Amy Sedaris is hard to sum up with a single word or occupation, and she'd probably prefer that no one tried. She's an avid cook and crafter, a playwright, a writer, a skilled and often well-costumed comic actress, and a small-scale entrepreneur who runs a tiny, grassroots cupcake-and-cheeseball baking business out of her New York City apartment.
But Sedaris is probably best known for her characters—especially Jerri Blank, the middle-aged former prostitute turned high-school student from Comedy Central's cult series Strangers With Candy, created with longtime collaborators Paul Dinello and Stephen Colbert.
Amid her publicity blitz for the Strangers With Candy prequel movie—this was the first of 19 interviews she was doing that day—The A.V. Club talked to Sedaris at length about finally getting the movie to the big screen, her upcoming "hospitality" book, how hard it is to describe a baked potato, and, of course, literal astrology.
The A.V. Club: Would you ever play a pretty character?
Amy Sedaris: If she was ugly and, like, made to be pretty. Like if you got up close and could see pockmarks. It's just more fun for me to play more character-driven things. Like, if it was a pretty girl, then I would find some way to make her ugly. [Laughs.] Because that's just more interesting to me.
AVC: Does it physically hurt to play Jerri Blank?
AS: No. All my muscles are in my face. I have a very muscular face. I'm good with faces. I always have been. I mean, once in a while I'll get a small rash underneath my lower lip if I do it for too long, because of the teeth. But in the movie, I had stitches in my mouth from an operation I had, so it was hard for me to do the face at first, because I was stretching my stitches. So when I watch that prison scene, I'm like, "Aw, fuck!" It's just so painful to watch.
AVC: Did you always want to do a Strangers With Candy movie?
AS: No. Paul, Steve, and I were working on our book Wigfield. When I say the three of us were working on Wigfield, I mean they were working on Wigfield. And we kept coming up with funny Jerri Blank stuff to say, so it would go into a file, and by the end of the book, Paul opened the file and there was all this Blank stuff, and he said, "Oh, it would be so funny to write a movie." That's really how it happened.
AVC: Comedy Central has a reputation for being hard on its series sometimes. Did you find that to be true?
AS: Well, I'll tell you what I like about Comedy Central: the idea that they're not behind the show. I like that because, especially for me, I just want to do it and I don't want to have to push it in someone's face. I think anyone who is a fan of that show had to discover it on their own, because we certainly didn't put it out there. So that's why I like the audience of Strangers With Candy.
Another thing I like about Comedy Central was that it was like an old network to me. You know? I use the example of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I mean, that didn't do too well, but the old networks back then would give a show a shot and keep it going. Comedy Central does that, they'll give you three seasons to prove yourself, where, you know, if Strangers With Candy was on network TV, it would have been gone after the first episode, because we weren't getting the ratings South Park was getting. But we had 30 episodes, and I like that about them.
Right now, I think Comedy Central's audience is mostly young boys. Really, because I looked into thinking about another TV-show idea, and I was thinking of Comedy Central, but I just don't think their audience is right for me.
AVC: You don't think young boys would like your idea?
AS: No, not like 16-, 17-year -olds. Nah. Not the kinda show I wanna do. And I don't think that's really my audience any more. And I don't want to do a show where if it's on a comedy channel, people will say, "Oh, it has to be funny." I'd rather do it somewhere on a loser station nobody watches, and again, somebody can discover it, and you can project if it's funny or if it's serious or whatever. Because half the stuff that's on TV that's serious, I want to laugh at. You know what I mean? And same with books. I don't want you to tell me it's supposed to be funny, because then it has to be funny, it better be funny, and all it can do is disappoint people.
AVC: So you don't like the expectations that come with having to make something labeled as "comedy"?
AS: No. Anywhere in my life, I hate that. Like when people try and put me in a box too, it's like, "Well, I'm not an actress. What, you're going to put me and Jennifer Jason Leigh in the same scene and say I am an actress? I don't think so." And I'm not a comedian. I don't go out there and do stand-up. And if I was a comedian, then damn, I better be funny, you know? I would rather just be a clown and be funny. I would rather just be a clown and make cupcakes.
AVC: Is that how you'd describe yourself, as like a clown?
AS: I'm more of a clown, a tragic clown. Yeah. I just like humor to come out of characters.
