Amy Sedaris digs wigs and baking

The star of "Strangers With Candy" likes "small woodland creatures" and
wants to play Angie Dickinson as
"Police Woman."

By Rex Doane

May 5, 2000 |   The TV roundup of your local paper might list "Strangers With Candy" as a sitcom, but to assume that this implies the show bears any relation to something like "Home Improvement" or "The Nanny" would be a grave mistake.

When "Strangers" first aired two years ago as a piss-take on those weepy "After School Specials" of the '70s, the show tipped the scales with a warped wit rarely encountered on the small screen. Now, signed on for a third season on Comedy Central, "Strangers" remains a trusted outpost for those who find their funny well beyond the standard sitcom fare.

At center stage of the show is actress Amy Sedaris, who plays the rumpled chum-pot Jerri Blank. Blank is a former teen runaway who, after a lifetime of prostitution and drug abuse, has returned to high school as a freshman at age 46. With the possible exception of a special trailer park edition of "Cops," "Strangers" is the only place one is likely to encounter someone like Jerri Blank.

The character represents an amalgam of the fringe dwellers and human ruin that have held the imagination of Sedaris over the years. "The more serious they are and the more tragic they are, the more I'm drawn to them," she admits. "I'm usually the only person who'll ever talk to them and they tell me everything."

First, there was Bobbie. "I lived over this woman in Chicago and she was just trouble," relates Sedaris. "I mean, she had tattoos that she had tried to take off herself. She also always thought she was smelling formaldehyde. She'd call up and say, 'Hey, this is Bobbie downstairs ... Do I smell formaldehyde?'

"And she'd always drink too much and fall down. I'd constantly see her with a broken leg or a broken arm." While Bobbie proved an undeniably rich source for any performer to draw from, Sedaris also found inspiration from a late-'60s drug prevention film. "We found this documentary of this woman in the '60s who was a drug addict and a prostitute and she'd go to high schools and talk to students. The woman's name is Flurrie." Sedaris adds, "She looks like Michael Dukakis. She's horrific looking."

The final touch came when Sedaris approached the wardrobe people at Comedy Central during pre-production of the series and told them, "I just want to dress like someone who owns snakes." They responded with an assortment of outfits that overpoweringly evoked slutty '70s sleaze. Jerri Blank was born.

Sans the saddlebag thighs and prison tattoos that help define her TV character, Sedaris herself is pretty and diminutive. She is also considerably more laid-back, several RPMs slower than her TV persona, which comes off as a sort of manic, perverse Lucille Ball. Of her recent appearance on Conan O'Brien she groaned, "God, with all that fidgeting and unfocused energy I had, I looked like a damn monkey. So annoying."

Some call it quality entertainment.

Sedaris' Greenwich Village apartment is tidy, nearly sizable by Manhattan standards and distinguished by several personal decorative touches. Choice cuts of plastic meat are placed throughout the living room. The TV is adorned with a large plastic turkey. "I covered it with foil for Thanksgiving and the people who came over were extremely disappointed when they found out it wasn't real." There is also a stuffed squirrel featured prominently on a coffee table. "I really like squirrels. My whole family does. We all like small woodland creatures."

Hard to say why it comes as a surprise that Sedaris and her family hail from North Carolina. But it is her home state nonetheless. When asked what her life might have been like if she had remained there instead of defecting to the North, Sedaris quickly responds, "If I had stayed in North Carolina, I'd be wearing ruffles or a uniform. You know, waitressing and taking care of a stroke victim ... I probably would have been dating him, too, by now."

Not surprisingly, Sedaris grew up in an open, permissive household where creative expression was never discouraged. "We all did our little plays in our house," she says. "For a long time I had an imaginary classroom. I'd come home from school, put on my mom's high heels and go right to the back bedroom where I had a wall that was one big chalkboard and I would teach my imaginary students. This went on for years and years. Then I realized I was too old to do this, so then I just kind of did it to myself in my head. I still do that -- like if I'm making an omelet I pretend it's a cooking show and I'm teaching someone."

Sedaris' lifelong fascination with costumes and wigs has also been lovingly nurtured. "In the first grade I got my first wig. It was a fall and I still have it," she says, gesturing to her closet. "Since then I get two wigs for Christmas usually. When I was a kid I'd go shopping with my dad every Friday night and I wore a different wig every time I went," she adds.

