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On Stage: reporting live, from Wigfield

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For years Amy Sedaris has wanted to write a book about a worm. "Montgomery the worm," she elaborates. "He doesn't know what kind of worm he is. And he goes on this long adventure trying to find out, and his head gets cut off from his body, and they go along their separate ways for a while, trying to find each other. And in the end he finds out he's an alcoholic worm. You know, one of those worms in alcohol."

"A tequila worm," says her friend and collaborator Stephen Colbert, sounding not nearly as amused as Sedaris.

"Yeah, he's a tequila worm," Sedaris continues. "I really think that could be a good story."

A children's story?

"Sure, it could be."

"Oh, yeah, kids and tequila--a great mixture," says Colbert.

Two years ago Sedaris and writer Paul Dinello pitched the story of Montgomery the worm to Disney's Hyperion Books. Sedaris remembers the first question the editors asked when they were through: "Do you have anything else?"

They didn't, but that didn't keep them from trying to come up with something on the spot. The pair, who met in 1986 in the Second City Touring Company, are old hands at winging it. Many of the episodes of Strangers With Candy, the short-lived, critically acclaimed sitcom Sedaris, Dinello, and Colbert--also a Second City alum--wrote and starred in for Comedy Central began as improvised scenes. So as the meeting was breaking up, Sedaris and Dinello concocted a concept for another book about a wacky little town called Wigfield. The book would contain photos of the denizens of the fictional burg--played by the authors, in outrageous wigs and weird clothes--plus a few paragraphs to accompany the images.

Back in the 80s Sedaris and her brother, writer David Sedaris, used to create sketches for shows at Lower Links. They'd throw on wigs and thrift store costumes and win audiences over as much with their eccentricity as with their wit. Sedaris and Dinello's idea for Wigfield wasn't much more developed, but Hyperion thought it sounded promising and made them an offer. It wasn't until the would-be authors read their contract closely--after they'd signed it--that they realized they had to deliver a 50,000-word manuscript.

"50,000 words," says Sedaris.

Deciding they needed help, she and Dinello contacted Colbert. Since Strangers With Candy had gone off the air in 2000, he'd devoted more of his time to acting, playing all manner of bogus correspondents on Comedy Central's The Daily Show. "My first response was, 'No,'" says Colbert. "But then they asked me again, and the more they sketched out the idea the more Wigfield reminded me of a place I had reported on for The Daily Show--Jefferson, West Virginia." Jefferson was a sleazy little town, not much more than a handful of strip clubs and bars, but Colbert remembered that the backwater had more colorful people than he could fit into a short TV segment. "The current mayor had appointed two men sheriff and they used to try to run each other off the highway or arrest each other for impersonating a sheriff," says Colbert. The resulting book, with photos by designer Todd Oldham, tells tall tales of the town of Wigfield--run by three feuding mayors, built on a toxic-waste dump, and in literal danger of being washed away should a proposal to demolish the local dam succeed.

Colbert, Sedaris, and Dinello borrowed another idea from The Daily Show, that of the journalist who tries his hardest to appear credible and unbiased and fails dismally. The fictional narrator of Wigfield is a pompous loser named Russell Hokes, a writer who, like Sedaris and Dinello, discovers he has to write a full-length book only after he's signed the contract.

"That panic that sets in when Russell Hokes discovers he has to write 50,000 words," says Dinello, "is completely honest."

Sedaris, Dinello, and Colbert will perform a stage adaptation of Wigfield Friday and Saturday, May 2 and 3, at 7 and 10 PM at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, 777 N. Green. Tickets are $30; call 312-327-2000. (Amy and David Sedaris's new play, The Book of Liz--the story of the adventures of a woman on the run from her isolated Amish-like community, the Squeamish--opens May 11 at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division; tickets range from $15 to $22. Call 866-468-3401 for more information.)

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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