An Interview with Amy Sedaris

When Amy Sedaris was a teen in North Carolina, she was drawn towards the students at her school who were on the fringes.

She recalls, “I was either the one who went to them, or they would come to me. Whenever somebody called me up, feeling down or needing someone to talk to, I would be willing and patient to lend an ear. I never made fun of them or judged them in any way.”

It’s quite an unusual thing to hear considering the source is a professional comedy writer and performer. Isn’t making fun of people part of the job? But reviewing her work – which includes books, television shows, movies, and a number of plays – makes the sentiment understandable.

Over the course of the last decade, she has created a vast selection of characters that represent almost every kind of misfortune.

These include young girls with disfigured faces (Stitches), mothers dependent on welfare who have to sing for their food (One Woman Shoe), elderly individuals with mental disabilities (Wigfield), animals with a taste for rape (Incident at Cobbler’s Knob), and probably the only drug-addicted prostitute to have her own after-school special (Strangers with Candy).

It is evident that Sedaris is drawn to outsiders, yet one never gets the feeling that she has chosen them as simple targets. Even when they are at their most detestable – Jerri Blank in _Strangers , for instance, sleeping with her own son and promoting the utilization of drugs among adolescents – Sedaris never allows them to become casualties of her mockery. Most comedy authors acquire their amusement by indicating a character’s defects, but Sedaris really embraces them.

She appreciates these people and that, in some way, makes it simple to chuckle at them.

Ms. Sedaris resides in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. She has two roommates – an imaginary beau, Ricky, and a real pet rabbit, Dusty.

Currently, she is actively engaged in various endeavors – including scripting for the forthcoming Strangers with Candy flick – but her most prized project is her Crafty Beavers group. Recently, they covered pie plates with felt, and in the near future they plan to craft candles.

–Eric Spitznagel, author

In a world where nothing is certain, we can rely on the fact that change is inevitable. Despite this, it’s still difficult to accept and adapt to alterations that come our way. We often try to resist them, as if we’re hoping that they will just go away on their own. Instead, we must learn to embrace the unpredictability of life and recognize that it’s the only way to progress.


THE BELIEVER: Most of the characters in your stories are not traditionally attractive in some way. Sometimes they are simply unkempt, but more often than not they have some kind of physical deformity.

This could be anything from a disfigured face, to a disproportionately large posterior, to sweatiness, to shocking growths that challenge the idea of a beneficent God.

SEDARIS: The thing about these characters is that they don’t see themselves as monsters, regardless of how others may view them. I refuse to portray a character who doesn’t like themselves. It’s not about their looks; it’s about their self-assurance. Jerri Blank is a perfect example of this; she has a confidence that will make you want to be around her, regardless of her physical appearance.

BLVR: Erm…

AS: Were you really that turned off by her?

BLVR: It’s not that she’s off-putting, however… it appears at times as if you’re testing your audience to see how much they will get invested in her. You certainly make it as tough as it can be.

AS: I’m inclined to identify with folks like Jerri from Strangers with Candy, so it caught me off guard when some women in the test-audience disliked the show because of her looks. That would have been a selling point for me, so the mere idea that her appearance could be a deterrent never crossed my mind.

BLVR: There is a distinct aesthetic that is not often seen in the Hollywood realm, but it has been championed by many. John Waters is one who has made his opinion on the matter heard, particularly in Shock Value where he wrote an essay about his personal definition of physical beauty. The words he used, as best I can recall, were something like, “A face should jolt, not soothe.”

I concur. In order for me to think of someone as attractive, there must be a bit of something unique about them. This could be crooked teeth, prominent veins in their skin, a striking lazy eye, or anything else that stands out. The first guy I ever kissed had what people call a water head.

BLVR: Could you explain what a water head is?

AS: His head was enormous compared to the rest of his body. I don’t think he is still alive. When I kissed him, I knew it was the ideal thing to do. I couldn’t help but place a kiss on his forehead.

BLVR: That is quite an unusual show of affection.

I have always been intrigued by those with issues, not just physical, but mental as well. When I was growing up in North Carolina, I was determined to work at the local women’s prison.

This was likely due to my curiosity about those who struggle to function in society, particularly those who are considered “nuts”. Recently, I spoke with a girl named Tally. When I asked what she was doing, she said she was making a list of people she hates.

How do you respond to something like that? She recently stopped taking her medication and has developed a completely different personality. Despite this, I keep trying to be her friend, even though she never leaves her apartment.

