Amy Sedaris on 'Strangers With Candy'
Like a phoenix a ratty, 47-year-old bisexual ex-con-junkie-streetwalker phoenix with serious malocclusion and daddy issues rising up from the detritus of cable-TV obscurity and film-distribution limbo, the feature-length "prequel" to the cult Comedy Central series Strangers With Candy arrives. In doing so, it reinforces that antiheroine Jerri Blank is indeed the high-school-comedy genre's strangest bird, while also making clear that brilliant programs often founder when migrating from the small screen to the big.
Its star, Amy Sedaris, is best known as the sister of essayist David and from her appearances on The Late Show With David Letterman (whose production company ultimately bankrolled and executive-produced the picture). However, the diminutive performer is an uncommon comedic talent outright and has quietly amassed her own wonderfully twisted renaissance as a playwright, author, actress, voiceover artist, and cupcake and cheeseball entrepreneur (and those are actual cupcakes and cheeseballs as opposed to adjectives). Running three seasons from 1999 through 2001, Strangers With Candy was crafted by Sedaris with fellow Second City alums Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello (making his feature directorial debut here) as a hysterical and wildly subversive afterschool special that was embraced far more by the gabba-gabba-hey set than by the yadda yadda yaddas.
In June, the Chronicle spoke to Sedaris by phone at her home in New York City, prior to the select release of the film.
Austin Chronicle: How does it feel to be one of the first artists chosen by Sesame Street to collaborate with Abby Caddaby [the first new female Muppet in 13 years]?
Amy Sedaris: [laughs] I love doing Sesame Street. I have a niece. My little brother had a baby, and she's the only baby in the family, so we're all competing to be the best aunt and uncle. David calls himself Uncle Money, and that's very hard to compete with. So, when Sesame Street called me, I called David and said, "Guess what, I'm going to be on Sesame Street!" That should hold me over for a couple years, I think. ... I worked really hard on that script. They sent it to me, and I played Snow White and I memorized the lines and everything. When I got to the set, they were like, "Thank you so much for memorizing the lines." I guess because most people read it since there are monitors there, but you can't fool kids.
AC: Could you please explain why you had to repeat first grade?
AS: They just said I was immature.
AC: Were they right or were you blindsided? Were you acting out?
AS: Oh, I was always a class clown, and I remember always getting into trouble in kindergarten and first grade. I remember being just obsessed with my teacher's high heels. I could not take my eyes off her shoes. I was obsessed with her, and I remember when I was a kid wanting to be her, just wanting to be other people. I can remember moments with all my teachers where I would just lose myself and think, "Okay, I'm her now." You know what I mean? Maybe I just lived in my head too much, but I was pretty shocked I had to repeat it. It was devastating.
AC: How was your overall high school experience, and what was your circle of friends like?
AS: I got along with everybody. I wasn't in a clique. I could talk to potheads just as much as I could talk to popular people. I was in a lot of clubs. I was in Girl Scouts up to my senior year. I wasn't a bully, no. I ran sports; I was on the track team. I fit in, I wasn't odd. I ran for student class council and won. I would always do the talent shows when they had them. I was in drama. I was, you know, a class clown.
AC: You've stated that the film is really for misfits, outcasts, and ugly people. Then when did you develop this real kinship for people on the margins?
AS: I am a magnet for them [laughs]. I'm drawn to them, and they're drawn to me. I just think they're a lot more interesting than the pretty people with their pretty-people problems it just doesn't interest me. I don't think there's a whole lot of stuff out there for that audience, and then I think we just find the same things funny, so we click.
AC: Has your regard or approach for playing Jerri changed at all as your own age comes closer to hers?
AS: No, Jerri Blank says she's 47 like Sharon Stone says she's 43. I never think about age. I'm 45, but I'm always 10 years behind. In my head, I'm probably 30 or 35. I'm not any age. It's so shocking because when I'm around adults, I'm like, "Oh, God." I just don't think of myself as a woman or a grownup.
