Amy Sedaris draws a young, excited crowd. Even at the very back of a packed Barnes & Noble reading space (where I was stuck squinting up at the craft-related action on-stage), otherwise jaded and cynical hipster-types — types who’d normally sneer at any physical show of excitement or participation — jumped out of their chairs in response to a call for questions. I counted at least 10 Sedaris fans, some uttering little unconscious “Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!” noises you get from little Kids Who Know, arms raised high in classic elementary school fashion or the double-armed waving “stranded in the middle of a lake on a boat with a dead motor” SOS manner.
Despite the distance and absolute certainty that she would not be called on, one girl in my row clutched at her scarf and bounced up and down, standing with one foot propped on the seat of her chair like she couldn’t quite commit to full-out Standing-On-a-Chair-level-desperation in front of peers. This was some serious arm-raising, designed to attract the gaze of a possibly myopic (judging by her glasses) Ms. Sedaris, all to ask that burning “‘Candy” question and satisfy some core-level need for star-fucking.
Thrice during the Q&A this girl jiggled with attention-seeking hope degrading into frustration, some 40 or so rows back. Finally she gave in and punched her skin-tight jeans in frustration. She may or may not have scowled at me for smiling (smirking?) at her now-deflated aloof cool — I avoided that soul-withering gaze.
Apparently, Ms. Sedaris regularly inspires this reaction in her fans. “Strangers with Candy” is maybe a show or she’s maybe a star with whom it’s okay, amongst a particular strata of seriously indifferent people, to act like a preteen girl at a Beiber-sighting. To cream your jeans, so to speak.
Simple Times is a craft book, which is like a book of recipes for your leftover pipe cleaners. It’s full of bright pictures taken inside Ms. Sedaris’ home that help carry the humor and illustrate the successful completion of some of the crafts. It’s cute and fun and very Amy Sedaris. I think.
So but who is Ms. Sedaris? Why does she generate this kind of following? And really: where does “Amy” end and Amy Sedaris begin? It’s a fun game to play — is she really like this all the time? Is her Brooklyn condo actually outfitted with what looks like an Upper-Westside preschool’s craft station — construction paper, glitter, those worthless plastic scissors — and play area — cubby holes filled with dinosaurs, plastic robots, and maybe somewhere indoors possibly a sand box? Who knows? I doubt her fans care.
She has three deep wells from which to draw her fans: those who know her through television (probably the deepest and yet perversely most shallow), her stand-up, and her writing. These borders are obviously liquid as one spills over into another; I don’t know anyone who loves “Strangers with Candy,” but hates her stand-up (does she still do stand-up?).
This is to say she’s got a following, “cult” insofar as “cult” is made up of the obsessively dedicated, followers whose devotion drives them to memorize favorite and famous (within the cult of the television show, anyway) lines from Sedaris’ “Strangers with Candy” in order to shout them out at odd times. Back in Barnes & Noble, the over-excited girl in my row screamed some line out when Ms. Sedaris answered an audience member’s question about which episode of “‘Candy” was her (Ms. Sedaris’) favorite.
She seemed happy enough to patronize them, giggling like a chaste girl in a bonnet, even at questions that came dangerously close to the Pit of Esoteric Minutia or just plain stupid. Her humor is such that she can spin a great joke out of any question without unleashing some venom that would disrupt her illusion. But then and now we’re starting to get back into the “Amy” Vs. Amy thing, that whole question of what it is exactly — that “something” weird that takes her act from “funny” to “hilarious and mildly uncomfortable.”
What is this act, anyway? Is it an act? She’s got the energy and mannerisms of a precocious and possibly pre-sexual girl who loves her bunnies and her craft time and her imaginary friends. But then “craft-time” included making a phallic dessert; during the Q&A, the crowd learned that one of her imaginary boyfriends committed suicide. There’s a tension between her bubbly effervescence and something dark underneath it all, something that goes beyond the surface tension when she upsets the bizarre prepubescent apple cart by peppering her witty responses with snarled expletives and references to sex. The bunnies are unique in that they are what they are — bunnies who Ms. Sedaris loves and who live very nice lives as far as a rabbit’s life can be nice, I’m sure. The bunnies seemed to be the only thing that evening that didn’t have double or triple-meanings.
Good comedy is at least partially about telling the truth: saying things that maybe aren’t polite or “correct” but feel real and solid in the audience’s mind. While she’s telling the truth, it’s almost like we’re maybe not sure who exactly it is who’s doing the telling. It’s an odd feeling, but a welcome one. I hope Ms. Sedaris tries her hand at fiction sometime soon, though I think she’d like us to believe her life is already stranger than fiction. Part of the fun is not knowing which is true.