Do you ever use her as a model for one of the characters in your stories?

AS had not yet created a character from someone they’d met, but their brother and frequent collaborator, David, had introduced them to Jean in Chicago, who they both imitated. This inspired Jerri Blank. One of their favourite characters, that had never been performed on stage, was a woman they lived above on the South Side of Chicago. She was very troubled and always believed she could smell formaldehyde, often calling AS to complain. AS remarked they couldn’t believe they got to be her neighbour. During the same year, they also lived with an incest victim and her deaf child, and learned a great deal.




BLVR: It is said that you have a substantial stockpile of imitation meat products.

AS: Absolutely! I have two hams, one full and one only half. Plus, I have a gorgeous whole turkey that I covered in tin foil for Thanksgiving. My other main dishes include a standing rib roast, a tiny chicken, hot dogs in a bundle and tied in a string, plus a delicious porterhouse steak. It’s a really nice selection.

BLVR: What drives someone to fill their pantry with food that cannot be eaten? I understand their desire to have fun with it, however, more than a passing enthusiasm is required to accumulate such a vast array of items. You have almost every type of meat imaginable.

By chance, I developed an affection for fake food after seeing the first one. It’s not like you can go to a store and purchase artificial food, so it’s a unique occurrence when you find quality synthetic edibles.

I can’t help but take it when that happens. I’m obsessed with anything related to cuisine because it runs in my family. We’ve all been captivated by cooking, eating, appreciating, and gathering food. I’m content when I’m lying in bed with a good cookbook. My aspiration is to have my own cooking program.

BLVR: I’m not knowledgeable on what that signifies.

AS: It’s tough to explain, but essentially a show about hospitality that can envelop anything from cooking to tidying your home. When I was a kid in North Carolina, I recall there was a well-known hospitality show called At Home with Peggy Mann that was quite wacky. It was in black and white and featured a woman sitting on her couch and talking about her life, which was fairly sad.

I like the concept of a hospitality show for people living alone. How to cook for oneself, how to keep leftovers for the next day, and so on. There’s not really any shows like that created for loners. I stay by myself and don’t have a boyfriend, but I love entertaining guests and adorning my house and all of the activities usually associated with couples. I’d likely do it in a Southern style. Each week I’d have an impediment to overcome. For example, if I have breast cancer, or if my legs are particularly long, or I have a tumor. It would be about how to manage those difficulties and still have a meal on the table at eight in the evening.

BLVR: Astonishing! A tumor? You are really cooking with one? That is quite astounding.

I don’t want to seem disrespectful, but it is a problem that individuals may have to confront. There are many obstacles like this.

BLVR: Humor appears to be your strategy for getting ready for potential misfortune. As though you have already grown accustomed to dealing with cancer, and even finding amusement in it, this will make it easier to cope with if it actually comes to pass.

AS: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s been that serious, but I do enjoy having to face a challenge. Have you ever pretended you were completely unable to move and had to get to the phone before the caller hung up? It’s not about mocking disabled people or wanting to be disabled, but I guess I just like it. I’ve always been intrigued by wheelchairs for the same purpose.

BLVR: In addition to awful illnesses and bodily malformations, what other impediments would you need to surmount while filming your hospitality show?

AS: Well, if my character has to put on a facade and pretend to be nice to someone they can’t stand, then what should they serve for dinner? I’m looking forward to having them over, but then they call and cancel.

That’s when I have to deal with the disappointment in front of a crowd. That’s the concept of the program. Whenever there’s a dilemma, just set it aside. It’s not urgent. Whether it’s an illness or a broken date, it shouldn’t get in the way of the dinner.

BLVR: It’s not terrible. Have you considered presenting it to a television channel?

AS: Not a chance they’d take it. “My concept is a cooking show, but I’m too tall to get off the couch. That’s my idea.” I’m not saying network TV is a definite no-go, but it requires me to relinquish a lot of control; that’s why I’d rather focus on smaller scale projects where I’m the one calling the shots. It’s so satisfying to make something and have it be exactly what you had in mind.

BLVR: It’s probably a good thing then. I don’t think the networks would be able to handle you well enough for a sitcom. You would likely be in a family comedy like Life with Amy or Everybody Loves Amy, taking the role of a cheerful housemother trying to raise her lively children.

