AT HOME WITH AMY
Amy Sedaris Is Out of Her Mind—and We’re So Lucky For It
The host of ‘At Home With Amy Sedaris’ gets to the bottom of what makes her kooky brand of comedy tick—with a quick detour about gender-flipping rabbits.
I walk in on Amy Sedaris as she’s completing an interview for “How I Get It Done,” the hallowed series published by The Cut that interviews the likes of Kamala Harris, Jill Abramson, and Kelly Ripa about their daily routines and juggling busy lives. I’m in the next room, but the phrases that puncture through the wall are as unmistakable as they are unusual: “Well, I got shingles…;” “It was when I went to the lady who talks to dead people…;” and, “So that’s why I went to the acupuncturist…”
So when we finally get settled next to each other, I have a very pressing question: “Huh?”
“I guess it’s quite an icebreaker,” she laughs. The actress, producer, author, expert crafter, rabbit enthusiast, and one of the best late-night talk show guests there has ever been relates an abbreviated version of the story, which ended up inspiring an essay titled “The Spirit World” by her brother, writer David Sedaris.
Their sister, Tiffany, had just died and Amy had gone to see a medium about it. “She had my sister’s voice down, no question,” she says. “But she didn’t have my mother’s voice down. Then Phil Hoffman popped up in there.” She was open to the entire experience, heeding advice to drink a lot of water before and, for some reason, keep an eye on your pet. “I wasn’t stressed out about anything,” she says. “But then the next day I got shingles.”
She shrugs. Giggles. Well, OK then.
Believe it or not, it’s a fitting segue into our discussion of the second season of At Home With Amy Sedaris, her TruTV combination sketch/hospitality show. Nominated for an Emmy last year for Outstanding Variety Sketch Program, Sedaris’ program, which she had spent the last 20 years noodling about and brainstorming, debuted to uniformly rave reviews. The series is often described in shorthand as a cross between Martha Stewart Living and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, typically along with adjectives like “bizarre,” “bonkers,” “demented,” “madcap…”
“Quirky,” she says, cutting me off with a sigh. “That’s my whole life.”
“They’re easy words,” she says. “And you’re just like, what do they mean? I just think it’s bad writing a lot of times. Bad writing’s not fair. But you know what I mean. When people use words like that it seems lazy to me.”
So I ask her how she would describe it. “I know. It’s hard to describe.”
Such is the treasure of Amy Sedaris.
She’s valuable every time she’s used: A scene-stealer in comedy series like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Broad City, or Sex and the City. One of the streaming era’s most cherished voice actors, with her work as Princess Carolyn on Bojack Horseman. A crafter for the masses, with books Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People and I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence. She was so effective in commercials for Downey that I abruptly ended lifelong loyalty to a competing brand. She once sold cupcakes and cheese balls out of her apartment.
Her pride and joy is Tina, her pet rabbit of the last four years—though she’s had a bit of a surprise recently on that front. “I found out Tina was a boy,” she says. “That’s a big thing happening in my life right now. Can you believe it? I can’t change her name. She got sick and they had to give her a catheter and were like, Amy, this is a boy rabbit.”
Put a wig on Sedaris, get her to slip into an accent, bring out the prosthetics, buy some super glue, sprinkle some glitter on it, ask her about her sister, get her started on a story about her rabbit. It’s all in the toolbox, and finally she’s the one in control of which tools come out to be used.
“It’s like you have a big closet that’s full of everything and you open it and some things fall out and you are like well, this is what we’re going to use for the show,” she says. “Everything you know you have to bring to a project, whatever it is. These are just things I’m interested in. That’s my toolbox.”
When we meet on an afternoon a few weeks before At Home returns to TruTV (Feb. 19 at 10 pm), she is wearing a floor-length black peasant skirt with pops of fabric flourishes in a palate that could only be described as “pirate colors.” She has on a black and white polka dot top, with a zip-up hoodie in a different polka dot pattern on top of that. Her hair is styled and curled into a blonde bob of ringlets and waves. She looks fantastic.
Months before, we’re with a very different Sedaris on the At Home set on the Upper West Side.
It’s a glorious craftsman dollhouse that you can move through almost functionally, setting up an I Spy of curios from Sedaris’s own life. The glue bottles in the crafting corner are hers. The hair lamp—that would be a lamp with a shade adorned in tassles of hair—is a replica from the one in her apartment. The rusted nail wind chimes that are hanging could be yours; instructions on how to make one are in her books. Then there’s the collage of personal photos on the wall: pictures of her niece, her friend Stephen Colbert, herself dressed as Jerri Blank in her breakout series, Strangers With Candy.
