Wigging out

April 27, 2003

NEW YORK--Amy Sedaris' gaze shifts back and forth between the two friends carrying on in her living room.

Beside her on the couch is ex-boyfriend and creative soul mate Paul Dinello. He's explaining the many things they've created together: plays you could see, TV shows you could watch and now a book you can read.

Below her on the floor is her rabbit, Dusty, who's nibbling on a visitor's shoes.

Amy Sedaris has interesting friends

Another is Todd Oldham, the famed fashion designer who made up all those home furnishings on the shelves at Target. In his spare time, he decorated Sedaris' West Village apartment, a tasteful riot of taxidermy, plastic food and art that her oh-so-fabulous brother, author and radio monologuist David Sedaris, painted and now despises. Oldham even built an elaborate hutch for Dusty.

Another is Stephen Colbert of "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." He's known Sedaris and Dinello almost 15 years, and in that time they've worked together on a string of projects, including several Second City shows, the sketch TV series "Exit 57" and the Comedy Central cult hit "Strangers With Candy."

Last fall Oldham took the trio on a road trip to Milford, Pa., where he dressed them up as bizarre, bottom-feeding people and took pictures of them in disturbing settings involving brass poles, abandoned tires and an actual stuffed cat. The images appear in Wigfield: The Can-Do Town That Just May Not ($22.95, Hyperion), an uproarious yarn about an idiot journalist who stumbles across a town that's on the verge of annihilation and would be missed by pretty much nobody. Sedaris, Dinello and Colbert wrote the book, and they'll be in town Friday and Saturday to perform a stage version at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts.

Like modern-day Marx Brothers or 21st-century Stooges, these comics have found a collaboration that works. "We've driven each other up the wall more than once," says Colbert, "but when it comes down to it I think we'd rather work with each other more than anyone else."

It did not start so smoothly

Dinello and Sedaris were already a couple that day in 1988 when both tried out for Second City. Both got picked and--wonder of wonders--both were placed on the same touring company. Joining them on the road were a robust fellow from Wisconsin named Chris Farley ("a real sweetheart and just pure fun," Dinello recalls) and a recent Northwestern grad who now realizes he was, at the time, "an incredibly self-important, pretentious person."

That was Colbert.

First impressions quickly formed.

"I thought he was pretentious and sort of cold," Dinello says, "and he thought I was just an illiterate thug."

"I thought he was pretty much an illiterate dolt," Colbert affirms. "And he thought my tie was a little too tight, if you know what I mean."

For her part, Sedaris says Colbert just needed to be broken in. "He wasn't as playful," she says. "We were doing a show, and I wore these [fake] teeth to try to make him laugh. It was during a song. And he did laugh. And he got really mad at himself. He went back and slammed the door and was so upset that he broke onstage."

A breakthrough came when McDonald's hired Second City to do a custom-made Christmas show for employees. Dinello and Colbert were assigned to write it. Stuck together, they found themselves, improbably, having fun.

"And then we toured and we, like, fell in love with each other," Dinello says.

"God," Sedaris recalls. "They were inseparable."

The trio journeyed the country for two years, with Sedaris, and then the others, eventually advancing to the now-defunct Second City Northwest stage in Rolling Meadows and later to the mainstage on North Wells.

They weren't a perfect fit for Second City. "A lot of [earlier] people on the mainstage were sort of conservative," Sedaris says. "Like, it seemed like everyone was from Ohio. And we were definitely more physical."

Instead of the topical and political material that was a Second City trademark, these three preferred to peel off their own bizarre slices of life: a zany family dropping in on a hospitalized relative, a couple of delusional postal workers, a serial killer in the laundry room.

Sedaris, especially, made an impression with what Second City producer Kelly Leonard calls "huge, obscene, crazy characters--hicks, grannies, even a doomed squirrel."

By 1994, they were in New York, doing plays and creating their first TV series, "Exit 57" on Comedy Central. No big hit, it nevertheless was nominated five times for CableACE awards and, more important, gave the threesome cachet at Comedy Central. So bosses were receptive to their next idea, about a highly off-putting woman named Jerri Blank.

Jerri had been a runaway who squandered her teens--and her 20s, and her 30s--on drugs, prostitution and prison. At 46, she decided to return to high school and pick up where she left off. Looking ghastly in yesterday's fashions and an LPGA-issued wig, Sedaris played Jerri as bucktoothed, frustrated and oblivious, capable of relating to her young classmates only by corrupting them with the dark habits she learned as a "user, boozer and loser."

Though created as an answer to the tidy moral lessons of TV's after-school specials from the '70s, "Strangers With Candy" reversed the formula, teaching instead that lies and abuse can help you, even if they screw up everyone else. "We were no less wrong than they were, but we tried to play up the uselessness of being moral on television by taking a moral tone [but] making the wrong moral choice at every crossroads," Colbert says.

