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|Amy Sedaris, playing herself, is unrecognizable. Surprisingly petite, pretty, lithe, blonde. A sprite in every sense of the word. Including the lemon-lime soft drink. Bubbly and refreshing, sweet yet tart. Nothing at all to connect her to the super-charged, super-ugly misfits she portrays on stage. Amy hates to go out into the world "without her face on," but for her that could mean warts, a prosthetic hump, and a set of false teeth. She's the only comic actress in America willing eager, even to make herself look ugly. She's much more comfortable inhabiting a character with physical disorders, and watching people be repelled.
Currently at work on a new show for Comedy Central inspired by after-school specials, Amy also has a lead role in the new Paul Rudnick play The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told.
But it has been her star turns in The Talent Family's plays One Woman Shoe, Jamboree, The Little Frieda Mysteries, and Incident at Cobbler's Knob that have earned her a passionate following in the Off-Broadway theater world.
For the uninitiated, The Talent Family is Amy and brother David, and their productions are best described as raunchy backyard plays mixed with a more comic version of the Grand Guignol. The titles of their plays also evoke the Sedaris's connoisseurship of Southern trash culture, from Hee Haw re-runs, all-you-can-eat restaurants, and Branson, Missouri breakfast theater.
Amy is a true successor to the classic physical comedy tradition, down the line from Imogene Coco, Lucille Ball and Second City alumni Andrea Martin and Catherine O'Hara. Her dual role as a horny, trailer-dwelling witch and a foul-mouthed donkey in last year's Cobbler's Knob had audiences howling at Lincoln Center's Serious Fun Festival, while critical reception in the mainstream press ranged from baffled to indignant.
"She's easily one of the most talented people I've seen perform," said friend Janeane Garofalo. "And I actually get embarassed that I try to do comedy when I see her 'cause she's so good that it makes me feel silly for trying. Amy's one of comedy's best-kept secrets she's too good for Hollywood, but she's a huge star in New York, as it should be."
DAVID: There's a character you often do that I think of as the Exasperated Den Mother.
AMY: [Laughs, then sticks out front teeth, resting them on lower lip in a bucktooth smile] Her?
AMY: "I'm single, I'm fun, I'm good looking, I've got a good personality, people like me ... why don't I have a relationship?" We use her in everything.
DAVID: And where does she come from?
AMY: David originally had this neighbor, her name is Jean, and he would imitate Jean, and then I would imitate David doing Jean, and that's how we created her.
DAVID: There's also a character in both plays, a foul-mouthed redneck with a taped-up nose. Was she someone you knew growing up, or just a type in society that everyone knows?
AMY: She came out of literally taping my nose up, and it just changes your face, and you get mad like a hornet and just start spewing. That's how it came about. Do you know what I mean? But then everyone can say, "Oh my god, I knew that person."
DAVID: Why do you think comedy is so much harder than drama?
AMY: People always say that. I think drama is really hard. Whenever I want to rent a movie, I always go for the serious stuff. If it's funny, I don't want to see it. If it's going to be funny, I don't want to read it. My first instincts are: it's too silly I don't want to see it.
DAVID: Are there any particular current events that inspire you as a source for material?
AMY: No, usually not. But I am reading that book now called Our Guys. It's about those high school boys who raped that retarded girl. I'm interested in that situation. I usually go for some really serious non-fiction thing ...
DAVID: ... and that would develop into comedy?
AMY: Yeah, finding the thread that would make it funny. So I came up with the idea of a gang of retarded girls raping a high school jock.
DAVID: So would you say that a lot of your comedy comes out of ultra-taboo topics.
AMY: Yeah, I guess so. Like you're in a car with someone and they're crying and you want to say, "I'm so sorry," but at the same time you're thinking You have no idea how funny you look right now. You just have no idea.
DAVID: Well it's the ultimate truism: comedy is born of tragedy.
AMY: Laughter through the tears! God, it's terrible but it's true.
DAVID: And then by contrast people aren't funny when they're trying to be.
AMY: No, it's the serious stuff that you want to laugh at.