AC: I know David was already living in Chicago. Did you move there specifically to get in with Second City?
AS: I started taking classes at Second City. Yeah, he had encouraged me to move there. He said, "There's this great place here called Second City. It's perfect for you. You improvise, they wear wigs, and they use props." He really just wanted me to move from North Carolina. So I did, and I loved it.
AC: So, growing up, were you aware of other Second City alums like Gilda Radner or Bill Murray?
AS: No. I watched SCTV growing up, because I liked how low budget it was. I watched SNL, too, but I was more of an SCTV fan. And David was always doing characters and stuff, and that was a big inspiration for me, but I didn't know about Second City. Laugh-In was really funny to me. Even when I was little, people always said "You're going to be on Laugh-In one day. I remember hearing that in first and second grade."
AC: [with a Yiddish accent] Well, those kids had an eye for talent!
AS: The new Ruth Buzzi! That's who Jerri is [laughs].
AC: God bless Ruth Buzzi.
AS: [laughing] God bless Ruth Buzzi. There's the quote of the day. That's it.
AC: What was your first writing collaboration with Stephen and Paul?
AS: We did an industrial for McDonald's together. I don't remember much. I did a scene with Chris Farley, and then we did a parody of the McDonald's song, which Colbert still knows by heart. Paul and I don't. So that was our first thing that we did together, and then we eventually ended up in the same [Second City] touring company. In the touring company, you do the best of Second City, and I think we were the first touring company that actually started doing our own original material, so we always had a scene of our own in the show. That was a first.
AC: Could you contrast your writing collaboration process with Stephen and Paul compared with your writing collaboration with your brother?
AS: It's really different. With David, our minds write it together. If we come up with an idea for a play we'll exhaust the idea for months. I mean months. David always takes notes. I decide, "Oh, I want to do this or I want to be that or I want to use these 10 words." Then, he goes and writes something, and then he gives it to me. I stand it up, improvise; he takes notes based on my improvisation and goes back to the drawing board. So, it's always progress back and forth, and I'm queen of changing. He's like "Let's move on." And I always want to change the idea. I'm really bad about that, walking ideas. And then his boyfriend always does the sets, so he collaborates with us as far as what we want to do and what the sets are going to look like. With Paul and Stephen, we sit in a room and improvise, and whatever gets a laugh goes into the computer. The difference is we don't spend months exhausting an idea. It's like the first idea we come up with, and we'll sit on it for a while, and then we might stick with it and add to it back and forth. We refer to Paul and Stephen as the Woodchoppers. They really have to worry about the arc of something and all that, where I'm more like the decorator. I get to improvise and add things here and there. I keep my eye more on details and character-driven stuff. We all bring something different to it, and it somehow works.
AC: I regrettably didn't have cable when Exit 57 aired. Do you know if there's the potential for that to be released on DVD?
AS: I don't know. I hope not. Those scenes were endless. Endless! An 11-minute sketch? Oh my God! But it brought us all here to New York. I was already here, and so was Paul; then we brought Stephen here.
AC: Is there one lesson you've taken from your work on Exit 57? Like, "Ah, that's how you do it."
AS: The only lesson we learned from all of it was using improvisation as a tool. To write something just based strictly on improv, to me, is lazy writing. Using it as a tool to get you somewhere is good, but ultimately things need to be written.
AC: [Yiddish again] If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage.
AS: Right. Sometimes I'll watch TV, and I can tell and just think some times someone is wasting my time with this improv. Or, they're laughing, but no one else is laughing.
AC: Do you watch much improv at this point?
AS: Ick, no. Can't stand ... no. I don't watch comedies or anything, just because I don't want to be inspired by that. I'd rather watch drama and think, "Okay, what's funny about that?"
AC: Your gift for facial expressiveness, your stature, and comedic physicality, along with the plucky prostitute archetype is so evocative of Giulietta Masina in Fellini's Nights of Cabiria.
AS: That's funny you should mention the Fellini films. Paul Dinello mentioned that about Fellini's wife in Nights of Cabiria, that she's sort of the tragic clown, and so is Jerri.
