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Hellhole, U.S.A.

In Wigfield, 'Strangers with Candy' team skewers small towns


Television writers have no affinity for small towns. Consider how many shows take place in major cities, and how the citizens of backwater hamlets usually show up as either naive Mayberry yokels or menacing, buck-toothed sociopaths.

Not surprisingly, when the creative team behind the Comedy Central cult series "Strangers with Candy" decided to write about small towns, they plunged immediately to the bottom of the gene pool. In Wigfield, the new book by Stephen Colbert, Paul Dinello and Amy Sedaris, small-town life looks less like Bedford Falls and more like Arkham Asylum.

The whole thing started with a worm. Sedaris, sister of cynical essayist David Sedaris, had joined with Dinello to sell the idea of a children's book about a worm. Hyperion Books passed on the pitch, but asked if the duo had any other ideas. The answer was yes -- sort of.

"We walked out of the meeting unsure about what we were going to do," says Dinello. "Initially, we were just going to take some pictures in character, and then write funny captions for each. But then I re-read the contract and it said they wanted 50,000 words. So that changed all that."

Sedaris and Dinello turned to Colbert, their collaborator for more than 15 years and co-creator on "Strangers with Candy" as well as the short-lived sketch series "Exit 57." Colbert, a writer and "senior" correspondent for The Daily Show, took some convincing, but eventually got fired up about the idea.

"We started writing it, and they had nothing," Colbert says. "They didn't have a story or a location or anything for the town."

Their premise reminded Colbert of a Daily Show segment he'd produced involving a backward West Virginia town on the verge of extinction. Essentially a stretch of highway two miles long and 200 yards wide, the "town" held little more than strip clubs, used auto parts stores and porno houses.

Colbert's raw footage of that town's oddball residents served as the fodder for Wigfield. The trio improvised characters who might live in such a gloomy little speed trap, and wrote down the funnier bits.

The final product may not be Hemingway, but it's an often guffaw-worthy send-up of rough-neck stereotypes, a Garrison Keillor monologue as told by David Lynch. When fictional narrator Russell Hokes struggles to make good on a book deal (much like the authors), he stumbles upon the largely deserted town of Wigfield, a glorified garbage dump that's soon to be flooded, thanks to the impending destruction of a nearby dam.

Hokes mounts a series of "interviews" with Wigfield's freakshow locals, from the three competing self-declared mayors, to the tattooed assistant manager at "Mack Donald's." The comedy team brings its trademark deadpan delivery to their redneck rogue's gallery, and absurdity drips from nearly every line.

Even better than the prose, though, is Todd Oldham's side-splitting photography. The authors appear in full regalia as characters equal parts intriguing and grotesque. It's a shame that only 19 images made it into the book, because the collection simply hollers for more.

When Hyperion refused to spring for a full book tour, the writers did some more improvising, launching a multi-city run of theatrical readings of the new book. Dinello calls the performance "a little bit play, a little bit reading, and sort of multimedia," with the comedians bringing the book's characters to life.

The book tour (of sorts) has shown the authors one thing: "Strangers with Candy" fans aren't just out there, they're out there. Which is good news, considering that a "Strangers" film is in the works.

"We did a reading at a Barnes & Noble, which drew like 200 people," says Dinello. "And everyone in line would say things like, 'Would you write "Pee on me"?'" Wigfield isn't the only place populated by weirdos.


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