AS stated that if there were a monkey, a mentally challenged child, and a hearing-impaired spouse involved, then they would have no problem taking on the task. They imagined each episode would begin with a ringing telephone that would not stop.

BLVR: That would be an entertaining thing to witness.

AS: Isn’t that the point of it? When I watch something, I want an escape. The television shows nowadays attempt to depict reality, but they don’t do it accurately. I thought it would be amusing to make a sitcom in New York that pretends to be in Los Angeles. Many of the shows set in LA have characters living in apartments that are far too spacious and looking far too healthy and tanned. I’d definitely like to have a show set in LA that showed people in small apartments and not so glowy.



BLVR: Wasn’t the original plan to compose a storybook for little ones about a worm exploring for his true self?

AS mentioned that Hyperion’s editors decided to pass on the project.

BLVR: That’s undoubtedly unfortunate. It appears that not enough quality fiction is being composed regarding earthworms. Since the book may never be released, or even written, could you go into more detail about this lost masterpiece? What was the origin of the idea? How did you see the narrative unfolding? What was the concept behind your vision?

About 15 years ago, David and I stumbled upon an orange ceramic worm that we named Montgomery and gave him a first and last name, as I do with all of my possessions. We made up stories about Montgomery and although he eventually broke, the idea of a kids’ book based off of him persisted.

The book would be about a worm trying to figure out what kind of worm he is and going on various adventures, with one of the ideas being that the worm is split in half and goes on separate journeys before meeting up at the end. Despite these ideas, the Hyperion editors thought that the worm wouldn’t be sympathetic enough as he didn’t have high self-esteem or any ambition. The point of the book, however, is to show that it is okay to live life without ambition.

One could say it rings a bell, doesn’t it?

AS: [Laughs] No, I’m not particularly driven in regards to my acting career. I’m not pounding on my agency’s door or sending out headshots. Even when I’m offered work, I always choose small roles and it really irritates my agent. When it comes to performing material that other people wrote, I’m completely out of my element. Memorizing a script and delivering lines is not my strong suit; I’m easily confused and it just looks phony to me. I find it difficult to be creative in that manner. Usually I just roll up and ask, “What would you like me to do?” I’m on their turf, so I’ll do whatever they want, whatever decisions they want me to make. To be honest, I really don’t understand what they’re hoping for from me. I don’t have any kind of handle on that kind of thing.

BLVR: I saw that you seemed a bit uneasy in Maid in Manhattan. I figured it was because you were not allowed to don a fat suit.

AS: I’m not sure. I asked if I could put a mole on my face but they said no. Some actors would say that I’m just using costumes to hide my fear and that I should show more vulnerability. I accept that I’m using costumes as a shield, but dressing up and performing is what I’m comfortable with. For me, wearing a costume is the only way I can become someone else. Otherwise, it’s just me saying lines. And that’s not as enjoyable. I understand it’s a mental thing, but I need it.

BLVR: Could it be possible that I have witnessed a character similar to Jerri Blank in Strangers with Candy before? It appears to me that I have seen this character in one of your stage plays.

AS believes that they have five or six types of characters that they use often, with Jerri being the most prominent. At times, AS does not feel inspired to come up with something new, attributing this to either laziness or being part of their creative process. When collaborating with David, AS uses Jerri as a starting point, feeling relaxed and comfortable while performing. AS explains that they can separate themselves from Jerri and use her as an actress to invent a role, such as a junkie whore or a woman who collects doll furniture. Is this clear?

BLVR: Thus, it is Jerri’s take on the character and not yours?

Yeah, it’s kinda like Morgan Fairchild. She has done a lot of distinct characters, yet it always feels like she’s the same individual in every part. That’s how I employ Jerri. She’s a single person walking multiple diverse paths. However, her sound, her overbite, her stance all remain the same. You can create a change with a wig, but still can’t hide her. I’ve even started to utilize her in tryouts. I’ll recite for a role with her vocalization, because it aids me to observe the gaps. If I have to say it in my own voice, I can’t make it through. But Jerri gives me concentration.


BLVR: Let’s further discuss your proclaimed absence of ambition. Given your quality work in book writing, television, sketch revues, and off-Broadway plays, it appears that you are not experiencing any sort of imaginative lethargy. Most authors would be content to excel in a single area, but you have demonstrated aptitude in many. In your eyes, why do you still consider yourself to be lacking in motivation?

