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Amy Sedaris on the Biggest Challenge in Modern Comedy and Why Michael Shannon is So Darn Funny

Are "clean, fun, feel-good" comedies the future of the genre? IndieWire spoke with Amy Sedaris about being ahead of the curve yet again.

At Home With Amy Sedaris

KC Bailey

Amy Sedaris is a comedy legend thanks, in part, to Jerri Blank. When Sedaris was in her mid-30s, she originated the “Strangers With Candy” role, playing a 46-year-old high school freshman who looked like she was pushing 60. She was “a boozer, a user, and a loser,” and it showed.

Now, Jerri still shows herself in ways good and not so good.

“[Today people] recognize you from Jerri, which means I’m starting to look like Jerri Blank,” Sedaris said in an interview with IndieWire. “So [that] just makes you feel old.”

But with fake age comes real experience. Though her most famous character barely starts to tell the story of an acclaimed sketch performer, playwright, advice columnist, and author, the series and its effect on modern comedy is undeniable.

“I’ve seen a little bit ‘Strangers with Candy’ in a lot of little things — in a good way,” Sedaris said about the 1999 Comedy Central series. “I’ve never looked at something like, ‘They ripped us off!’ Nothing like that. I think we definitely opened the door to a lot and took some chances.”

“Strangers With Candy” featured boundary-pushing jokes that often made viewers as uncomfortable as it made them double over with laughter. The bleak surreality of Sedaris’ humor was largely unprecedented at the time, breaking new ground for the vulgar, genre-bending TV comedies we see today.

“We were out in the woods doing a show. We didn’t know anybody watched it, and nobody was in charge. We just did what made us laugh.”

Now, Sedaris is back, and she’s at the opposite extreme of “Strangers With Candy.” “At Home With Amy Sedaris” is a lifestyle comedy on truTV where Sedaris, playing a multitude of characters, joins guest stars to help viewers with “diverse but necessary homemaking skills.” There’s singing and dancing, cooking and cleaning, Jane Krakowskis and gay astronauts.

One thing it’s not is audaciously vulgar, and that’s a conscience choice by Sedaris.

“Well, now you’ve seen it all, right? That’s why I always think it’s got to go back to the beginning, back to a Lawrence Welk-type feel — back to a family [show],” Sedaris said. “What if it goes all the way back, and the challenge would be, ‘How do you do a clean, funny, feel-good show without it being dark?'”

Sedaris is experimenting with that very idea on “At Home.” Her new series includes suggestive material and a few grim allusions, but they’re used as a brief contrast to the brightly lit atmosphere of old-fashioned lifestyle series built on good advice, silly puns, and lively personalities.

“This show, you still have some unlikeable characters on it and stuff, but it’s some good, clean fun. It was kind of challenging,” she said. “We could have gone a different way with it, but we already did ‘Strangers with Candy’ and I felt like you’ve seen all those prescription drug jokes or drinking jokes, and I just didn’t want to go down that road again.”

Helping her forge a new path are a bevy of guest stars from all corners of Hollywood. While welcome funny folk like Rachel Dratch, Scott Adsit, Stephen Colbert, and Nick Kroll are in top comedic form, there are a slew of actors primarily known for their dramatic work who also came on board. Paul Giamatti drops in for the premiere as a ’50’s era sexist businessman, and Sedaris’ good friend Justin Theroux is on board to play the aforementioned gay astronaut.

At Home With Amy Sedaris Paul Giamatti

“Justin, when I met him, was really funny and silly,” Sedaris said. “I’ve spent a lot of time laughing with that guy, but […] I also knew he was really good actor. And a lot of good actors are funny. You know, Phil Hoffman was a good friend of mine. [We’d] get together and laugh really hard. Good actors like to do comedy because when they play [the joke] straight, it’s already funny. You know what I mean? They can do both.”

That trust in talent led to an exciting choice: Michael Shannon. The two-time Academy Award nominee may be best known for intense turns in “Take Shelter,” “Revolutionary Road,” and “Nocturnal Animals,” but he’s dabbled in comedy, too. (Anyone who saw Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Christmas pot comedy, “The Night Before,” knows Shannon can be stone-cold funny.)

“I was nervous around him,” Sedaris said when Shannon first came on board. “[He was] very intimidating. He would sit by the monitor and watch us do scenes — it wasn’t like he’d go back to his dressing room and hang out. [But] he was very generous like that: He’d stick around to give lines to other people. He knew his lines, and he was just a real pro.”

Fittingly, Shannon plays an acting coach in the series, and Sedaris said he was the only person they could think of for the part. On set, the two ended up laughing a lot, and she said Shannon really enjoyed his time there.

“He loved it,” she said. “He was like, ‘Let me know when the premiere is — I really want to [know].’ I was like, ‘Really? OK…”

It sounds like good clean-fun is right up everyone’s alley. Someone let Michael Shannon know: “At Home With Amy Sedaris” premieres tonight, Tuesday, October 24 at 10:30 p.m. ET on truTV.

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