DAVID: Have you ever seen The Groundlings, the sort of "Second City" of L.A.?
AMY: Never seen them, but I've heard good things about them.
DAVID: I saw them when I was living in L.A. I was there during the riots in '92, and they did a whole show based around the riots.
AMY: At Second City they always said there's something funny about everything. I really believe that. Always. Hands down. I don't think I've ever said, "There's absolutely nothing funny about that situation."
DAVID: What do you watch on TV that makes you laugh?
AMY: The Operation Channel fucking ... kills me.
DAVID: What do you find funny about that?
AMY: Because it starts with, say, a man and a woman who are walking down the beach hand-in-hand, and the woman is talking about how she had her tubes tied after she was divorced, only now she wants to have them untied because she wants to have children with this guy. I mean the story itself [breaking up into laughter] ... And then, cut to the operation table. I mean, it's no different from the food network, with the cutting of meat, and the blood. You can turn the sound down and play whatever music you like it's just the best.
DAVID: What might be a TV show you'd like to create?
AMY: 'Night Mother. Wouldn't that make a great TV show? Each week, the daughter tries to kill herself. "Jessieeeee!" Sophie's Choice would be a good sitcom. But every time you try to pitch a real TV show, they don't want it.
DAVID: I wanted to talk a little about your interest in ugly disguises, the bruises, the warts, the fat suit.
AMY: [Laughing] Uh-huh ... all the skin disorder books I have? David and I give each other skin disorder books for Christmas. I'm just fascinated with disorders.
DAVID: Do you have a sense that it's camouflage and it gives you some protection as a performer?
AMY: Oh yes, definitely. Something to hide behind. I always have difficulty playing myself in anything. Even in this Paul Rudnick play I'm doing at the New York Theater Workshop, my part is off on the side. I'm kinda like the stage manager. Pretty much myself. I was so flattered they offered it to me, but at the same time I was like, Oh I can't do that I just have to be myself. So then I was thinking, what could I do? I'm gonna ask Paul if I can have a screaming newborn baby with an ear infection that I have to take care of and be the stage manager, and he'd just cry during the whole show.
DAVID: Now are you going to be on stage or off?
AMY: I'm either off the stage or backstage.
DAVID: But we hear your voice the whole time.
DAVID: Do you have a fantasy character you've always wanted to play?
AMY: I wish I could do a woman who cries a lot ...
DAVID: Have you ever played a rich society matron?
DAVID: I was wondering, coming as you do from North Carolina, there has to be lots of those types down there ... "Foxhounds have been in our family for yeahhhs" that type.
AMY: Yeah, old money. "Ah've never used a public telephone ... hottah than a fahcrackah outside. " A debutante would be fun to do too. I know the look I'd want, but I don't know anything about debutantes.
DAVID: When you were in that photo shoot and you had the horribly beat-up makeup on, you decided to go out in public and go about your normal day with it on. What was that like?
AMY: It was really strange. People were staring at me like I was a beautiful model but they were freaked out by it. And I waited on tables that night with it on.
DAVID: Did you really?
AMY: I sure did. I went straight to Marion's. And only one table asked me about it. They said, "Uh, are you okay? " And I said, "Yeah, it's just makeup."
DAVID: And everyone else was just too shocked to even ...
AMY: Yeah, they would not make eye contact with me. At all.
DAVID: And you were just eating that up.
AMY: Oh, I just hated to take a bath that night, watching all that makeup go down the bathtub.
DAVID: I don't know if I would have the nerve to do that, just because of the effect it would have on other people.
AMY: Well, you know when you're in 8th or 9th grade, you might do that. Like when people say, "I got dressed up in character and took a train out to the airport." And you're like, ugh, how old are you? Or people with video cameras who come up to you on the street and ask you questions same thing. I don't know why, but it felt different this time. Because it made me so happy. I guess I really liked that feeling.
DAVID: Tell me about your work with Comedy Central.