The show found a following, from teenage outcasts to famous names. Oldham liked it so much that he sought out Sedaris, and Winona Ryder asked to be on the final episode in 2000. "She said, 'I just spoke to Al Pacino, and he said, "I love that show!" ' " says Dinello, imitating Pacino's growl. "It's the oddest assemblage of people."

Comedy Central still airs "Strangers With Candy" reruns from time to time, and the first season arrives June 17 on DVD. The actors also have signed with a production company to write and star in a big-screen continuation. Self-destructive as she is, Jerri isn't dead yet.

Sedaris wanted to write a book, a book about a worm. She and Dinello had done a stage bit about a worm, so she hauled him to a meeting with Hyperion to pitch a book about a worm.

The publishing types listened patiently as she talked about the worm. Then, stunningly, they asked: What else do you have?

Well, nothing, really. But Sedaris noted that, in her youth, she and her siblings used to make up stories about a town called Wigfield. How about a book called Wigfield?

And they loved it.

They loved it so much that Sedaris can convey their love only by miming erect nipples with her fingertips: "Bing! Bing!"

Naturally, Colbert was called. Good call. He knew how to do this.

In his job covering eccentric behavior for "The Daily Show," he had visited Jefferson, W.Va., a formerly unincorporated stretch of strip clubs and used auto parts stores that had become a town as a tax shelter. Some residents protested the move, and rival governments emerged, each with its own police chief trying to shut down the opposition. "It was just a horrible, horrible place," Colbert says.

But as inspiration, it was Shangri-La. Wigfield became an even more craven, filthy, godforsaken version of Jefferson, a town that, for all its faults, does not necessarily have routine murders, open pits full of plutonium and an arsonist police chief propping up a brain-damaged mayor who's hooked on fudge.

Wigfield has all these and a dramatic story arc, too: a dam is about to be destroyed, flooding the town and wiping it off the map, unless narrator Russell Hokes can convince authorities that this hellhole is actually worth saving.

Colbert and Dinello did most of the writing, revising the manuscript after the characters showed their true selves in the photo shoot. Each of the actors took on multiple roles, playing young and old, white and non-white, low-class and even lower-class. Colbert even became two women, two mostly naked women, thanks to "a lot of duct tape here, a lot of tucking here and a lot of thrusting there."

Sedaris, too, got to show some flesh as the not very exotic dancer Cinnamon, a character she based on her own observations at strip clubs. "I wanted to do her tired," she says, "like worn out and haggard."

The pictures will be part of the stage version of Wigfield, which, after Chicago, will continue on to at least four other cities. So it's back on the road for Sedaris, 42, Dinello, 40, and Colbert, 38, repeating what bonded them in the first place: wandering the country, getting laughs with scenes of their own invention.

Sedaris and Dinello are not a couple anymore, but the pals who like to call themselves "The Three Idiots" are still happy melding their minds, being each other's go-to guys, hearing out every idea and shooting some down with the candor you can accept only from a dear friend. "Like 'That's not funny. That's just stupid. Why'd you do that?' " Sedaris says. "We can just be brutally honest."

How have they managed to keep this going for 15 years? "I don't know," Colbert says with the grim wit that ties this trio together. "Why do people stay in abusive relationships? They must be giving you something, right?"

You can always fall back on comedy

Like many actors, Amy Sedaris put in plenty of hours waiting tables. Unlike most actors, she can't wait to do it again.

"I just love everything about it," she says. "It's really hard work. You're really sore at the end of the night."

During her Second City days, Sedaris picked up tips at several local joints: Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! on Halsted, Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder on Clark, the late Metropolis 1800 on Clybourn. Even after she got to New York and landed on national television--OK, national cable television--she kept slogging away at a place in the Bowery called Marion's.

But it had to stop. "She'd become more well-known, and people thought, 'Oh, she must be doing a character study,' " says friend Paul Dinello. "But really, she just enjoyed waitressing."

Of the three Wigfield authors, Sedaris is probably the most visible. In recent years she's had high-profile roles on TV series, including "Just Shoot Me," "Sex and the City" and "Monk." She shared the big screen with Jennifer Lopez in last year's hit Maid in Manhattan. David Letterman and Conan O'Brien have her on all the time; Letterman even dispatched her to work the red carpet at this year's Grammys, where Sedaris informed Cyndi Lauper that she lost her virginity to "Girls Just Want to Have Fun."

She tries to sate her food-service yearnings in her own kitchen, making cupcakes and balls of cheese spread that she sells to friends, audiences and a couple of local groceries. Still, every so often, she strolls by a certain seafood joint in the West Village and starts getting ideas.

"I'm dying to work there this summer," she says. "Why not, you know? Although I do have allergies to certain shellfish. I don't want to tell them. See if I get the job first."

Darel Jevens