AS A COMEDIC WRITER, Amy Sedaris is less defined by the things she'll do to make her reader laugh than by those she will do to entertain herself. Reading Sedaris' new book, co-written with her frequent collaborator Paul Dinello (Strangers with Candy, The Colbert Report), feels like watching two kids at a toy box, lost in their own world. Sedaris' legion of fans expects no less. Both she and Dinello have made a career out of being very funny kids with a very unique toy box.
Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People is best described as a book for coffee tables—or, as Sedaris proudly told me in our recent interview, bathrooms. Read front to back, it can feel both redundant and overwhelming in its relentless down-home grotesquerie, but flipped through at random it's pretty damn delightful. Sedaris' 2006 effort, I Like You, straddled the line between actual guide to entertaining guests and straightforward comedy book. Simple Times eschews that dualism by being stridently unhelpful (many of the crafting instructions are variations on the phrases "Eyeball it!" and "Find a friend who knows how!"). Instead, Sedaris arranges this book into a series of cheeky sections like "Crafting for Jesus," "Unreturnable Gift Giving," and "The Joy of Poverty" that function as vehicles for photo spreads that are both hideous and charming. A typical page will feature Sedaris dressed as a balding old woman or roasting multiple sausages on a rake. One particularly memorable chapter, "Making Love," is dominated by pictures of the author and a man-friend in short, canary-yellow robes frolicking on a bed. Crafting is mentioned only tangentially. ("Dried bean pods make wonderful exotic instruments in the bedroom," one picture trumpets.)
All of this can seem like pure self-indulgence (and will to some people) but Sedaris and Dinello's combined comedic voice is consistently funny: an acidic mix of gonzo sincerity and deprecation. The proceedings are accentuated by bizarre doodles from actor Justin Theroux as well as the interruptions of a fictitious elderly couple, Gene and Jean Woodchuck, who see the book as a platform for both helpful tips and passive-aggressive digs at each other. In a quick note on home taxidermy Gene describes the collection of "furry friends" on his bedside table: "Other than me they are the liveliest thing in the room. Are you listening, Jean?"
Perhaps the funniest part of Simple Times is its pitch-perfect introduction, an unhinged screed of quotable absurdities that sets the mood for the rest of the book. "It's often been said that ugly people craft and attractive people have sex," Sedaris writes. "This book is not going to dispel that ridiculous fact. Rather, it will accept the well-documented, scientifically sound research done on the subject and move on." She later laments: "Too often instruction for crafting is gutter-learned. Simple Times will provide crafters with the proper guidance, much like a parole officer."
The point of Simple Times is not instruction but inspiration, Sedaris said in our interview. By that measure, the book is a complete success. Insularity aside, Sedaris and Dinello's playtime is audacious and endlessly inventive. It's a rare case of having cake and eating it, too: By mocking handicrafts and stripping off the sheen that Sunset magazine or Martha Stewart Living give them, the authors ironically make crafts look both more accessible and more fun.