SISTER SEDARISOl' Pig Nose Comes to Town
by Steve Wiecking
You deserve what you get when you ask Amy Sedaris the stultifyingly unoriginal question, "What makes you laugh?"
"Brutal murders," she replies. "People who cry, and they go through all those awful things it's so horrific, but it just makes me try to figure out, okay, what's so funny about that situation? Like that book I just finished, Our Guys about the guys who raped the retarded girl? I love stuff like that, but I'm thinking, what makes this funny? I guess it would be funny if five retarded girls raped a football jock. Now that's funny!"
Sedaris laughs at the absurdity and is, of course, aware of the dark nature of that humor. It's exactly that goofball edginess that's making a name for Amy Sedaris and bringing her to Seattle this week to perform at the Moore Theatre in The Little Freida Mysteries, a show she co-wrote as one half of the appropriately billed Talent Family. A hit in New York, the show has Sedaris playing an oddball old woman who collects doll furniture ("I just always thought doll furniture was funny") and is tending to the needs of her sophisticated big-city niece who's incapacitated by two broken arms.
You're forgiven, for the time being, if you're not familiar with Amy. As a comic veteran of Chicago's Second City and, according to her bio, "a tireless proponent of prepared foods" (she's still waitressing in New York), she's only been cracking people up on the national level for the last few years on cable television. In Strangers with Candy, her current show on Comedy Central, Sedaris (who is in her 30s) plays a 46-year-old ex-con, ex-drug-addict, ex-prostitute who moves back in with her parents and learns a lesson every week in 22 minutes. It's a straight-faced parody of typical television pap, though Sedaris has her own unique take on it.
"It's like [the Marsha Norman play] 'Night Mother, but we're trying to make it funny. I always thought 'Night Mother would be a great sitcom, and each week Jessie tries to kill herself," she offers with wry enthusiasm, putting on a maternal scold to mock what would be that show's likely catch-phrase. "'Nah-ah ah, Jes-sie!'"
Seeing comic potential in a Pulitzer Prize-winning play about suicide is the kind of sensibility she shares with the other writing half of the Talent Family. You are not forgiven if you're unfamiliar with David Sedaris. Slap yourself silly a couple of times for all the vicious glee you've been missing, then run out and buy Barrel Fever and Naked, the best-selling collections of essays and short stories by this former Macy's elf and be prepared to wet yourself. Anyone reading "Parade" for the first time a story that envisions melodramatic gay love with Charlton Heston and knowing glances from Morley Safer is to be envied.
Brother and sister Sedaris have been writing plays together for much of the '90s. Their 1996 effort, One Woman Shoe (a gem about welfare recipients forced into performance art), had The New Yorker raving that Amy "burns her way into your memory with a comic branding iron." She says that she and her brother always take a few months and just riff off each other, with David writing something and putting her on her feet to work through it and throw something new back at him. They give themselves a topic and a deadline and are inevitably working down to the wire, usually rewriting every single night even during performance, which suits Amy's improvisational skills and David's skewed whimsy.
"I give David a list of words," she explains. "He'll take the list and when the play's done he'll say, 'I got everything in but 'poisonous mushroom.'"
One word featured often in Talent Family presentations and spoken by their particular brand of lowlife human beings ("People really say it we're making fun of them... racists") is that most infamous of racial epithets. David, a man who has playfully written "Everyone looks retarded once you set your mind to it," is no stranger to political incorrectness, and his sister finds in it not shock value but a plain fact of life. They followed that rule all the way to Lincoln Center, when they debuted Incident at Cobbler's Knob, a stirring piece dealing with prejudice among forest animals. Faced with the slur to end all slurs, Amy Sedaris dove headlong into it with a pre-show announcement, forcing the crowd to rise to the occasion with a shrewdly ridiculous bludgeoning.
"We have the word 'nigger' in the show," she told the theater audience. Then, meeting with a chilly response, yelled offstage into the wings. "How many times do we say 'nigger' in the show? How many times? I don't say 'nigger' in the first act? I say 'nigger' only once in the show? What about the second act? I don't say 'nigger' in the second act?"
Sister Sedaris, candor and all, remains fairly grounded. Despite the success, she continues to work at Marion's, a continental restaurant in New York, calling it "a good break" from the demands of the television show. She has absolutely no concern for "the norm," except in that it provides fodder for her and her brother to sensibly skewer, something in which we should all revel. Traditional notions of beauty and vanity are also discarded: Sedaris' comedy usually involves her donning a hump or, more than likely, a taped-up pig nose ("We're losing the audience! Get piglet up there quick!"). Her complete disregard for her looks is somewhat celebrated in critical circles. She claims it just relaxes her, but a review in Back Stage sums up the general reaction to her aplomb: "There is apparently no role so ugly, so unflattering, that she won't embrace it: She courts embarrassment."
If there's any justice, we'll continue to reap the rewards of that courtship, as the Sedaris family wit is one of the few remaining vestiges of smart, whacked, laugh-out-loud humor on hand. David is currently ensconced in a home in France with his boyfriend, and his sister seems just as unworried about what the future holds.
"David's like, 'What are we gonna do, Amy, when you really are 46,'" she recalls, easily coming up with the answer. "That's when I'll play the teenager, David."