For me, the concept is often enough. Strangers with Candy wouldn’t exist without Paul and Stephen Colbert, and I was content with simply coming up with the idea. When it becomes a reality, though, I’m usually let down because it’s not how I pictured it. It turns into a job.

Therefore, I enjoy improvisational theatre because it’s done in one take and there’s no need to labor over preplanning. If I get a laugh, I don’t want to do it again. That’s why when I was doing Strangers and the director said I could only have one take, it was an incredible rush of adrenaline. That’s the best thing you can tell me.

BLVR: It is possible to look at this situation in two ways. It may be that you are simply unable to concentrate for any length of time, or maybe your nature requires you to be constantly stimulated by fresh concepts.

Both naivete and satisfaction have been experienced in AS’s work with Paul and Stephen. When Wigfield was published last summer, it was the first time they had written a book, and similarly, Strangers with Candy was the first television show they had composed. Since they lacked knowledge of the rules of the industry, they got away with a great deal. Nevertheless, when they realized the limitations, it became a job and lost its allure. AS stated, “When it’s a job, I’m no longer interested.”

BLVR: The desire to be spontaneous can be a challenge when you’re acting in a play. Even when you have the liberty to alter single lines and improvise, the same narrative must be repeated time and time again.

AS admitted that it can be difficult to stage a theatrical production, wishing that all theater could be a one-time-only event. To fulfill this wish, they attempted to do two plays, ‘ night, Mother and Come Back, Little Sheba, as one-off shows. To make the experience more enjoyable, they even provided a meal for the audience. AS believes that this is the ideal way of doing theater, with only one chance to view the performance, and the added bonus of a hot dinner for those who attend.

BLVR: Performing in ‘ night, Mother had to be a challenge. It’s a rather intense work. Not many comical moments can be found in this tragedy about suicide. Did you deliver it realistically, or were there a few humorous asides for the onlookers?

AS asserted that he had not interfered with it in any way.

BLVR: To tell the truth?

For my part, I donned a bulky suit. We decided to include an additional gunshot at the conclusion. We didn’t modify any of the lines. I acted completely earnestly. No hint of irony.

BLVR: [ Amused ] Indeed, there is a hint of irony. Adding an extra gunshot changes the whole dynamic of the play.

AS [Laughs] That’s awesome. When I was performing Come Back, Little Sheba I had a picture of a Boston Terrier on the wall, since the eyes of a Boston Terrier are far apart and bulging. That’s what I pictured Sheba to look like, and it never had to be explained. The story didn’t change, but I was always imagining that particular type of dog every time I talked about Sheba.


Syphilis is a bacterial infection that can be passed on from mother to her baby during pregnancy or childbirth. Babies born with syphilis may experience a range of serious health problems, such as rashes, fevers, and damage to the heart, eyes, bones, and brain.

BLVR: Would you call yourself a comedian?

Oh no, I really dislike being called that. I would never refer to myself as either a comedian or an actress. Please don’t ever connect me to those titles.

BLVR: Might it be that labeling you a comic leads people to anticipate humor from you?

Completely. If one is to be called a comic, they have to be ready to make their viewers chuckle. In that sense, it carries a lot of weight. At one point, a magazine dubbed me as the “Sexiest Comic.” It was mortifying. I made every effort to avoid looking sexy, and then to add “comic” to it? I was so embarrassed that I stayed in my apartment for weeks.

BLVR: Would it be accurate to infer that Strangers with Candy is not a comedy in your opinion?

AS: The name isn’t the point; I just don’t like attaching the label “comedy” to anything. It’s like if someone told me I should find something humorous – my immediate reaction would be to resist it.

When I’m in a bookshop and I spot a section titled “humor”, I get mad. Don’t tell me a book is amusing – let me decide that. It’s the same with sitcoms. Call something a sitcom, and everyone anticipates it to be funny, and that spoils it. I’d prefer a show on the Lifetime channel, where people don’t expect jokes.

When we made Strangers with Candy, we wanted to present it 100% seriously – no laugh track or anything. Unfortunately, Comedy Central didn’t go for it.

BLVR: This is where things become complicated. You are performing a show for Comedy Central, however you do not desire it to be a comedy. When you do a thirty minute show for a channel that is typically known for comedy, there is an assumption of what the outcome will be. It is difficult to give your audience what is expected of you while staying true to your more serious style.

AS: Could you explain the concept of dark sensibilities to me?

