I was a teenage runaway for 32 years. I did things I wouldn’t force on a mule, and that includes things I forced on a mule.
—Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris), “Bogie Nights”
I know that every one of you kids feel, ‘Great, she’s 50 years old. How does she identify with us?’ Well I do, I do identify with you. I think exactly like you think. The only difference is, you think it, and I have thought it, done it, acted upon it, and suffered by it.
—Florrie Fisher, “The Trip Back” (1970)
Will today’s “subversive” comedies—Da Ali G Show, Family Guy or Wonder Showzen—look so subversive 10 years from now? Consider other shows that, in their day, broke new ground: already some of South Park seems sophomoric and most of Beavis & Butthead, dated. Strangers with Candy is different. Not only does the humor hold up with amazing buoyancy, but it also remains edgier and more topical than most current programming on basic cable TV.
Done in by poor ratings after only two short seasons, the Comedy Central series regularly administered sardonic cultural criticism via main character Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris). TV hadn’t displayed commentary this intelligent and offensive since Archie Bunker complained about “spicks” and “spades” in the ‘70s. But while Jerri also echoed an ignorant, self-protective “America,” she also struggled with her bigotry.
As displayed in the recently released DVD set, Strangers with Candy: The Complete Series, 46-year-old Jerri’s effort to fit in with a PC society is framed by her return to high school, after stops in prison, rehab, and “the streets.” Creators Sedaris, Mitch Rouse, Stephen Colbert (who shines as Mr. Noblet, closeted history teacher), and Paul Dinello (flamboyant art teacher Geoffrey Jellineck, with whom Noblet shares a forbidden love) capture the slang, hedonism, and general pathos of Florrie Fisher, the drug addict/ex-con who appeared in 1970’s ubiquitous scared-straight PSA, “The Trip Back” (included in the DVD set). As the cast explains in a Museum of TV and Radio, she was the inspiration for Jerri’s voice, gait, and appearance.
Jerri’s reinsertion into high school leads to wonderfully executed spoofs of family dramas like Life Goes On and My So-Called Life. (Her voiceover during the opening credits compares school to her old life: “Though the faces may have changed, the hassles are just the same.”) The series takes up topics similar to those raised by any morals-driven show (eating disorders, safe sex, “Just Say No”), but the lessons learned are usually absurd. In order to make friends with cool girl Poppy Downes (Jenna Lamia), Jerri whips up a batch of the street drug “glint,” to “make her trip her tight little ass off” (in fact, she dies of an overdose).
In “A Burden’s Burden,” as an assignment for health class, Jerri must care for a real baby for 10 days. Even though she repeatedly endangers the child, once leaving him alone to go throw rocks at the Indian by the railroad, her teachers return him to her care again and again. At last she realizes, “Being a single mother is hard when you are both single and a mother.”
Jerri isn’t cut out to be a mom: she pierces her genitalia with a dangling brass bell, wears an extracted molar as a sentimental pendant, has HARD LUCK tattooed across her knuckles. She routinely ogles cheerleaders, declaring through licked lips “Mmm, that’s gotta be tight.” Comfortable in her own leathery skin, she makes her ugliness sort of endearing, while she’s plainly aware that more popular kids prevail at Flatpoint High. On the DVD commentary, Colbert, Dinello, and Sedaris explain that one of the series’ running jokes was that nobody would remark on Jerri’s inappropriate age or appearance, so her insecurities are never “validated.” She only suspects she doesn’t fit in, like any high schooler.
The world of Flatpoint is as oxymoronic as its name. Running the asylum is Principal Onyx Blackman (Greg Hollimon), a black man mad with power, with pictures of himself hung in every classroom and hallway. The guidance he offers his students always has a catch: “Stop by the nurse’s office after lunch to pick up your free uniforms. And then stop by my office to pick up the nutty goodbars that you’ll all be selling to pay for your free uniforms.”
Other “upstanding” figures are equally dim: Mr. Jellineck explains that if Jerri’s going to smoke marijuana, she has to be prepared to spend a lot of time laughing with her friends. When she confesses to feeling alienated, Mr. Noblet smiles and reminds her, “Now Jerri, nobody makes friends with a failure,” then asks that she leave and lock the classroom door behind her.
Away from Flatpoint, Jerri reverts to standard teenaged behaviors, acting out and talking back. Her real mother dead, Jerri’s stepmother (Deborah Rush) mercilessly insults her while revering her own deeply flawed son Derrick (Larc Spies). This routine grows tiresome, but home is one arena where Jerri often gets the last word, and so it’s somehow satisfying despite its repetition. Less tedious is Jerri’s literally comatose dad Guy (Roberto Gari). Though he remains frozen, mouth agape, hands raised, perched in horror, his family interacts with him as though he were animated and articulate, asking for the car keys, allowance, and so on. Colbert explains this gag as “homage” to absent TV fathers; but the suburban American father (especially of an “adolescent” daughter) has rarely been so perfectly represented.
The commentators marvel at what they were allowed to get away with, especially since there’s no laugh track to cue the show is a satire. For example, when Jerri runs home, flings herself on her bed, and begins writing “Dear Diary, I’m sorry for all those hateful racist things I said about you. Everything’s changed; I’m in love… something you would never understand, you dirty, dirty, dirty Jew diary,” it’s both cringeworthy and hilarious. (The package design is simply great: each season is contained in a notebook folder bearing Jerri’s doodlings and one-liners.)
It’s no wonder she takes such an attitude, as Jerri usually ends up learning exactly the stereotypes “education” is supposed to deflate: Mr. Noblet tells his students to write a poem on Hiroshima, but “nothing too faggy,” and when distinguishing between Native Americans and Eastern Indians, Mr. Jellineck either puts his hand over his mouth and yells or a finger between his brows like a bindhi. When Principal Blackman arrives at Guy’s funeral to pay his respects, her stepmother explains that her husband’s last request was that there be no “darkies” at his wake. Blackman looks down: “I understand,” he says and solemnly leaves the room. Racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic, the show’s humor is so belligerent that it’s as funny as it is smart.
Strangers with Candy: The Complete Series - Trailer