AMY: We're going to do the pilot next week. I think it's going to be called The Way After-School Special. In the pilot episode I'm 47, I'm back in high school, just dealing with high school situations and being older than everyone. In one scene, I bring a note from my doctor saying I have to have a uterus scrape. I write a note to myself on the back of my hand, Uterus Scrape. Someone asks me, "How old are you?" And I say, "Guess, excluding my neck." That type of thing.
DAVID: How did you come up with that idea?
AMY: I really loved after-school specials, and was just thinking how much fun it would be. And I saw this old documentary from the '60s about this woman who talks about how drugs and alcohol ruined her high school years, and she was giving a lecture to these high school students. I just thought it would be really funny if she decided to go back to high school.
DAVID: Do you see yourself as belonging to a comic tradition like stand-up or as someone who's doing something that hasn't been done before?
AMY: I see myself as someone who comes up with a lot of ideas. I don't put myself in a category as improvisor. I mean, I use it as a tool. I loved improvising at Second City. It's kind of a lazy way of writing, where you just get on your feet and do it.
DAVID: And it doesn't make you nervous to be in that situation?
AMY: No. It makes me more nervous if I have to memorize a line. I'd much rather be like This is the scene, great, go out and do it, and then just totally be in that moment and whatever happens ...
DAVID: So you don't like to come to a part that's been fully formed.
AMY: Yeah, it's really hard for me to look at a script, where the character is already written and you have to work with the script to do it. It's much easier for me to make up the whole thing. I guess it's why I'm not good at auditioning or doing other people's plays.
DAVID: So how much of The Talent Family's productions are scripted, and how much is improv'd?
AMY: When David and I work together, he'll come up with something and I'll read it, put it aside and then improvise with it. He'll take notes, go back and write it. So by the time the show opens, it's scripted and memorized, but he has a part in the play where I usually get to go off. He'll let me improvise.
DAVID: Do you get stage fright?
AMY: I get eager, but I can't wait to get out there ... especially if it's a full house.
DAVID: You've had a long career in food service. How has that served as material for your comedy?
AMY: It helps with your timing, your memory, getting characters from people. I like jobs that deal with the public. I love when a customer gets in a really bad mood, gets cranky and treats you like shit.
DAVID: Have you ever based a character on a customer you've had?
AMY: Yeah, sure.
DAVID: Can you think of one?
AMY: Can't think of one.
DAVID: Maybe you just piece different people together to form one character.
AMY: Yeah, that's what you do. You just get an idea of how they are ... how they treat you. Treat you like a slave.
DAVID: Are women and men different as diners?
AMY: Women want everything on the side. I want the sauce on the side. What kind of dressing would you like? On the side. I want this, but instead of eggs, can I have onions? They change everything about an item on the menu.
DAVID: How do you think people differ in different parts of the country in terms of restaurant patrons? In the South for instance, it tends to be more chatty between customer and server.
AMY: They go for entertainment. People assume, Well the waitress is going to be there, she'll talk to us. And they don't tip as well, that's for sure. The whole eating-out experience is different. There, it's soup and salad, and salad bars, and iced tea with free refills, that kind of thing. Here's it's different. It's not rude service but you can just be a certain way and people expect it.
DAVID: I understand that you once submitted a list to your employer, Marion's, stating why you should be elected employee of the month.
AMY: Yes, I did.
DAVID: Can we hear it?
AMY: I, Amy Sedaris, should be employee of the month for the following reasons:
1. I'm the oldest and best looking waitress at Marion's.
2. I never have sex with customers during my shift (not even blow jobs!)
3. I've never showed up drunk except for the time I had the root canal and that was doctor's orders.
4. I have never put aspirin in the fish tank.
5. I don't sell drugs during work hours.
6. I once had a TV show.
7. I invented scotch and water which is a very big seller.
8. Even when it's hot I almost always wear shoes and panties.
9. I have a rabbit.
10. It was my idea to provide silverware and napkins so the customers wouldn't have to bring their own.
11. I'm smart, good with my hands, and people like me.
12. I've never been arrested in the state of New York.
13. I encourage people to drink.
14. I really love it here.
15. I'm honest.
16. If I get employee of the month and lose fifteen pounds they'll let me have my TV show back.