AVC: What are your top five most-asked questions?
AS: "Why a movie?" That's a top one. "What took so long to get it out there?" That's big. I think people think that story is going to be more interesting than it is, but none of us really remember it. We're used to it, you know, with all the kind of work that we do. "How'd you get all the celebrities in the film?" "What's the difference between doing a TV show and a movie?" And uh, "How did you come up with the character Jerri Blank?"
AVC: I think I know how you came up with the character.
AS: Yeah. It's called Panama Red, baby. [Laughs.] A book I referenced a lot for Jerri Blank was Is There No Place On Earth For Me? by Susan Sheehan. It's the story of a schizophrenic girl, Sylvia Frumkin, and I probably read it every year. My brother [writer David Sedaris] gave that to me like in the '80s, and it's a life-changing book. And that's a good example of what I think is funny. Like, it's a serious book. This woman Susan Sheehan stays with a schizophrenic girl and just talks about her life. And it's a lot about the health-care system back then, too, about these doctors giving her these drugs, and her weight can go from 100 lbs. to 300 lbs., and she's such a character. It's pages and pages of non sequiturs, like "A fly is a teenage wasp." "I'm the personification of Casper the Friendly Ghost." And I used some of her for Jerri Blank as well.
AVC: Why are you drawn to that kind of material?
AS: I think that it's interesting, that they're just interesting people. I've always been drawn to that. I'm just curious about them, and I guess I relate to it somehow. And those people are drawn to me. They're drawn to everyone in my family. I don't know, I'd much rather talk to someone like that than the girls down here in the meat-packing district. You know, people who are so pretty that they're used to people wanting to talk to them because they are attractive. And it's so boring, and they have nothing to say. They don't have to say anything, because they are so pretty to look at, or what people think is pretty to look at. I usually think that the pretty people are, you know, they're just not interesting to me.
AVC: You're working on a hospitality book.
AS: Yes. It comes out in October. It's called I Like You: Hospitality Under The Influence. And it's all my jackpot recipes. And Paul Dinello helped me write it. I wanted to take it seriously. There wasn't a joke in it. The only joke I wanted was a black-and-white color wheel. And then Paul came over one afternoon and he was reading it, and he started making fun of me trying to take it seriously, and commenting on all the stuff. Well, now it's more entertaining, and that's only because of him. It's full of recipes and my craft ideas. I art-directed it. I got a team of people together and told them what I wanted and how I wanted it, and we all worked together, so it's a very visual book. I always say it's for illiterate people, because you can follow it just by looking at the pictures. So visually, it's a good book.
AVC: What are some of your craft ideas?
AS: I have a lot of pantyhose ideas, and I put googly eyes on everything. You can't walk into my apartment without stepping on a googly eye. I've got how to make fake cakes, how to make a fake hatchet, a craft set of felt, how to make a stuffed turtle and a stuffed snake, you know, things I like.
AVC: Does anyone wear pantyhose anymore?
AS: I had to order all my color pantyhose off eBay. I couldn't find any. That's why if I see someone in pantyhose, I'm gonna buy that woman's book. The same way I won't buy someone's book if their author's photo in the back has a cowboy hat on. I bought a book recently, I don't even remember the name of it, but it sounded great. And I got home and opened it, and the girl had a cowboy hat on. I went right back to the bookstore and said, "I can't. I can't read this book… She's got a cowboy hat on. I don't even know what she has to say." And the lady laughed and said, "You know, Amy, I thought the same thing when I saw that picture."
AVC: You generally collaborate with Colbert and Dinello, or with your brother. Would you ever consider doing something totally on your own?
AS: I tried with this book, and then I really just couldn't. Sometimes you need people to work against so they can say "No, that's a bad idea, how about this?" Or you just need someone to bounce ideas off of. You know, like you can have the idea or you can write what you want, but when you bounce it off someone else, they can heighten it or make it better. So I really thought at first, "Hey, this is entertaining, I know how to do this," and then later, I was like, "Paul! You gotta help me!" I feel confident writing on my feet with improv, but it's different when you're sitting down and writing it out. You can't just throw something out—you gotta explain to people what it is. Or my mind just jumps all over the place, and you gotta hone it in. So he helped me so much. I need an audience or a response, or somebody to work off of.
