How Amy Sedaris became a deranged domestic goddess
The uncanny, as Freud defined it, is not the sensation of encountering something new or strange, but rather that of something familiar and old encountered anew. No comic performer better encapsulates this feeling than Amy Sedaris, who has spent her career bringing to life a surreal cast of characters, most unforgettably Jerri Blank, a 46-year-old ex-prostitute who returns to high school in the cult series Strangers With Candy.
Raised in North Carolina among five other siblings (her older brother is the writer David Sedaris), she moved to Chicago and joined the Second City, where she met her future collaborators Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello. The comedy trio first teamed up on television in 1995 for Exit 57, a short-lived but critically acclaimed sketch comedy show, and then again in 1999 for Strangers With Candy, a deranged twist on the after-school specials of the ’70s and ’80s. Beyond making dozens of guest appearances on everything from Sex and the City to Sesame Street—as well as lending her voice to the character of Princess Carolyn on Netflix’s BoJack Horseman—Sedaris has penned plays with her brother David, created a line each of fabrics and home goods, and written two best-selling books—one on entertaining, the other on crafting—imbuing each with her mordant humor. (A tip from 2006’s I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence: “A good trick is to fill your medicine cabinet with marbles. Nothing announces a nosy guest better than an avalanche of marbles hitting a porcelain sink.”)
Sedaris will once again fuse domesticity and comedy in her new series At Home With Amy Sedaris, which premieres next month on TruTV. The show will feature lessons from Sedaris on all matters of the home—from gutting a fish to decorating for the holidays. Shortly after wrapping production on the show’s first season, the 56-year-old oddball called up her friend, Broad City‘s Abbi Jacobson, for a conversation about apartments, pets, and the characters who have been inside her from the very beginning.
AMY SEDARIS: Where are you right now?
ABBI JACOBSON: I’m in L.A.
SEDARIS: Do you drive?
JACOBSON: I do drive. Do you?
SEDARIS: I don’t anymore. I mean, I have a driver’s license, but since I moved to Chicago from North Carolina, I stopped driving.
JACOBSON: I remember when you drove the Smart car on our show, and I don’t know if you were doing a bit, but you were like, “I don’t drive”—as we were driving. [laughs]
SEDARIS: People don’t want me on the road.
JACOBSON: In New York, you don’t need to be.
SEDARIS: And I got Uber—that’s the reason I got a phone, because I was in someone’s wedding in L.A., and I needed to get to the wedding, and the only way you can get Uber is with an iPhone.
JACOBSON: I remember one of the last times I saw you, you had just gotten an iPhone. It was a big deal.
SEDARIS: I’m hip now.
JACOBSON: I’m very impressed when someone doesn’t have one. It’s so romantic to me. Do you use other apps on it, or are you just Ubering and calling?
SEDARIS: I don’t use it that often. I don’t know my number or anything like that, but when I do have to make a call, I just pull my body over to the side and squat. I don’t want to be one of those people who are on their phone all the time.
JACOBSON: I texted you recently and you texted me back.
SEDARIS: I was going out of town, and someone was watching my rabbit, so I was on my phone.
JACOBSON: Have you always had a rabbit?
SEDARIS: She’s my third rabbit, so, yes. Do you have a pet?
JACOBSON: I don’t. But I did have a rabbit as a kid.
SEDARIS: Uh oh, everyone starts off that way and then a horrible story follows.
JACOBSON: I really want a dog, but I just feel crazy right now, schedule-wise and emotionally.
SEDARIS: You’re having a hard time? What’s going on?
JACOBSON: It’s just not a good time for me to get a pet. Hey, aren’t you the subject of this interview? [laughs]
SEDARIS: Well, now I’m dying to know what’s happening. Oh, it’s awful no matter what it is. It’s so draining when you have some kind of personal problem; it’s just all you can think about. When I was doing Strangers With Candy, I went through a breakup or something, and it was all I was ever thinking about while shooting. That’s me, anyway—I get obsessive like that.
JACOBSON: I’m just so happy for the distraction of doing creative things.
SEDARIS: But it’s still there; it’s like a frickin’ steering-wheel-sized mole on your face. I think the best thing you can do is look at it and go, “I’ve got a problem, lucky me! How am I going to tackle it?” If you look at it that way—like, step outside of yourself and look at it from afar—sometimes that helps. Make it a fun challenge.
JACOBSON: Do you find this ends up in your work?
SEDARIS: No matter what you do, it has to. Sometimes it’s fun to have something to work up against. You know how sometimes before you have to do something physical, the whole day just feels as if you’re walking in slow motion? And then the minute you get onstage, you’re like, “Boom!” and it all comes out.
JACOBSON: I haven’t been performing live very much, but I have been thinking a lot about this duality in myself—how the performance part of me is so different than the actual life I’m living. I wonder if you feel this way, because I’m sure your characters are like little seeds of you. I remember before I met you I was nervous. I think every single person who meets you feels that way.
SEDARIS: That’s funny. I never think like that. Am I not approachable?
JACOBSON: I met you in hair and makeup when you did Broad City, and I was immediately like, “Oh, you’re so down to earth and so easy to talk to.” But you play these incredibly nuanced characters.