True to her craft, Sedaris would remain in character the entire time she and her father were at the grocery store. "It was mostly neighbors that I would imitate. I think most kids probably did that stuff, I just stuck with it," Sedaris says with a shrug.

The subject of wigs has Sedaris bounding off to another room. She returns with a photo she had done with the help of a makeup artist friend. It is a large color print of Sedaris as Angie Dickinson at the peak of her "Police Woman" period. The likeness is staggering. Sedaris is a convincing blond, and with a gold turtleneck and pistol poised, the transformation is utter and complete.

It's not merely an act of cosmetological genius; Sedaris herself is totally committed to her dream role. "I want to play Angie Dickinson ... I want to do 'Police Woman,'" she says wistfully. "I want to be so beautiful that I'm ugly."

For Sedaris, the urge to transform herself in front of a camera seems too great to overcome. "If someone wanted me to pose in a bikini for the cover of Vanity Fair, I'd make sure I'd have some scars or grow a hairline. To look in the camera and act like you're beautiful is too hard for me." She continues: "Photographers always seem to appreciate when you come in with ideas. I mean, I'll do what they want, but half the time they don't know what they want. So I come and say, 'OK, I got this prosthetic leg, what can we do with it?'"

Sedaris did in fact pose with a prosthetic leg for Index magazine with remarkable results. "That fake leg fit me perfect," she says. "It must have been for a little boy."

With her TV series in summer reruns, Sedaris can return to her other passions: stage work and baking. After a two-year hiatus, she has agreed to write and perform a play once again with her brother, David, the author of popular short story and essay collections such as "Barrel Fever" and "Naked," and a frequently featured commentator on the nationally syndicated radio show "This American Life."

Exactly what their upcoming collaboration will entail is a mystery. "We have no idea what the play's going to be about, what sort of characters it'll feature. Nothing," Sedaris says. The only certainty at this point is that it will be opening in six months.

Judging from their previous stage collaborations, it does promise to be engaging. Earlier Sedaris and Sedaris works, such as "Stitches," centered around the story of a young woman who had her face disfigured by a boat propeller only to eventually star in her own sitcom.

Then there was "One Woman Shoe," where welfare moms had to perform onstage in order to qualify for their benefits. Sedaris adds the following to her résumé: "I've done my little brother before as a donkey in a play at Lincoln Center. I had overalls and had a hat on. It involved animals in the forest and had witches in it."

One constant in each of these productions has been the recurring character best known as Piglet. Like some knocked-up malcontent working the Wendy's drive-through, Piglet is the embodiment of the foulmouthed hardened teen everybody knows and loves. "She's in every play my brother and I do together; we just change her name for each play," Sedaris explains. "You know, you can't do a character like that on TV cause every word is fuckin', fuckers, fuckin', fuck. Every word is a cuss word. Audiences just go nuts over her."

At most of the theater productions she appears in, Sedaris also performs double duty: acting on stage and selling cupcakes in the lobby after the show. She also specializes in cheese balls. "I always sell out of whatever I bring."

Why is she compelled to peddle baked goods after a show? "I just love making money. Cash, you know? It's such a great feeling." Besides, Sedaris adds, "baking is something to do at 3 in the morning. If you're bored, bake."

But the growing popularity of "Strangers With Candy" might just cut into Sedaris' cupcake production. Several notables have expressed interest in doing the show. "Janeane Garofalo wants to do the show again and Winona Ryder has expressed an interest. I've heard that Cher and Tom Waits are big fans of the show, too."

Asked about performers she admires, Sedaris says, "Clint Howard and that guy from 'Boogie Nights' with the big forehead that looks like an ax went through it [John C. Reilly]. They both kinda look like cave dwellers -- Cro-Magnons with big ol' hearts."

Despite its growing cachet among celebrities, the double-barrel bizarre nature of "Strangers With Candy" may never play in the Midwest, but cult status is OK with Sedaris. "It's not a show for everyone," she says.

As for what to expect on "Strangers" next season, it's anyone's guess. Except for one thing. "I want to do a Ben Franklin episode," announces Sedaris. "You know, bring him back from the past. I turned on the TV and saw an episode of 'Bewitched' where they did that. Darren was having some company over and there was Ben Franklin standing in the living room and messing with a lamp. I want Ben Franklin on my show!"

© 1999 Salon.com