AVC: What are you working on next?
AS: I'm trying to have a baby. God, don't you hate when people say that? It's like, "Fuck you. Did you have to put that in my head? I see you trying. I see you trying to have a baby." [Laughs.] Do not want to hear that. Or like, "It took us a long time," it's like "Eww, oh God, go!"
Well, the book, I'm in the middle of it. I have to turn it in July 8, and then I get it back with all that red writing on it, get it copyedited, and then it goes to the printer August 8, so I'm working with these young kids, and we call ourselves The Dingbats, because I found out what dingbats and drop caps were while working on the book.
AVC: Did you really do 22 interviews yesterday? And then there are 19 today?
AS: Yeah, 19. I did an interview yesterday, and she was like, "Oh gosh, I don't know what to ask. A friend of mine wanted me to ask you about astrology."
It's like, "Why are you wasting my time? Like, why? Where have you read that I'm into astrology?" Maybe some of them can be a little more fanatical, like they're just fans, and that's fine. I'll talk to anybody, and I enjoy talking to people, but when it's a schedule like this, or interviewers set you up for questions like, "Has your brother ever written a story about this?" it's like, "Okay, you already know the answer to that." Then I don't want to play, because they're just re-doing somebody else's interview and they want those answers, or they get disappointed because it's not funny. I guess my approach is to take things more seriously, so they get disappointed if you're not giving funny answers. Or they ask funny questions and you don't know how to answer them. Like, they'll set you up for something just ridiculous.
AVC: What did you say about astrology?
AS: I said, "I don't know anything." I mean, I have a friend whose mother is an astrologist, and I'm friends with her two daughters, but I don't know anything about astrology. I know that crabs are sensitive on the inside but hard on the outside, and that in relationships it's hard for them to let go because they have pinchers and they collect a lot of antiques. But I go, "That's all I know about crabs." [Laughs.] "They feed off the bottom of the ocean, man. They're scum." You know, it's like a Cancer wouldn't be good to go out with an Aries, because you wouldn't find a ram on the beach any more than you'd find a crab up on the mountaintop. I like to think of astrology like that. I like to put 'em in situations.
AVC: You think about them literally.
AS: Yeah. Like the little creatures. But I love thinking about crabs and their pinchers, and how they're all sensitive. And how they have a weird way of walking. Like, crabs will get to where they want to go, but they have to go their own way because they are side-walkers. They're not gonna go from A to B. They're gonna go all the way around, and then they'll get to B. They just have a different approach. So when I think of astrology, I like to think of little crabs and things. Because I am from North Carolina and we used to go crabbing. And you crab with chicken necks and fish heads—just tie a string and whip them around each other's backs. And then we'd catch all these crabs, and David would set them free once we got them back to the cottage, and fuckin' freak us out. Imagine, 25 crabs everywhere in the cottage. It was so terrifying.
AVC: Is there anything else you want to talk about?
AS: Hmm. I don't know. Paella?
AVC: Do you have a paella recipe?
AS: I don't. No one's going to try any of my recipes. Do you know how hard it is to describe how to open a fucking baked potato? Seriously. I like baked potatoes a lot. I make them a lot in the oven. I was trying to describe how you have to slice them down the middle and push the two ends toward each other… I swear to God, it was two paragraphs. Paul was trying to help me. I was like, "God dang it." It's just so hard to describe things like that.
AVC: Instructional food writing must be hard.
AS: Nightmare! But Playboy magazine, they're good about it, because they have boundaries, because it's Playboy. Like if they're describing something, they'll say "Smack three shallots on the side," and it just sounds so sexy and so much fun to smack a shallot. My mom had a recipe she got from a Playboy magazine, and it was a big deal. All of us, it was like, "We want the Playboy steak with wine-butter sauce!" So I put that in my book.
AVC: Is your cupcake recipe in there?
AS: Yes. But my recipe is like, "Look, you are supposed to get 24, but I get 18, I'm doing something wrong, but maybe you won't." And it's true. I mean, it's my way. I'm not saying I am a pro at any of it. Basically, I just try and let people know that entertaining is entertaining, and I'm just trying to get people back to the basics, just for getting a group of people together where the TV's not on, or you don't have to listen to the words of a song, you're just sitting around talking. People just aren't doing that much any more.