AC: There's so much similarity, I was wondering if that film has informed your work.
AS: I was already doing Jerri. I saw that film for the first time probably about two years ago, and I loved it, and I could see what Paul was talking about. I loved it because I'm not good with words, you know what I mean? I read like crazy, but I'm not very good at reading out loud, and I'm not very articulate. And so, I would rather just act things out and show it with an expression than having to explain it, which is why the book I'm working on [I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence] is very visual and why my test for anything I do is if you can turn the volume off and still follow it. Like, when I would come home from Strangers With Candy and it was on TV, I would turn it down and sit and watch the episode without listening to the words. That's my test; that deaf people or people of a different country would be able to follow it.
AC: Do you really not view your self as an "actor?"
AS: I don't, because If I was doing a scene with Jennifer Jason Leigh, okay, who's the actress? I can't call myself an actress if I'm working with Jennifer Jason Leigh. I don't prepare for roles like a traditional actor would. For me, I want to be make-believe, like Johnny Depp in the pirate movies. That's complete make-believe, and it's fun. You get props, you get costumes, and you get to play, and that's what I like to do. I like to be in the moment and play and get to say what I want because it's really coming out of the character. And so to memorize lines and monologues and understand what happened before and after, I'm just like, "How can I be in the moment if I know what happens after this and I have all these lines to say?" It's hard for me to understand that. So, when I try to act, you can see it, because I already know what I'm going to say. It's like you know you're going to get hit in the head with a baked potato, and you already see it coming. I just think I'm bad. That's why, when they ask me to do a part in a movie, I'm like, "How many lines is it? No, I'll do five lines, like a small small part." Or, they'll ask me to do something bigger: I'm like, "You know what part I like? I liked the person that got to come into the office, and they're complaining that they had to clock out for lunch, can I do that part?" Then, agents don't want you to do it because they think, "Well we don't want these movie people to think that's all you're good for." But, I'm like, "But that is all I'm good for." That's what I want to do: I want the small part. I want the walk-on-character role: I don't want anything bigger than that unless I'm creating it. It's hard for me to find people who will understand that, though, because there isn't money involved in that.
AC: Obviously, Strangers With Candy takes a healthy parody dollop from the ABC After School Specials. Do you get the sense that your younger fans have even experienced the delightful camp of seeing Linda Blair or Scott Baio as li'l rummies?
AS: [laughs] No, they have Lifetime now. Lifetime movies to me are afterschool specials. It's more focused on the adults than the kids, but I was inspired by a lot of Lifetime for episodes for Strangers With Candy. I would come home and watch it, then I'd call Paul and Stephen and go [in Jerri's voice] "Got a great idea for an episode!" It's funny: I went to a premiere last week, and the audience was very young. I was signing yearbooks. It's almost like these misfit-outcast-ugly people had kids and these are their kids [laughs]. I'm like, "Oh, my God!" But again, I just love that. But, yeah, they're just getting younger and younger.
AC: What was the reason Comedy Central gave for canceling the show?
AS: Again, they never cancelled it. They have never officially told us that the show has been cancelled. We kind of knew it. We wanted to go out; we wanted a final episode because usually Comedy Central does things in three seasons, so we kind of figured we had three seasons. We thought if we were going to do it again, yeah, we could write 10 episodes or not write 10 episodes. We were fine either way, but the last episode we wrote assuming that the show was going to get canceled, so that's why we went out with that.
AC: Who wrote the line "I like the pole and the hole?"
AS: That I actually got from my little brother, Paul Sedaris, who's really funny. And whenever Paul Sedaris calls [in Jerri's voice], which is every day, I take notes. People ask me about "the pole and the hole" all the time. It was important to make Jerri bisexual. I remember if we ever fought about anything scriptwise, it was always me saying "I have to have a girlfriend this show!" I always kept my eye on that. I didn't want it to be too much of a guy thing or too much of a girl thing. I wanted it to be evil, uh, even [laughs].
