Close to Home
At Home with Amy Sedaris springs directly from the inspired mind — and whimsical ways — of the actress-comedian-writer-producer, who’s not above taping up her nose or trotting out turkeys for a laugh.
Move over, Martha Stewart.
On a recent episode of At Home with Amy Sedaris, the host crafts a bird feeder that would turn Stewart neutral green with envy. Just sandwich a plump donut between two jar lids and fasten it with string; make two of 'em, and they double as earrings. Simply genius. and so much fun to create!
But wait a minute. Sedaris's oversolicitous guest and helpmate on this segment, a supposed fan played by Rose Byrne, is acting awfully peculiar. She's abruptly taken a knife off a cutting board and is striding toward Sedaris menacingly….
That's how things go on this rapturous sendup of homemaker shows, which has wrapped two seasons on truTV and at press time was awaiting word on a season-three pickup.
Emmy-nominated last year as Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, At Home with Amy Sedaris is always butterflies and butterscotch until suddenly it's sinister and twisted. Every guest, every sketch, every cupcake turns wackadoodle at some point.
"I'm Martha Stewart as if she's being attacked by wild turkeys," says Sedaris, who is just as quick-witted and irreverent offscreen as she appears to be on camera. She's lounging in her Greenwich Village apartment on a smaller-than-average sofa, which is festooned with homemade fabric patches, thanks to her pet rabbit's rampant chewing.
It's not only her sofa that's diminutive — there are several tiny armchairs. "But it's not children's furniture," protests Sedaris, who, at five foot one, fits her living room ensemble perfectly.
The At Home set was, in fact, inspired by Sedaris's own quirky, decorated-to-the-hilt digs. Mustard-toned kitchen walls? Check. Kelly-green curtains fringed with pink pompoms? Check. Papier-mâché hatchet on wall? Check. Empty or dried-up glue jars? Check. Check.
Her glue jars, in fact, came into play nicely in season one, when Sedaris demonstrated how to garnish baked "potato ships" with paper sails glued to a toothpick. She took the empty glue containers to the set's "Crafting Corner," knowing there was a chance she might pick one up by mistake. "I said, 'Put them down with the real bottles and if it happens, it happens.'"
Sure, enough, when it came time to glue sails to picks, she tried several before she could squeeze out a drop — a perfect moment for her hostess persona, who's always extolling the bright side even when she's falling on her face.
Sedaris's fascination with cooking, crafting and entertaining began at the tender age of seven. In Raleigh, North Carolina, she and her mother avidly watched At Home with Peggy Mann, a local homemaker series that set young Amy's imagination on fire.
"I was just obsessed with it," says Sedaris, who presumed that the show was taking place in Mann's own home. "It just looked like fun. She got to talk to people. She had a little crafting section."
Her other big TV influences from that period include The Galloping Gourmet, The Red Skelton Show, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In and I Dream of Jeannie, that popular '60s series in which a female genie would retire to her genie bottle in a plume of smoke, allowing viewers to glimpse into her teeny space — a harem room with a plush, circular hot-pink sofa and oodles of pillows.
"Oh, so cozy. You loved being in that room," says Sedaris, who also liked that it was a world unto itself.
She and her older brother, bestselling humorist David Sedaris, decided to invent their own imaginary cooking and crafting show, which they designated "The Rex and Germalina Show." She can't recall how they arrived at that name, nor what inspired the moniker they gave their bogus sponsor, Concord. "That was brought to you by Concord," Sedaris recalls repeating over and over.
It was also during that period that Sedaris invented Nutmeg, a bizarre persona she still yanks into service on At Home — one of the many characters she plays. Viewers may not initially recognize Sedaris beneath Nutmeg's black pixie wig, her nose taped upward to create an off-putting snout.
"Taping my nose up is something I've always wanted to do," says Sedaris, who uses her crude childhood technique of visible cellophane tape. "Why can't it just be tape?" Sedaris demanded when she initially got pushback on set. Nutmeg runs around like a mute, mischievous sprite. She used to talk — "She talked dirty," Sedaris says — but she shut her up this time for a different spin.
Bouncing off others — whether performers or her own alter egos — arouses Sedaris's comedic instincts. One of her characters is Ronnie Vino, the "regional wine lady"; she often performs a little song and jig, and her red nose attests to an affinity for wine and debauchery.
And, of course, there's neighbor Patty Hogg, with her teased bouffant, pouchy stomach and pugnacious mouth. While Sedaris, as host, usually appears cheerful, vulnerable and eager to please, Patty couldn't care less what others think, and she talks over everybody.
"Patty takes a lot of energy," Sedaris says, describing her as a "culmination of every Southern woman I've met in my life." Figuring out how her arsenal of invented characters would interact with Amy the host was a challenge at first. Once she got going, though, she realized, "Oh, I'm the straight one. I'm the one they can make fun of."
Now it's second nature. In one episode this past season, she played Amy, Patty, Nutmeg and a one-off crone named Thelma in the same extended sketch. It took work. She had to memorize all the lines and act out the scene from all four perspectives — doing take after take. (When more than one character appeared in the same frame, a body double stepped in.)
