Told in a short story by brother David, Amy Sedaris once used cash fresh from a recently canceled TV show to buy a fat suit in order to prank her father. The comic and actor wore the bottom half to test his reaction, not the sort of extravagance one might expect from a celebrity with money to burn. His reaction to this provocation was to tell Amy that she must be bored. But, as shown throughout her career, Sedaris has remained anything but, her energy infused in everything she has done, from small roles in Broad City and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to a lead in her cult sitcom Strangers with Candy. She’s continued to reject assumptions and classifications placed on her, refusing to make the compromises many women are forced to make, and while this hasn’t always led to an accepting industry, last year she broke through with her surrealist show At Home with Amy Sedaris, the second season of which is about to begin.
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Her sympathy for those who reject conformity can be seen way back in Exit 57, an alt-comedy show she created with Paul Dinello and Stephen Colbert. In one sketch, Sedaris plays a nurse who, as the only woman in the room, knows that a woman who is being sent to an asylum due to her “unresponsiveness” actually just needs her partner to treat her like a human being. Her instructions are ignored, and the woman is sedated. Similarly, in a sketch entitled Horse Girl, she takes a sympathetic look at an easily stereotyped caricature while also mocking the intense devotion she has towards horses. It also exemplifies Sedaris’ appreciation for the uncool, something that has become in many ways her trademark.
This came to the forefront in Strangers with Candy, a satirical sitcom that aired in 1999 and ran for three seasons on Comedy Central. Reteaming with co-creators and stars Dinello and Colbert, Sedaris took on the character of Jerri Blank, who in her own words is “a boozer, a user and a loser”, a 46-year-old high school freshman trying to put her past as a “junkie whore” behind her. Blank was based on a character called Florrie Fisher from after-school special The Trip Back, who refers to herself as “a shoplifter, a moll buzzer and a juzzler”. As an adult she lectured students on the dangers of drugs with some seemingly hyperbolic stories and Blank is her comic doppelganger, spouting advice to others while struggling to take any of it herself, selling drugs to classmates and developing bulimia for attention. Playing older when many actors would be playing younger, Sedaris’ grotesque creation might have developed a cult following years later but at the time wasn’t quite the success it should have been, resurrected only in 2005 for a film that was aimed at hardcore fans only.
Elizabeth Sallay and Amy Sedaris in Strangers with Candy. Photograph: Allstar Picture LibraryAfter the show ended in 2000, it might seem to the outside observer that her career had stalled. While she had roles in Monk, Sex and the City, School of Rock, Maid in Manhattan and My Name is Earl, her appearances were so minor that they barely existed, no role offering anywhere near the same screen time as Jerri Blank.
“I’m not ambitious when it comes to my acting career,” Sedaris confessed in a 2004 interview. “I’m not breaking down my agency’s doors or sending out headshots. Even when I’m offered work, I always want small parts and my agent gets so mad at me. When it comes to things that other people have written, I just don’t know what I’m doing.”
It took time for her to creep back into centre stage, spouting lines that she herself had written yet again. Superficially, At Home with Amy Sedaris is a gonzo critique of domestic television, but underneath the surface, it’s more of a loving parody of housewives who calmly weather the storm of the outside world by creating a haven inside the home. Described as “Martha Stewart on crack” by the New York Times, the more operative drug in At Home with Amy Sedaris might be ketamine. Each episode in the series starts with a craft, and ends in chaos. Her world is dissociative, as are her attempts to turn away from the fractious political climate, aided by a list of celebrity guests, such as Michael Shannon, Matthew Broderick and Rose Byrne. There’s deep affection for hosts such as Julia Child and Stewart (whose show Sedaris has featured on many times) yet her earnest facade is pierced by often surrealist outside forces. An episode might start with an innocuous subject – like women’s hats – and will end with Sedaris being quite literally fridged, slang for when a female character is maimed in order to advance the plot.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest With At Home With Amy Sedaris, she has joined a roster of female comics who have also been allowed to author their own uncompromising work. From Sarah Silverman’s I Love America to Maria Bamford’s Lady Dynamite to Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, the wider variety of streaming services and cable networks has led to a blossoming of female-fronted comedy. Venues like truTV (a network that sprang from the ashes of Court TV), which seems to exist to mainly broadcast transgressive comedy, did not exist around the time Strangers with Candy was canceled. Her place as an elder stateswoman has also been cemented with guest spots on female-created shows such as Broad City and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Sedaris’s empathy for Jerri Blank’s plight might come from the fact that Sedaris has also managed to maintain a place both outside and inside pop culture. She has brought enthusiasm to even the smallest roles that she takes, and has also spent time writing comedy books – one book, I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence, which focused on homemaking, was probably the basis for her current show. Stunts such as baking cupcakes and selling them to fans looking for an autograph, and having a makeup artist give her a beat-down makeover seem like the type of outsider art performance pieces that would be in line with Andy Kaufman. Yet like the renegade comic, Sedaris resists typecasting and with her latest work, she has managed to create a space all of her own.
At Home with Amy Sedaris returns to truTV on 19 February