‘Strangers With Candy’ clan bring quirky ‘Wigfield’ town to life
by Tim Parks
Ok…for my fan(s), here’s a little backstory on this, which is my first ever interview. Rather than do a three-way (call that is, get your minds out of the gutter, geez!) I opted to go the e-mail Q & A, and being green, didn’t know exactly whom said what on some answers, because they were sent back via their publicist! Luckily, my editor told me to run with that, and below is my very first interview of many 🙂
Comedians Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello subscribe to the mantra, “It’s easier to apologize than ask permission,” which seems to perfectly sum up their self-described ‘Post Brechtian’ new comedy, a play titled Wigfield. The comedic trio’s irreverent take on small town life is based on their book of the same name, and goes full circle back to their experiences on the stage, which brought them together in 1988.
Wigfield will play for three shows only at the El Portal Theatre in Los Angeles, this Friday, Aug. 1 and Saturday, Aug. 2. Call (213) 480-3232 for tickets or more information. Sedaris, Colbert and Dinello recently corresponded with the me via e-mail about their work together and the Wigfield project.
The trio met at the famed Second City comedy school in Chicago 16 years ago. Though the actors say there was no instant chemistry between them, after a while they discovered that they made each other laugh, forging an unwavering comedic bond that has seen them through two cable TV endeavors, “Exit 57” and “Strangers With Candy.”
Cable seems to be the perfect venue for their unconventional approach, where they have been free to express themselves more freely than on network television (audiences familiar with “Strangers With Candy” and its racy subject matter — ranging from incest to alcoholism — would be hard pressed to imagine that show nestled in a time slot behind “Everybody Loves Raymond”). A cult hit of sorts, “Strangers With Candy” showcased the trio’s knack for being gleefully non-PC, as the show’s main character, Jeri Blank, a 40-something ex- con/prostitute/junkie, returns to high school after being a teenage runaway for, say, several decades. On the show, Colbert plays Chuck Noblet, a closeted teacher, while Dinello plays a more suspect queer art teacher, Geoffrey Jellineck.
“It was important that he doesn’t come across as a stereotype,” said Dinello of Jellineck. “The humor for that character doesn’t come from the fact that he is gay; to me he is funny because he is self-serving and a hypocrite.”
Thanks to outrageous make-up, Sedaris was able to transform herself into Jeri Blank, the rode-hard heroine of Flatpoint High — returned from her former life as “a user, a boozer and a loser.”
“I’ve been creating characters since I was a child, like dressing up as a teacher I liked and then strolling around the house imitating her for my family,” recalled Sedaris.
Her penchant for transforming herself into different characters via make-up makes her a comedic chameleon — virtually unrecognizable from one project to the next. In fact, she appeared on an episode of “Sex & The City” earlier this month, in which she played Carrie’s publisher, Courtney.
Aside from his work on “The Daily Show” and his role on “Strangers,” Colbert was also the voice of Ace on “Saturday Night Live’s” The Ambiguously Gay Duo animated series.
Asked about their reaction to the underground status of “Strangers With Candy,” which aired on Comedy Central from 1999-2000, the trio responded: “It’s good in terms of what little indie (credit) we might obtain, bad in terms of what little money we obtain.”
The gang has one episode in particular that they cite as a favorite: “The baby episode (A Burden’s Burden, from season one) was a favorite because it was one of the first episodes we wrote, and we couldn’t get it to work. And then we stumbled on the simple solution of adding a real baby. Incidentally, this solution will fix most problems.”
The first season of “Strangers” has been released on DVD, and there is talk of a movie in the works. I ask Sedaris, Colbert and Dinello if there is any subject matter they would be afraid to tackle (after all, “Strangers” was the show that brought the term ‘bacon strip’ — a reference to the female anatomy — into the American gutter-slang lexicon).
“We write what makes us laugh,” they responded, either in collaboration or forgetting to identify which quote was attributed to whom. “We’ll use this same rule of thumb for the movie.”
This rule of thumb — a perfect blend of satire and social conscience — is also apparent in both Wigfield projects.
“We never set out to be purposely edgy, or purposely satirical,” responded one or more of the Wigfield trio. “Our goal is to make people laugh, and hopefully some of what we feel socially or politically will creep into the writing without having to force it, which will seem heavy handed.”
Wigfield is small town dying a slow death, peopled with characters such as Mae Ella Padgett and Dottie Fore, both vying for the title of oldest person in town, at the ripe old age of 48. The book features 20 different characters, all photographed by fashion designer, Todd Oldham.
I wondered with so many characters how the writing process was divvied up.
“The book is a mishmash of all our ideas,” said Sedaris, Colbert and or maybe Dinello. “No single person was solely responsible for any one character.”
With a Starbuck’s popping up on every corner in every city, signaling the death knell of small town living, the timing for the birth of a Wigfield seems ripe.
“It was formed in a panic after our initial idea for a book was rejected,” the Wigfield players said. “Once we had agreed contractually to write it, our sole focus was to finish the book. That it might translate to stage naturally is probably a result of the writing experience we brought to the book. We began writing for stage so we tend to approach things that way.”
The translation from the page to the stage was not without its own set of limitations. The most difficult element was that of reducing a book that would take 12 hours to read into a 90-minute performance, while maintaining some semblance of the original story — that and the fact that there are at least 20 different characters in the book to portray on stage.
“We split the characters up evenly,” the trio responded. “We will not be outfitted or made up. Todd Oldham did such a great job photographing the characters (that) we wanted to show the photos in color as part of the performance. We realized we wouldn’t have time to make each character look as good as they do in the photos, so instead we bring a vocal characterization to each character while we show the corresponding photo.”
Asked if the group’s background in improvisation proved useful portraying the myriad of characters that populate Wigfield, Dinello said, “An improv background is important in the writing process. We usually create a character sketch and then improvise in that character’s voice. Also, when performing live, it’s important to find new things about the character in every performance. For me, that is the only way to build the character. Having an improv background gives me confidence to play around and find things and sometimes find nothing.”
Wigfield isn’t the first time at the rodeo for Sedaris, in terms of being in a play. She has collaborated with her brother, David Sedaris (an NPR commentator and author of Me Talk Pretty One Day). The talented siblings even won an Obie for their endeavors, though they have no current plans to collaborate further.
Interview first published in July 2003.