The following interview was conducted on June 23, 2006, by phone, with Amy Sedaris in New York. The interview first aired June 26, 2006 on Celluloid Dreams, which airs every Monday night at 5pm on KSJS radio (90.5 FM) in San Jose, CA.
Groucho: In thirty half-hour episodes for Comedy Central, and now a feature film co-written by Paul Dinello and Steven Colbert, Strangers With Candy has given Amy Sedaris a showcase for her signature role of Jerri Blank, a pot-bellied, droopy-eyed, bisexual, ex-con addict with a chipmunk overbite. A devoted cult audience has tracked Sedaris through many more stage and screen roles, and this fall, Sedaris' home-entertaining manual I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence, will hit the shelves. Amy, it's good to have you on the line.
Amy Sedaris: (Laughs.) Okay.
G: Among your pastimes is selling cupcakes and cheeseballs you make yourself. Would you say that Strangers With Candy is the ultimate cheeseball?
AS: There you go. Yeah. Rolled in nuts—put it on a ritz. I think that sounds pretty damn good—it's a little smoky cheeseball.
G: Jerri Blank is repellent yet likeable. Why do you think that is?
AS: I think she's innocent like a child. And I think children are—it's the same way. You can enjoy children and everything because they are so innocent. And I think that's why she gets away with it.
G: Yeah, she's so free.
AS: She's so free.
G: And also pitiably stupid.
G: Since she hits on everyone in sight, she seems oversexed and yet she never seems to get anywhere.
AS: I know.
G: Is there any hope for her?
AS: "Desperado" is what it is. We should have tried getting that song in the movie. She's just desperate and she's just needy for attention. Like most ugly people are.
G: You go fearlessly big or, as actors say, you mug. It's uproariously funny, but I wonder if you ever doubt yourself and think, "Maybe I'm going too far"?
AS: Um, yeah—that's why I trust Paul and Steve to tell—help me to hone it back, because I would go bigger. I'm more like a clown. And I'm more like the perfect performer for deaf people. You know, that [clowns are] visual and loud, and I like the costumes and the wigs and the props. But my characters are grounded in some—you know, I mean, I do work on them, so I'm not just doing camp. But I usually have to work with people to tell me to bring it down.
G: As a kid, you seem to have given yourself license to adopt disguises and roles. Did you idolize any particular actors or comics, or was your impulse purely native?
AS: I liked—I was a big fan of SCTV when I was younger, because I liked how low-budget it was. And I thought they were all really good performers. And they just made me really laugh and it was silly. So I was really influenced by that. I love The Carol Burnett Show. I watched Laugh-In, you know. Loved that Ruth Buzzi. So I think I was influenced by that. And those were all kinds of, you know, "out there" pretty big stuff. And then, my brother David and I, like all families, played a lot, made up characters and had our costumes and stuff like that.
G: And then you honed all those character skills at Second City in Chicago, right?
G: With Paul and Steven?
AS: Paul and Steven and Principal Blackman, Greg Hollimon.
G: Is there a New York theatre mafia? Because if there isn't, maybe you should start one.
AS: (Laughs.) A New York theatre mafia. That's pretty funny.
G: Well, you've got some pretty big stars in the film.
AS: I know.
G: Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Alison Janney. They all seem to really get it. Do you think it was almost like a vacation for them to really just get down—
AS: It was. It was like, "Listen, there's no money involved. You get a hot lunch and we'll pick you up." You know, that was basically it. And they were really good sports about it, and I think it was fun for them because I wasn't asking to go out and promote it. I'm not asking them if we can use their name. It was just like—and they know me well enough where they're like "Yeah, we'll go do this for Amy," which was really nice. And then the casting director was pretty blown away by it. I don't know why we needed one.
G: (Laughs.) Now tell me about Florrie Fisher. Do you think she'd recognize herself in Jerri Blank?
AS: Um, that's interesting. Part of me wants to say no. Because people like that never do. They don't see themselves that way.
AS: So I don't think so.
G: She was the inspiration—she was documented in a film.
AS: Yes. And it's on the DVD.
G: Oh, wow.
AS: And it's tough, because it's twenty minutes long, and you can't watch it straight. So watch it five minutes and turn it off. Turn it back on, watch it—because she's like yelling at you. And she's so funny. And I was going to memorize that, you know, and do it as a piece. But now I don't know if I could watch it again for twenty minutes.
G: Your inspiration for the persona was also partly a response to your take on self-important actors, right? In that they would always say, "Well, I have to find a way to kind of transform myself"—
AS: But when you have such a distinct look like that, you want to act like you're a versatile actor, but you have a distinctive look like Jerri Blank, you can't disguise yourself. So that particular character I've used a lot—the Jerri Blank look—as far as the overbite and the fatty suit and stuff—the voice. But I would give her different backgrounds. And this time I gave her the Jerri Blank background.
G: Now I do some acting myself, so I include myself in this. But I've always felt that actors start from a universally insecure place and that acting for them is a kind of corrective to reality. Do you feel that way?