AC: What was the biggest challenge while filming?
AS: For me personally as Amy Sedaris, it was challenging because it was really hot. I mean, like, really hot. And I had the fatty suit on and the wig and the turtlenecks, and I had stitches in my mouth. So, in the prison scene, that's the first day of shooting, and I had all these stitches, and it was very difficult for me to make the face because I was stretching them. The reason that's a montage now is because I did such a bad job that day. I just had a really difficult time getting into Jerri with those stitches. It was hard.
AC: I don't mean to pry into a personal health matter, but was that surgery something that was scheduled, or was it sudden? Because that just seems like the most horrible ...
AS: It was sudden. Then I didn't want to take the painkillers. I saved them for after the movie because I didn't want to be on Vicodin. Then the heat, I remember when I had to do the classroom scene where I come in and describe the bomb pitch black. My mind was completely black. Nothing came to my mind. There was no air whatsoever in the building, it was so hot. I couldn't concentrate, I couldn't think of anything.
AC: Why wasn't there air conditioning?
AS: We couldn't afford it. And then even if you could afford it, you shut it down while you're filming so it's like just as hot. Then I had the fatty suit on, and I lost at least 12 pounds. The only scene I didn't wear the fatty suit in was in the car scene where I'm waiting for my mom to come out of the house and I'm honking the horn, I just left my boxer shorts on. Then in the eating scenes, I was really eating. I wasn't spitting that food out because I was so hungry.
AC: I thought Jerri appeared less twitchy than in the series.
AS: Yeah, I didn't go back and watch the series before I did the movie. I thought then that would be me trying to ... I just thought, I am Jerri, and this is who Jerri is now ,so I didn't go back and try to remember a lot of stuff that I did. I just figured, it's been a long time since I did her last, so I'll just see what happens.
AC: I recall the series being routinely drenched in early morning sunlight, whereas the movie struck me as having a much darker visual tone. Was that a thematic choice or just a fiscal necessity?
AS: That's a good question. I don't know, but you're right though. I think it was a little darker. It was a different location completely, and we had a different DP and stuff. I don't know but you're right.
AC: With Paul being a first-time director, and you've been friends and colleagues for almost two decades, and I understand that perhaps you might have been a couple at one point ... I guess two questions: If that's true, was there ever a Stevie-Lindsey-Fleetwood Mac-y phase?
AS: [laughs] No: Paul and I dated for eight years then, when we were doing Exit 57; we said if it got picked up for another season, one of us has to move out because we had just been working together, it's New York City, I was living here with a dog and five guitars. It was like, "Ugh." So, actually, when he moved out, I also introduced him to this girl I thought he would be perfect for. So, we never really broke up either, which is so funny. But we're best friends. I talk to Paul every day. It's no big deal: His girlfriends completely accept me. He's my best friend, and I don't do anything without running it by Paul.
AC: Could you talk about being directed by someone who you've known so well for so long?
AS: That was hard. First of all, Stephen and I both insisted that Paul direct. When we were like "[series director Juan Cole Campanella] can't do it," Stephen and I said, "Well, you gotta do it." We love Juan, and, sure, it was too bad Juan can't do it, but we were like, "Paul, you are a director; you've done tons of short films. We all kind of direct each other when we're on set." We're like, "Do it! This is your chance." So, we really had to talk Paul into doing it. And he was a fantastic director having to handle all these celebrities and worry about the storyline. It was funny watching him direct dressed up as Jellineck. But it was hard for me because I didn't get that normal pat on the back or that encouragement because he knows me so well. He wouldn't say, "That sucked, do it again." But he was like, "Uh uh it's not right." I wasn't getting that positive reinforcement that I needed, which I didn't think I ever needed but I got. I'd rather give the director something than them have to ask me for it. So, it was harder for me to give to Paul because the more I gave to Paul then he would turn around and ask me for something and it just pissed me off. I like to being watched not directed, so it was a little bit harder and probably hard for him too. But at the same time he helped hone me in some. Things are a lot bigger on film, and I'm a pretty broad performer so he was really good at honing me back a lot.
