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Stranger than fiction

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"Do you really want to know?" That rhetorical question, posed by Amy Sedaris, could refer to absolutely any aspect of her life or career, but at this point the 38-year-old comedian has only been asked how she spent her day. Sedaris is talking by phone from her apartment in New York's West Village, which she shares with a pet cat and an imaginary boyfriend named Ricky ("He's the best boyfriend in the whole world!" Sedaris says enthusiastically, spreading the love.) But after a week consumed mostly by writing sessions for the third season of her Comedy Central show Strangers with Candy (Comedy Central, 10 p.m., Mondays), the Raleigh native seems reluctant to discuss how she spent this afternoon.

It turns out that she has been out on assignment for Glamour magazine, getting a Brazilian bikini wax. Somehow the editors at the women's magazine thought Sedaris would be the perfect person to write a column on the subject of having your hair ripped out by melted wax, but now she's having second thoughts, wondering whether they'll expect her to clean up her scatological style.

"I guess I can't talk about getting my crack waxed," she says evenly, seriously considering possible excisions from her article.

She needn't worry. Even if the generally unsqueamish editors at Glamour haven't seen her politically incorrect cable television show, they probably haven't missed the print advertisement Sedaris recently produced for PETA, which would condition even the most naive to her comic sensibility. The ad criticizes the manufacturers of Premarin, an estrogen-replacement drug. According to PETA, Premarin is made from the estrogen-rich urine of pregnant horses, which are confined to narrow stalls and repeatedly impregnated, attached with urine-collection sacks, and denied water so their urine will yield a more concentrated estrogen. In the ad, a parody of the milk industry's "Got Milk?" campaign, Sedaris appears as her character from Strangers with Candy, sporting a yellow mustache and a horrified grimace on her face.

Disgusting--yes. Offensive, to some. Funny? Depends on whom you ask. But for fans of the cult hit Strangers with Candy, billed as "the after-hours after-school special", it's certainly not unexpected. For the past two years Sedaris has played Jerri Blank, a 46-year-old former teen runaway and prostitute ("I was a boozer, a user and a loser," Blank frequently declares) whose high-school career was interrupted by 30 years of jail time. Sedaris found inspiration for the character in a '60s documentary featuring a former drug addict and prostitute named Flurrie, who gave drug-prevention talks at high schools. With Jerri, the comely comedian has used her plastic features and an exaggerated overbite to reproduce Flurrie's physical appearance, which Sedaris has compared to that of Michael Dukakis. An $1,800 shellacked Donna Reed wig and sleazy '70s thrift-store clothes completes the aimed-for look of "someone who owns snakes."

The series opened two seasons ago with Jerri moving back in with her parents and returning to finish school at Flatpoint High (home of the Concrete Donkeys). The show's conceit is that for all of her physical maturity, Jerri has learned little from life's hard knocks: She's resigned to making the same old mistakes, but this time she'll make them "in the right way."

Storylines for the half-hour comedy often revolve around Jerri's attempts to fit in at school, efforts that are complicated by a serious lack of social skills and a warped sense of what constitutes appropriate behavior. At every opportunity, the leering Jerri comes on to underaged students, both male and female, at one point even dating a new student who turns out to be the son she abandoned many years ago (she wants to shag him anyway). In another episode, Jerri mixes up a batch of a homemade hallucinogen called Glimt and dispenses it to fellow students in an effort to gain popularity, inadvertently causing the death of the school's most popular student. In each episode, Jerri's rich vocabulary of sexual epithets and racial slurs is in constant attendance. The slow-witted and wheelchair-bound are mocked, gay men are offhandedly referred to as faggots, and parents are portrayed as strictly unnecessary.

It's that sort of show, which brilliantly capitalizes on the discomfiture we feel whenever confronted with the gap between our unrehearsed feelings and the programmed responses to family, prejudice and polymorphous sexuality we've been conditioned to produce. Some critics have referred to this piss-take on the after-school special as a metacomedy, a new breed of show that bypasses laugh-out-loud jokiness and aims instead at instilling in viewers a deep sense of uneasiness and discomfort. It's a formula that one commentator aptly described as "a spicy mix of the cozy and the macabre, like a Bloody Mary with real blood in it."

One thing you won't find in Strangers with Candy are references to Sedaris' own adolescent experiences at Raleigh's Sanderson High, where she was a member of the track team and Junior Achievement, a Girl Scout, and, in stark contrast to the STD-riddled Jerri Blank, was kissed only once by a boy, "through a fence." Sedaris says she even earned good grades and went to summer school of her own recognizance, "because there was nothing else to do." After school she hung around Raleigh for several years, working at various times at a Winn-Dixie, a Red Lobster and a Steak & Ale. Eventually she followed her brother, writer David Sedaris (affectionately referred to as her "alcoholic, homosexual brother" in an early typo-riddled bio pecked out on a typewriter by David himself) to Chicago, where she joined the city's famed Second City comedy troupe.

When David later moved to New York, his sister followed, to appear in the first show co-written by the siblings, "Jamboree." Afterward the brother-sister writing team dubbed themselves "The Talent Family" ("In a town like New York, one needs a name," Amy's bio says, "something that grabs, shouting, 'Is it OK if I'm here?'") The Talent Family wrote several more plays together, including 1996's "One Woman Shoe," a satire about welfare reform in which three women are told by their social-services caseworker that they will have to put on one-woman shows in order to keep the benefits checks coming. The play criticized government make-work programs and sent up performance artists such as Karen Finley, whose confessional performances relied in part on the controversy they stirred up.

"One Woman Shoe" won an Obie award that year, and David and Amy Sedaris were named to TheaterWeek's "Power List" of the 100 most important people in the theater. For the former waitress--who still fills in at New York eatery Marion's whenever she has the time, routinely pulling in $150-$200 a night in tips--it's a citation she can't be reminded of without laughing. "I think we were #48 on the Power List, which is just amazing," she says. "Whenever someone acts weird, a friend of mine says, 'It's about power,' but that's one word that's not in my vocabulary. I don't even know what it means."

She sounds ingenuous when she says this, but of course Amy Sedaris knows what power means--it just means something different for her than it does for most people. For Sedaris, power has meant turning down an offer to join the cast of Saturday Night Live. Power has meant having the luxury to write offbeat plays with the brother to whom she is so close, knowing that they will be staged and heavily attended. (The Talent Family will be working together on their next play beginning in October). Power has meant appearing on the Conan O'Brien show, hanging out with friend Janeane Garofolo, and penning a children's book with fellow Strangers cast member Paul Dinello, at the behest of a major New York publishing house. Power has meant being asked to audition for a role in the next Billy Crudup film, tentatively titled World Traveler. Power has meant uglifying herself for TV in order to play a bigoted 46-year-old bisexual, ex-con junkie-whore--and getting renewed for a third season.

And power has also meant having the self-confidence to proposition Ethan Hawke when he complimented her at the Obie awards. "He said 'You have the prettiest dress at the party,'" Sedaris said in an interview after the awards. "That was the highlight for me. He's so cute. I told him, 'The dress would look better on the floor. You could talk me out of it.'" Sedaris still gets a laugh recalling Hawke's response: "He ran so fast!"

Some men are just intimidated by a powerful woman. EndBlock

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