Sedaris cracks that she doesn't understand why her other characters don't get paid, too. "I ask everybody. I asked my doorman about it."
Until this series, Sedaris was perhaps best known for portraying Jerri Blank, a "junkie whore" drop-out with buck teeth who returns to high school at age 46 on the cult comedy central series Strangers with Candy. She voices Princess Carolyn on the animated BoJack Horseman and recently had a recurring role on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, both on Netflix.
She's written plays and craft books, appeared in dozens of other TV shows and films and is a popular guest on talk shows. Sedaris has always loved voices, disguises and caricatures. She got her first wig from J. C. Penney in third grade. "I still have it," she says, along with 30 other wigs.
"I save everything. I think, 'I might need that one day.'" She and her comically inclined siblings used to put on plays in retirement homes. "'Knock 'em dead,' we'd say. That was our tag line," she chuckles.
She even had fun as a cashier in a local grocery store, where she couldn't keep her hands off the store's PA system, blaring fake announcements like, "Spill on aisle eight," she recalls. "So Mr. Blueberry — swear to God that was my manager's name — took the microphone away from me. But when he went out to get carts, I'd get back on it."
The customers, meanwhile, flocked to her. "I had the longest line," she says, and she reveled in their chitchat and complaints. "I loved to hear people bitch about what they had to go home and make," she says, while privately noting that their shopping carts were mostly full of frozen foods. "I would think, 'Oh my God, this is so good.'"
Later, doing improv at Chicago's Second City, she met comedian Paul Dinello, with whom she collaborated (along with Stephen Colbert and Mitch Rouse) on Strangers with Candy.
Dinello and Sedaris are the cocreators of At Home; they are both also executive producers (with Ravi Nandan) and writers of the series (Dinello is also a director). "I need someone to organize my chaos," Sedaris says. "Once I have the tree, then I can decorate it."
She and Dinello assign themes to each episode. This past season, for instance, there was a teenagers-themed episode; Matthew Broderick had a cameo as an emotionally immature teen expert. On a creativity-themed episode, Campbell Scott portrayed Yves St. Au Jus, a women's hat designer with a misogynist streak.
And when they decided to lampoon the classic film The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (they often use movies as inspiration), Sedaris had her good friend Justin Theroux in mind for the sea captain.
"We thought, 'Justin has to do it,'" Sedaris says. "When we're writing," she explains, "We'll say, 'Oh, you know who would be great for this….' And I'll say, 'We'll never get that person.'" But then the actor accepts. "And they are all so good," she says, noting that they don't rehearse. Guests get their scripts ahead of time and typically bang it out in a handful of takes.
In addition to guest cameos, At Home presents recurring segments like "The Lady Who Lives in the Woods." It was inspired by Hodgepodge Lodge, a '70s PBS children's show that featured a modest host who explored the wonders of nature with seemingly random schoolchildren who showed up at her log cabin.
When Sedaris watched it as a kid, she was drawn to the oddity of the setup: "The kids looked like they'd been kidnapped," she jokes.
The show was fodder to create Ruth (played by Heather Lawless), who also lives in the woods and seems nice enough for about two seconds, before her passive-aggressive frustrations with her girlfriend (Ana Fabrega) spill out. "I love watching codependent relationships," Sedaris says.
Another recurring character is Tony Pugnalata (David Pasquesi), whose preoccupation with knives cuts deep, though he never becomes an out-and-out slasher. "I like to go [to the] opposite," Sedaris says. "To see if we can get that same laugh without going so dark."
Cole Escola plays Chassie Tucker, a troublemaker prone to prim shirtwaist dresses, a white cardigan and a white vinyl purse. (That purse went missing when they exhumed props for season two, causing great turmoil until it was found at the bottom of a clothes bag.)
The props, like the sets, costumes, food and crafts, are intrinsic to this series. At Home is a world unto itself, largely shaped by Sedaris's whimsical taste. The costumes are cultivated from her personal style, the crafts stem from projects she's done, and the sets are inspired by her colorful, oddity-filled apartment; a visit to her home is akin to falling down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland.
"I bring in all my own props," she says. "And I bring in old wardrobe. Just so we have extra stuff around." When she isn't in production, she scours flea markets and vintage stores, taking snapshots of things that grab her attention. Then she shares her pictures and ideas with the design team.
"I'll give them something to go off on," she says, which resulted this past season in a hat inspired by a gondola, some "scary feet-loaf" (meatloaf shaped into two monster feet with onion peelings for toenails), and the show's logo spelled out in mustard lettering squeezed atop hot dogs, among countless other kooky, inspired touches.
"I'm always trying to do my best. And that's true of me in real life," Sedaris says. In keeping with her self-deprecating hostess persona, she adds, "I don't really know what I'm doing. You don't want me driving your car. Because I'll run us off the road. You'll end up in a ditch, trust me."
At Home with Amy Sedaris is available on the tru TV app and truTV.com.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2019
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