PAGING  AMY  SEDARIS

QUESTION: If Amy Sedaris is so special, why isn't she a big star?
ANSWER: Because she may not want to be.

By Harry Brown, Photo by Todd Oldham

New York's downtown theatrical insiders have long known that Amy Sedaris is one of a kind: the most original, daring and funny woman on the scene since Lily Tomlin. If the great monologist Ruth Draper passed the baton to Lily, few who know her work would disagree that it now rightfully belongs to Amy Sedaris. Despite her many theatrical appearances and growing exposure on the Comedy Central Network, Sedaris' work remains difficult to classify. On the edge and vulgar, it's audacious and distasteful. It's trashy, profane, yet human - and always hysterically funny. There may not be a message here but these twitching, quirky characters are brash, bold, bizarre and strangely lovable! It is the kind of work one quite willingly hauls oneself through driving snow to see. I know, I've done that! And I would do it again!

Imagine my delight then, when Amy readily agreed to come to my apartment for our interview, and even stay for dinner! She was prompt (6:00pm), generous (she gave me three hours and box of chocolate-covered pretzels), honest ("Strangers with Candy was not for everyone"), very very funny and, unexpectedly - after three years of watching her play the odd-looking Jerri Blank - very, very pretty.

What were my expectations? A rollicking good time with a girl whose gifts would likely keep me entertained throughout? Grueling tales from an insider working hard to get to the top in a tough business. Perhaps a little bitching about the notorious dark side of working in comedy? Well, it didn't happen. Instead, I was charmed by this pro who knows what she's about and sure about the directions she chooses not to take.

Born in New York, raised in North Carolina, enticed in the 80's by her brother (author David Sedaris) into going to Chicago and to try out for Second City, Amy found herself booked into the company that had spawned Catherine O'Hara, Andrea Martin and many others. Hired at the same time were her now long-time collaborators (and co-stars on Strangers) Paul Dinello and Stephen Colbert. Here they learned the craft and technique to make stageworthy the often grotesque, way-left-of-center characters that evolved over many years and eventually produced Strangers With Candy's indelible Jerr Blank.

Fresh from Second City, Amy landed in New York City in 1993. Since then, three seasons of Strangers With Candy on Comedy Central, a starring role in the cable comedy show Exit 57 (she was also one of the show's creators). Several legendarily hilarious theatre pieces later, Amy has taken her place near the top of the list of hot comic actors working today.

By her own description she came from a "loopy" family of six children. Everyone loved to cook, everyone was funny, especially her Mom whom she lost almost a decade ago. She describes her Mother as the funniest one of them all. As for Dad, you need only read one or two chapters of David's book Naked and you know, in the laughs department, this was a family worth growing up in. Clearly, humor, play and imagination were not discouraged.

Surprisingly, Amy is not big on TV or movies or stand up comedy. Growing up, she watched Carol Burnett, Second City, Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin. She remembers Whoopi Goldberg's first appearance on the scene. Janeane Garofalo is a friend. Yet her favorite actors are Sean Penn, Helen Mirren and another close friend, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Not exactly the three stooges. Still, she says it never occurred to her to pattern her work after any of them.

"I don't like going to comedies. I'll end up having a good time if they're good, but you have to drag me to comedies. I'd rather see dramatic pieces and then I find what's funny in them.

"I'm impressed by good actors, but I can't do that. I can't speak other people's lines, I start laughing. But, I love an audience response."

As with all undeniably original artists, one wants to know: how hard do you have to work at this talent? Is it so organic that it simply happens, or do you constantly shape it? Do you question it, thrash it around, or just let it happen?

"Strangers With Candy did evolve and we had free reign, which was great. I played that character completely straight, a 'lovable tramp'. At first I wanted her to be a lesbian but it made sense to make her bi. So much of it was improvised in front of the camera. Most things today we've seen over and over. Our material wasn't intended to be 'something new' it was just stuff we thought was funny.

"Did you see Erin Brockovich? I should have done that. That would have been a great role for Jerri Blank. When you watch it think of Jerri Blank in the role instead of Julia Roberts and it would have been a much better movie."

Nailing down the nature of a talent like Amy Sedaris is hard. There was something really delightful in the fact that it's hard for her too, that she doesn't think about it. And she really doesn't question, as most young actors do why she isn't in a different place professionally.

"I don't like to talk about long term. I can't think about tomorrow or anything other than what I'm doing now."

What she happens to be doing now is working on her next play with her brother. As yet untitled, it will open in March. All we know is that Amy will play Sister Elizabeth Dunderstock, a Mennonite who sells cheese balls for the church. No doubt we can expect the same irreverent comedy that The Talent Family, the company she formed with her brother, has become infamous for, inspiring an almost cult-like following. I know I won't miss it. I also know, like it's leading performer, it will be in an indefinable category of it's own.


© 2001 Metro Source
photos by Todd Oldham