want me to show them. Also, I have to hide my age. I'm not 47 years old," says Sedaris, who is 38.
Sedaris seriously started down her comedy career path thanks to her brother, openly gay novelist and playwright David Sedaris, who urged Amy to move from their childhood home in Raleigh, N.C., to Chicago in 1985. Once there, she earned a spot with the infamous Second City comedy troupe and met her collaborators of the last 12 years, Dinello and Colbert. Her move to New York City came in 1993, where she currently shares an apartment with her rabbit Tattletale (sic, she spells it "Tattletail").
The Sedaris siblings have written and produced many plays, including the 1996 Obie Award-winning "One Woman Shoe." Also, Amy has starred in Paul Rudnick's "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told" and Douglas Carter Beane's "Country Club." The Sedaris comedy team is in the midst of writing another play.
Back to "Strangers With Candy": Jerri's bisexuality isn't the only thing "queer" about the show. In several episodes homo tensions escalate between Mr. Jellineck and social studies/creative writing/homeroom teacher Mr. Noblet (Colbert). In a show from the first season, Jerri goes to ask Mr. Jellineck for advice because she is being pressured by principal Blackman (played by African-American actor Greg Hollimon) to squeal on her lockermate. She eats cake, a sure sign of being retarded. ("Strangers With Candy" mocks political correctness). Jerri walks in on Jellineck painting Colbert, who is posing nude as Rodin's "Thinker."
The gay satire in "Strangers" parallels Comedy Central's animated "South Park" series. And like "South Park," gay audience members either get the gay jokes or don't; people in general either love the show's dark humor or hate it.
"We get a lot of positive e-mails and letters, but some people can't laugh at themselves." says Sedaris.
"People don't like the changes we make, when you move the couch or change a painting. When Coach Wolf turned out not being gay, it was a big shock," she says about the stereotypically dykey P.E. teacher/sex-ed instructor.
Those familiar with "Strangers With Candy" may find it hard to believe, but Comedy Central sometimes rejects some of the plot points. "The first season we couldn't say 'faggot,'" Sedaris gives as an example. "We could say 'pussy,' but it wasn't until the fourth episode that we could say 'faggot,' little things like that."
Sedaris gives an example of another "little thing" banned from "Strangers" when the writer of this article asks Jerri for a personal message to pass along to a friend: "'I'll jerk you off while you pour beer on my head.' That's something I've always wanted to get in an episode, but they won't let us."
Thanks for sharing that with us, Jerri.
© 2000 Etcetera
Cover photo by Gabe Palacio