Off in the living room, Sedaris is acting against a formidable lineup of comedy kooks: Broadway star Jackie Hoffman, cult comedian Cole Escola, Veep’s David Pasquesi, and herself. In this scene, Amy, the fictional host of the show, is trying to figure out how a gaggle of killer turkeys got loose, interrogating Hoffman’s town librarian and turkey expert, Winifred Snood; Escola’s former pastry chef Chassie Tucker (performed in drag); Pasquesi’s Tony, the knife guy; and her own Patty Hogg.
It’s a long scene that no one seems to be able to get through without laughing. Between takes, it somehow comes up that Sedaris is obsessed with tiny furniture. She got hip to diminutive seating after seeing some in friends Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker’s house. “And what’s the point of having a tall bed anyway?” she asks. “You could fall out.” Later, she proclaims that she needs a hot dog in her mouth.
It’s a tame level of lunacy compared to what actually airs on At Home.
In the premiere, “Teenagers,” Amy instructs viewers how to deal with the episode’s titular subject. “Nothing strikes fear into adults quite like the word ‘teenager,’” she says to camera. “It ranks right between ‘foreclosure’ and ‘colonoscopy.’” She reads an entry from her high school diary. “My wisdom teeth came in, all six of them. I can’t wait to chew meat. Also, that thing happened to my body that they warn you about in health class, only on the other end.”
The diary theme carries to a Crafting Corner segment, in which she advises, “Teenagers love to write in diaries because it gives them a safe place to unload their feelings and let off emotional steam. Other typical release valves for teens include group sex, arson, and animal cruelty. Diaries are often used by troubled teens as a friend to confide in, and by the state as evidence in juvenile court. Today we’re going to use simple, fun ways for teenagers to customize their diary cover.”
Pasquesi’s Tony the Knife Guy then comes to pay a visit. “Last night I did a little research into you teenagers by watching West Side Story and apparently you all love knives,” she exclaims. The whole thing takes a perverse, menacing turn in tone. It’s unsettling. It’s a delight.
“It’s such a Strangers episode,” Sedaris laughs. “I love it.” Another favorite: A guest appearance from friend Justin Theroux that happens later in the season.
She still can’t believe she managed to pull off a second season, which shot its 10 episodes in an absurdly rushed nine weeks. “You know what helped me this year to get into it is jigsaw puzzles,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine doing another 10 episodes, but once I started doing jigsaw puzzles piece by piece, as queer as it sounds, it just helped me think of doing the show that way. Like, next thing you know you finished the jigsaw puzzle.”
The pieces of this particular puzzle happen to be assembled from her entire life, from her childhood to crafting hobbies to her acting career.
Her personal effects hang on the walls. The show’s tone and many of its characters are an homage to the hospitality series she used to watch on local public access television, like WTVD’s At Home With Peggy Mann and WRAL’s The Bette Elliott Show. The sketch comedy is very much a descendant of her Second City comedy troupe days and Strangers With Candy playground. And the guest stars are, essentially, her best friends: Theroux, Broderick, Michael Shannon, Ana Gasteyer, Susan Sarandon, Jessica Walter, Darrell Hammond, and more.
At Home’s scrappy, silly ethos underscores just how far the hospitality shows that transfixed Sedaris as a kid have evolved from the joyous imperfection of Julia Child dropping the potato pancake on the floor to the meticulous perfection of Pinterest and today’s cooking shows.
“It’s like who has this electrical lemon grinder?” Sedaris says. “Just squeeze it yourself. When they say you need all that stuff, it makes me feel left out. I don’t have a huge kitchen. I don’t have any of the gadgets you just showed me, or nice countertops. And why don’t you have an apron on? I just can’t relate to it, that’s all. But the older shows, I could. Those were the shows back then. Julia Child and The Galloping Gourmet. They seemed like real people and were doing something sincere.”
And don’t get her started on the Martha Stewart pipe cleaner mouse. “I made that mouse, and in no way did you make that. With these instructions? I don’t buy it.”
I figure it’s a good time to ask again, then, how she would describe it all, everything that she’s spend two decades thinking about and cataloguing and then, finally, bringing to life with At Home With Amy Sedaris.
“You get that feeling like you’re in the bottom of this I Dream of Jeannie bottle, and you’ve created this world,” she says, giggling one more time with another matter-of-fact shrug. “You’re just in it.”