AC: Can you explain the genesis of the script? I read that Paul was initially approached about doing a project, and he suggested doing the Strangers movie, but then financing fell though, and then David Letterman's production company stepped in. But when did the script come to be?
AS: That's a good question. There were some shifty people with some money that Paul was talking about that were going to give us some money to do the movie. But, it had a lot of false starts like "Hmm, it's gonna happen, it's not gonna happen. It's gonna happen, it's not gonna happen." And then I have no idea how Letterman got a copy of the script. I never sent it to him, and neither did Paul or Stephen. I just got a call out of the blue and it was Worldwide Pants, and they said, "We want to make this movie. We think the script is hilarious." And next thing we knew, we were casting it.
AC: So, Warner Independent bought the film but then had "legal delivery problems," so ThinkFilm ended up picking it up. What was that about?
AS: Warner picked it up, and then they were trying to clear a lot of stuff, because they were recently sued for $17 million for Dukes of Hazzard. So, I think they were being just really persnickety about props and things that were on Jerri's wall. We just had to cover ridiculous things, and we didn't do it in time, so I think they got a little nervous and dropped it. That's what they say. Maybe they didn't like it; I have no idea. All I can do is tell you what they said. But it worked out. ThinkFilm is perfect for us.
AC: So it wasn't a copyright issue to use the nice Todd Oldham cheesy-cake pin-up photo of you in Jerri's locker?
AS: I send that out for head shots. I write "Easter" on one leg and "Christmas" on the other and I say, "Come visit me between the holidays." And I knew I didn't have to clear it, so I put that picture up there. I just thought it'd be funny. Like Jerri would be like [purring in Jerri's voice], "She's hot!"
AC: You've remained incredibly productive since the film wrapped in 2004, but could you talk about what it was like to have the film go into distribution limbo? A delayed record release has crushed many a rock band. It showed at Sundance in 05, but how was the experience of waiting?
AS: I wasn't because I was working on something else, and so was Stephen, and Paul was helping me with the book. So, we had other projects going on, so that wasn't on my mind. I didn't pay attention to what was going on with the film; I just knew it would come out when it was supposed to come out. I said, even if it goes straight to video, then that's what's going to happen. Of course it's not going to come out when it's supposed to it's Strangers With Candy; it's Jerri Blank; it's losers; it's, like, of course. C'mon. I go, "And it's only going to help us, especially a film like this." Again, you just don't get that chance. It's harder for ugly people. And it's harder for this film. And it'll just happen when we least expect it. I go, "It's some freakish seed we've planted, and it's going to sprout when we don't want it to sprout, and it's going to do a lot of damage."
AC: Have you seen or listened to Stephen's commencement speech at the White House correspondent's dinner?
AS: I haven't. I'm not computer-savvy, and I'm waiting for Dinello to come over to hook me up and show me how to do it.
AC: Surely, you know a little about it. I'm just wondering what it's like to have your old friend and colleague to rightly be regarded and elevated to one of our nation's premiere satirists?
AS: Isn't that amazing! Paul and I already knew that about Stephen, so it was just a matter of time before other people caught on. But that's our Stephen, that's who Stephen is and always will be. It's nice that it's happening now, and it's nice that Jon Stewart saw that in Stephen and gave him this opportunity, and now everybody knows. But he's always been that guy. I can't wait to see it.
AC: What's the most overtly political thing you've ever done?
AS: [laughing in Jerri's voice] I LIKE BUSH! Bush! Bush! Bush! [laughs]. We did these [anti-fur] ad campaigns as Jerri Blank a few years ago, but I'm not a political person. I don't feel confident talking about politics. I like listening to people talk about politics, and I've gotten better about living in the real world. I used to live in my own world and never looked at the newspaper or watched the news or anything. But I'm a little more aware now than I've ever been.
Strangers With Candy opens in Austin on Friday, July 21. For a review and showtimes, see Film Listings.