AS: I feel—I'm more like—I would say I'm more like a clown. I feel more like I like to play and make believe, you know, like Johnny Depp is in his pirate movie. So I'm not digging in deep. And I'm not trying to work anything out. I'm just trying to have fun and make myself laugh.
G: Right. Speaking of psychology, Amy?
G: Can I talk to Jerri for a little bit?
AS: Maybe. I'm not very good at this kind of thing.
G: Well, I was going to ask Jerri: you're an addict, would you say that you're"doing work" on that?
AS: [as Jerri:] Yeah, I'm trying. I'm trying to continue to be an addict. Yes.
G: (Laughs.) Do you have a message for the youth of America?
AS: [as Jerri:] My message would be— [Amy:] Oh, that's a really good question. I'm thinking right now. What would her message to America be?
G: Jerri's not used to someone giving her that much attention probably, right?
AS: I know. [as Jerri:] Are you a cop? [Amy:] That's what my answer would be. [Jerri:] Are you a cop? [Amy:] You know, if you ask somebody if they're a cop—
AS: If you suspect they're undercover, and you ask them if they're a cop, they have to tell you they're a cop.
G: Yeah, yeah, right.
AS: I didn't know that.
G: (facetiously) But I'm not, really.
AS: I know, but that would be Jerri Blank's answer to your question.
G: Right. You also have a book coming out about hospitality, called I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence. You know, I think maybe that comes from the same place as making people laugh, doesn't it? Kind of entertaining them, serving them good food and good times?
AS: Yeah, I just wanted to—I entertain a lot and I cook a lot, and I just basically wanted to put all my recipes together in a book and, again, I'm a very visual person. So I shot everything in my apartment. There are a lot of photographs and illustrations and hand-painted lettering. I just want it to be like an art book. And it's got all my crafts in the back of it. And I put myself in different situations to entertain—like if I'm entertaining a room full of grieving people, or a room full of children or old people. And the challenges that you have to go up against when you're a hostess in these dreadful situations. And it's also for people who don't entertain who just want to be the perfect guest.
AS: So, um, I took it seriously. There's humor in it because when Paul Dinello helped me write it, most of the humor came from him making fun of me trying to take something seriously. It was a lot more entertaining than I originally wanted it to be. But it's full of real information. It's very practical. And I love it. It's a really fun book.
G: It sounds like a lot of fun.
AS: I'm still working on it. I put it together like a scrapbook. And it's got all my favorite things in it. And now I'm working with these kids that are helping me put it on the computer.
G: Oh, great. Now I also understand that this is the first feature film—the Strangers With Candy film, that David Letterman is producing?
G: How does one convince David Letterman to do that?
AS: I don't know. I have no idea how he got a copy of the script 'cause Paul and Steven and I—none of us gave it to him. And I got a call out of the blue from Worldwide Pants, and they said they got a copy of the script and they loved it, and they want to give us $3 million to make the movie.
G: That's a pretty good call to get.
AS: Yeah, it's a really good—and I was like "Yeah, who is this?"
G: Is this a cop?
AS: Yeah, you have it.
G: And Paul Shaffer co-wrote four songs to the film, too.
AS: He and Paul Dinello got together and we realized that the songs that we wanted were too expensive and we couldn't afford it. But I was always up for having—I never wanted original music. I only wanted one song in the movie. The floater song was the one I brought in to do. But they wrote the music in like two days—not even. And I like it. I think it's perfect. And it's funny. And Paul Shaffer—Dinello said he was amazing to work with—he's, like, real professional—on top of it—stayed with it a hundred percent.
G: Yeah, he's certainly got a lot of experience.
G: Professional guy. Is this the end of the line for Strangers With Candy, do you think? I've heard rumors that there might be a musical, because I know you sing.
AS: (Laughs.) No.
G: (Laughs.) No?
AS: We don't have a musical, trust me. But as far as it being the end, I don't know. Like Dinello says, "She's like a rash and you never know when she's gonna re-appear." So I don't know—personally, I would love to do a Christmas TV special with Jerri Blank.
G: Oh yeah. That would be fun.
AS: I think that would be fun. But I don't—we don't have any plans, you know, to do anything else with her. But we never plan on doing anything. It just kind of happens.
G: What do you think she would do after she finally graduates from high school?
AS: She'd fail. I don't think she'd ever graduate.
AS: I think she'd be right back—she just keeps going to the back of the line.
G: Uh, huh. Moving back grade by grade until she's in kindergarten.
G: Well, it's been great to talk to you.
AS: Nice talking to you.
G: Give your rabbit Dusty a friendly scratch for me.
AS: I will, actually. She's sitting here in her hay-box eating carrot tops. Thank you so much.
G: This is Peter Canavese for Celluloid Dreams, 90.5 KSJS, San Jose, and online at Celluloiddreams.net.
[For Groucho's review of Strangers With Candy, click here.]