Strangers With Crafting
Amy Sedaris: The Demented Martha Stewart We Need Right Now
The scene-stealing actress has spent almost her entire life developing a show about crafting. You’d never imagine how entertaining it would end up being. A chat with Amy Sedaris.
In dark and uncertain times like these, what the world needs is to watch Amy Sedaris cook a fish.
“Fish: a strange, cold-blooded, and limbless creature that thrives in the stuff we drown in,” Sedaris, addressing the camera from behind the kitchen counter of her homemaking-meets-sketch-comedy show At Home With Amy Sedaris. “A thing of nightmares,” she continues. “But when battered and pan-fried, scrumptious!”
She takes us through the buffet of fish before her. There’s the red snapper, with its high mercury content: “Perfect if slowly poisoning a loved one is on the menu.” Today’s catch of choice, though, is the river fish: “Always a crowd pleaser, assuming the crowd loves river fish.”
Later in the episode, we meet Ruth, the Lady Who Lives in the Woods, who shows us how to clean fish. Tony the Knife Guy, who fends for his life in the streets when he’s not sharpening kitchen utensils, stops by. A fake commercial for Von Mueller’s maple-syrup plays, asserting that it’s still good even though it happened to be the syrup choice of Adolf Hitler during World War II: “Look at it this way, the Nazis could’ve used any syrup they wanted. They chose Von Mueller’s.”
Thoughts like “What the hell is this show?” and, “Thank God for this show,” compete for space in your brain while you watch.
The sentiments certainly wrestled in our mind during a visit to the show’s Harlem set over the summer. We arrived to see Sedaris dressed in what can best be described as tinfoil mod, popping out of a DIY spaceship and into a sort of mating dance with a green alien, ending with her handing him cheese on a cracker. Standing next to us with her hair twisted into some futuristic sculpture of Leia buns was guest star Aidy Bryant of Saturday Night Live, looking on with similarly bewildered delight.
“That’s when we were out of money and we were putting glitter on rocks,” Sedaris laughs when we reunite this week in SoHo, sans space-themed outfit, to chat more about the series now that its debut—Tuesday the 24th on truTV—is imminent.
“That was one of my favorite sets,” she says, her voice speeding up to the caffeinated, sweet-tea-soaked delivery that the North Carolina native has become known for. “Even though the guy who did the sets was disappointed that he couldn’t do what he wanted to do, I was like, are you kidding me? Rocks dipped in glitter is fantastic!”
The Strangers With Candy star’s signature madcap enthusiasm explodes all over At Home With Amy Sedaris. Officially, it’s a mash-up of homemaking, variety, and talk-show formats that a network release touts as a showcase for the actress’s “diverse—but necessary—homemaking skills, from Frenching beans, to gutting a trout, to crocheting miniature sweaters, to entertaining businessmen.”
Guests including Stephen Colbert and Jane Krakowski stop by between how-to cooking and crafting segments that have fostered shorthand descriptions for the show like “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse meets Martha Stewart”—at which Sedaris can barely disguise her scoff. This show is so uniquely from the delightfully demented mind of Amy Sedaris that it defies comparison.
It’s an idea that’s been noodling in the back of her mind for decades, gestating on the backburner while she acted, co-wrote plays with her brother David Sedaris, published two books (Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People, and I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence), peddled fabric softener (adorably), and sold cupcakes and cheese balls out of her apartment.
The off-handedness with which she mentions that latter pursuit will bowl you over.
“I stopped doing it because everyone started making cupcakes for a while, then the price of butter went up, and then I had a problem with mice and cockroaches…” she says when I press her more on the unexpected endeavor. She still makes them on request, but only on her terms. “I’m like, ‘Vanilla only. I decide if there’s a poke on it. No repeat business.’ It’s like, lady, who wants your stupid cupcakes? I can just go to Magnolia.”
It almost seems trite to label Sedaris a woman of many hats. But her hat collection does beg the question of why, with so many pursuits and projects over the years—from the books to recurring acting roles (Broad City, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, BoJack Horseman) to shilling baked goods—has she decided to finally make this long-gestating show a reality?