SEDARIS: I’m drawn to real-life characters. A lot of the characters I play, I’ve had in me since second grade. I’ve been dragging them around my entire life, and then sometimes I marry them with different people. But seldom have I really come up with a new character. In my head it’s like, “I’ll pull that person out that I’ve been doing since sixth grade and see where they’re at right now.” For this new TV show, there is this Southern women I play, and she’s a combination of a bunch of Southern women I know and a character I do for my family when we’re at the beach. I give these fake ghost tours of the island we go to.
JACOBSON: Tell me about the show.
SEDARIS: It’s a little homemaking show: cooking, crafting, decorating. I play different characters, and we have actors who play experts, and we’re all a part of this fictitious town that the show takes place in. It’s got a Martha Stewart-esque feel to it—we’ll address the camera as the audience.
JACOBSON: So there’s comedy, but you’re making legit things?
SEDARIS: I am, but you’re not really going to learn anything. I can’t make things well. I have the enthusiasm to do it and I know the people who are talented enough to make it for me, but I’m really not great at anything except making pot holders and covering lighters.
JACOBSON: I have your pot holders.
SEDARIS: I grew up with a show called At Home With Peggy Mann, which I was obsessed with. I remember pointing to the TV and saying, “I’m going to do that show one day.” She would have local people on to talk about bat sleeves and boring stuff—it was incredibly boring—but I just couldn’t get enough of her. There’s one copy of it that exists, because back then they recorded over all the VHS tapes. I contacted her son and I was able to find an episode.
JACOBSON: I read that you used to have a baking business with your mom.
SEDARIS: It wasn’t officially a baking business. I would make things on the side. We’d make baklava and spanakopita and stuff like that and sell it.
JACOBSON: That feels like the beginning of what you’re doing now.
SEDARIS: Oh, definitely. Everything in the show is stuff I’ve been doing my entire life. That’s the fun thing—getting it all out.
JACOBSON: Okay, this is such a creepy thing that I’m about to bring up because I don’t know how—I think I saw it in The New York Times—but I know what your apartment looks like. Did someone do an article about your apartment?
SEDARIS: I’ve had my apartment photographed at least twice, but it’s very different since then. It doesn’t look like any photographs out there now.
JACOBSON: I found the photos to be so inspiring in terms of creating a personal space that is so … you. It seems like every detail of your place is thought through.
JACOBSON: Where does that come from? Has it always been like that?
SEDARIS: My parents always had a lot of art, and there are artists in my family. We all love to be at home, so we’re good at creating a space and having it feel special. I just have to be surrounded by everything that I like. I don’t understand when people get an apartment and are like, “Well, it’s a rental, so I’m not going to paint,” or, “I’m not going to put holes in the wall.” You have to pay that deposit for a reason—to me it’s like, “Oh, it’s only going to cost me $1,800 to do whatever I want to my apartment?”
JACOBSON: Right now I’m staying in an Airbnb, and there’s artwork in here that drives me insane. I don’t know what to do.
SEDARIS: Gift wrap it! I would put gift wrap over it with a big bow and turn everything on the wall into a present. And then you unwrap it when you move out.
JACOBSON: I’ll let them unwrap it.
SEDARIS: [laughs] I love it when you go to J.C. Penney and they have all the presents hanging up on the wall. It’s really pretty.
JACOBSON: This is a good segue, because lately I’ve been interested in people who do more than one creative thing. And you are so that. Obviously, you do comedy but also crafts, and homemaking and decorating, and you have a product line at Fishs Eddy—how did that come about?
SEDARIS: They approached me. I just love having something to sell; I always have something to sell on me. So it was a dream come true to have a place for people to walk into and buy something of mine. I was having this conversation with Philip Seymour Hoffman once, and he also said how he envied that I have many interests. He was talking about how he had to learn to play the violin for a movie and how happy it made him learning something new. And I said to him, “I envy you because you have one thing and you’re really good at it, and that’s the thing that you do. Look at you, Phil, you’re an Oscar winner. You’re one of the best actors ever.” So it goes both ways.
JACOBSON: I sometimes worry that maybe it’s better to be really good at one thing than be okay at a couple things. Is there anything new you’re interested in right now? I know you just finished a big project, so what now?
SEDARIS: The first thing I want to do is read. My brother had a book come out, and I still haven’t had a chance to read it.
JACOBSON: Oh, right.
SEDARIS: Even though we have editing and I have to gear up for press, I just can’t wait to get back to that part of my life. I’m a big reader and there are so many books stacking up on my table. I just want to read and I want to lay on my back and get a suntan. I’m a big tanner. And then I’ll tinker in my apartment because so much of it has been used on the set, and it makes me want to change it. I’ll probably pick a room and attack it, and that will be my little hobby.
JACOBSON: That sounds like the best.
JACOBSON: It was so nice to catch up.
SEDARIS: Let’s catch up in person because I want to talk about your problem. I love listening to other people’s problems. I’m a real good listener—the best you’ll ever talk to.
AT HOME WITH AMY SEDARIS DEBUTS OCTOBER 24, 2017 ON TRUTV. ABBI JACOBSON IS THE CO-CREATOR AND CO-STAR OF THE COMEDY CENTRAL SERIES BROAD CITY, WHICH RETURNS FOR A FOURTH SEASON THIS MONTH.