BLVR: You enjoy humor that has an element of horror to it. You are adept at finding balance between the comedic and the tragic.

I never see my place in a sinister light, yet when people come over they are shocked. They ask me how I can find anything nice about a child with syphilis in a picture? I don’t have an answer, I simply like it. But I had to take it down due to the criticism.

I have other items that others find strange, such as wax heads with growths and tooth decay. I also have a nice stuffed squirrel, weasel and chipmunk from Mr. Potter’s Museum of Curiosities. Lastly, I have a pair of corrective shoes that are of different sizes, which I enjoy putting outside my apartment door.

BLVR: Is it enjoyable for you to frighten people?

AS: To be clear, my intention isn’t to shock them. I don’t want to make them gape in surprise when they visit.

BLVR: It’s hard for me to accept that.

AS: [ Laughs ] I’m certainly becoming more comfortable. Whenever I think something might alarm others, I make sure to not let them discover it. This one time, a friend visited me and went about inspecting my bedroom. Later, she stared at me and said, “Amy, it looks like you lost a baby.”

What is the opinion of your family concerning your enthusiasm for grim topics?

In North Carolina, our lives had been sheltered from much of the fringe culture. When my brother David brought home a copy of Diane Arbus’ book of photographs with the twins on the cover, however, that all changed. We were all captivated and read anything we could find on diseases and physical deformities. David and my sister Gretchen were especially passionate about the topic. That book was the first of many to come. What was it called?

Do you mean the book titled An Aperture Monograph?

I was completely blown away by the experience, and it had a huge impact on my life. David and I are still passionate about learning about physical anomalies.

We even found a shop in New York that sells antique medical books with color photographs of people with various conditions. To maintain privacy, they put black tape over the people’s eyes in the pictures. It’s funny because, who else is going to have that growth coming out of their neck? Someone could be reading it at a gathering and ask, “Hey Linda, is that you?” [ Breaks down laughing ] It’s hilarious.

BLVR: It is often a difficult task to make people feel uneasy with humor, however, talking about illnesses is one of the few surefire ways to do so. Even among those who are not as concerned with being politically correct, joking about diseases is still considered to be taboo. It is acceptable to jest about someone’s race or sexual orientation, but when it comes to the topic of death, not many people are able to find the amusing side. There is a widespread fear that if one laughs about being ill, they may become so.

Recently, I had a dental issue that became severely infected and caused my face to swell up. Strangely, no one felt sorry for me, instead telling me, “You see what happens? You better be careful what you wish for.” I’m not really scared of getting sick; rather, planning for the future scares me. It appears to be setting yourself up for potential failure.

So, I just try to live day-to-day. Whenever people talk about making plans for the following year or even Easter, I find it difficult to comprehend. I mean, how can you be so sure that you’ll even be alive? I don’t believe in planning too far ahead since it would be a tragedy if I didn’t make it.

BLVR: Could it be that your comedic expression is a result of your need to shield yourself from potential distress? Thomas Gray’s oft-cited saying about laughing uproariously amidst the most extreme affliction is testimony to this. Oftentimes, the sole sensible reaction to unimaginable horror is to giggle at it.

AS: I’m not certain. It’s true that when I’m given bad news, I often laugh instantly. I don’t do this for protection, it’s just that I had a relationship with someone who became gravely ill and was nearly gone. That changed my outlook on life.

BLVR: Are you referring to having a romantic partner when you say “involved”?

When I was just twenty-two and living in Carolina, my significant other and I had been together for several years. Absolutely nothing seemed to be wrong with him, and then, unexpectedly, he experienced multiple brain aneurysms in a row. He became like a newborn, unable to talk, move around, or even use the restroom. I dedicated three years of my life to taking care of him, which changed my outlook on life drastically.

I’m confident that the passing of your mother was a contributing factor to your current situation.

AS: Certainly. I often distinguish between people. “Do both your parents still live? Okay, then you can take a seat on that side of the room.” That way, those who have lost a parent can recognize that there is a special bond between them. When it’s the anniversary of the deceased parent, it is always a significant day. Do both of your folks still live?

A few years ago, my dad passed away.

AS: So you understand what I’m saying. Even though he isn’t physically present, it’s a different way of him being with me. Whenever I need or desire something costly, money always appears in my mailbox. I’m always certain that it is from my mother. It’s hard to put into words, but it brings me a very soothing feeling. I’m not scared of death at all.

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