“I kind of look at it like a pothead mentality of someone who always says they’re going to do something, and you talk about it so long that you see your friends’ eyes get sleepy when you talk about it, because you’ve been talking about it forever,” she says.
There was a breaking point in that regard, but also a more personal motivation: Sedaris’s sister passed away, lighting a fire under her to make her lifelong dreams come true.
The truth is that At Home has been incubating since Sedaris’s days as a child watching public-access TV in North Carolina. She remembers being enamored by the paint-dry earnestness of the local Raleigh-Durham series At Home With Peggy Mann. “It was so boring,” she says. “I couldn’t take my eyes off it.”
Peggy Mann lives on in At Home With Amy Sedaris, as do her other inspirations. There’s a little of Tammy Faye Baker: “Watching her with her lashes and just making horrible food, she was such a character,” she says. Lawrence Welk and his sets. Ernie Kovacs’ surreal characters. Dinah Shore and The Frugal Gourmet. They all planted the seeds for a show like At Home, and Sedaris pays loving homage to all of them—albeit while skewering them.
In the crafting segment of the premiere, she makes Potato Ships, which are baked potatoes with flags on top and sails made out of cheese. Glue explodes everywhere. She jokes about how the paper separating cheese slices is a “great way to get off makeup.” It’s a hectic, endearing disaster, with Sedaris shrugging off each sloppy step—the crafting-room version of Julia Child missing the pancake flip.
“That’s what I miss in these shows, watching Martha Stewart or looking at her magazine,” she says. “I’m like, well I made a pipe-cleaner mouse and it doesn’t look anything like your pipe-cleaner mouse, and I did exactly what you told me to do. So what’s going on here?”
She rejects the idea that someone interested in crafts and projects needs to be as precious as some of the hosts you see on TV. “You’re like just give me the fucking craft!” Sedaris says. “You don’t want to have to hear about how they found the thread.”
Sedaris is extremely mindful of her own space limitations, as she lives in a New York City apartment, and ventures that others share her frustrations watching the endless conveyer belt of gadgets so many hosts swear are essential. “Like I watch Barefoot Contessa and she says she’s going to juice a lemon and takes out the huge thing that took up a whole New York City countertop,” she says. “I’m like, why don’t you stick a fork in it and twist? It’s the same thing.”
To that end, the At Home set loosely resembles Sedaris’s own apartment.
The artwork is modeled after what hangs in her own place. Personal photos and knick-knacks are scattered throughout. The aesthetic is as if a hoarding expert with a mischievous sense of humor restyled a crafting-room explosion into a chicer version of a Cracker Barrel gift shop. No empty surface is without a decoupaged wine glass. Knitted horses and balls of yarn are everywhere. On the wall, a framed needlepoint hangs and says “Bless This Mess.”
Perhaps the greatest verisimilitude on set is the omnipresence of photos of Tina, Sedaris’s rabbit, and of her dearly departed Dusty, the rabbit she lost three years ago. Rabbits are great pets for someone who lives in New York City, Sedaris swears. Tina is 3. She got her at Petco. She has a deformed paw, and weighs a whopping 7 pounds.
Rabbits, somehow, have become “a thing” for Sedaris. She’s filmed several how-to care videos for the pets. The ordeal of “having a dying rabbit on my hands” was a chorus of Sedaris’s interviews when BoJack Horseman premiered in 2014. Around the same time, she had just staged a rabbit intervention with Stephen Colbert, after finding out that he wasn’t properly caring for the animal he had begrudgingly purchased to appease his youngest son.
“I wonder if his rabbit is still alive,” she wonders, so matter-of-factly that we reflexively cackle. “I’m doing his show next week. I’ll have to ask him. I think it got picked up by an owl and dropped. In a bush. And broke its foot.” (How does that story keep escalating?) “They found it three days later. He hates that rabbit.”
So much of Sedaris’s life influenced different segments of At Home. Is Colbert’s character, a turtle sitter dismayed that one of Amy’s turtles is missing a foot, based on rabbit hijinks?
“Oh, no. My sister Gretchen has turtles and a raccoon chewed off a foot,” she says, not pausing for our gasp. “That’s where I got that idea. I’m like, ‘That’s horrible!’ Then I wrote it down for a future episode.”