by Lester Van Jack
People who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s likely remember the “after-school special,” that TV staple that taught conveniently packaged lessons about life, family, being yourself, and how if you jump out of a window after snorting angel dust, you won’t be able to fly.
In 1999 and 2000, Comedy Central revived the after-school special in the twisted form of Strangers With Candy. That show taught lessons too: that being popular is important enough to justify accidentally killing a classmate with gooey, homemade pharmaceuticals; that ambition is fine if it doesn’t involve anything greater than working at an artificial-flower factory; and that “being a virgin is a wonderful and precious thing to hold onto, as long as it doesn’t interfere with you having sex.”
Strangers With Candy, the satire that ran a much-too-short three seasons, comes from the minds of Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello and Stephen Colbert. Sedaris stars as Jerri Blank, a middle-aged ex-junkie-whore who goes back to high school and learns a new (wrong) lesson each week. Colbert plays a self-absorbed teacher, Chuck Noblet, who’d rather be sleeping with Dinello’s sensitive and vaguely philosophical art teacher, Geoffrey Jellineck, than his wife. Comedy Central has released the first two seasons on DVD, so old and new viewers alike can marvel at the deadpan melodrama of it all. I recently talked to Amy Sedaris about the show and her other work with Dinello and Colbert.
Hi. You know, when they put you on hold at Comedy Central, they play comedy routines. On this one, they were going, “We wear a thong, see. You may not see it, but I got one on.”
Well that’s better than the crappy hold music you get at most places.
Yeah I know. I thoroughly enjoy them. I was thinking, “I hope they don’t come on yet. I want to hear where this joke’s going.” Anyway, hello.
Hi. Well, I know you worked with Paul Dinello and Stephen Colbert before Strangers With Candy. What setting was that in, and how long had you known each other?
We met at Second City about 16 years ago. We toured together, then we got in resident companies and wrote shows together. Eventually we all ended up here in New York at different times. We did a TV show called Exit 57, a sketch show, and then Strangers With Candy, and then we worked on a book called Wigfield and did a little tour of that, a staged reading. So we’ve always worked together.
What about the three of you working together has kept that relationship going so long?
I think it’s because when you find people you work well with, it’s so nice. We all have different strengths and we can be really honest with each other, but we’re also good about going off and doing our own things.
How did the idea for Strangers With Candy originate, and then how did it evolve?
I liked after-school specials. That’s the only idea that I really had, wanting to do something with after-school specials.
And what about them attracted you?
Just the fact that they thought they could teach kids something. I mean, all kids made fun of those kids. It was so queer, the networks’ idea of children. I was always so happy my parents weren’t like the parents in those, the problems that they had. And then Paul Dinello found this documentary about this woman who was a Jerri Blank kind of character; she was a junkie and all that, so he thought, “Well what if that was the woman who went back to school.” And then Stephen brought in the idea that you learn the wrong lesson each week. So we all kind of pitched in our ideas, and that’s where Strangers With Candy came from.
How much of it was created just asyou were making the pilot?
A lot of it. That’s how we work with everything. We’ve got something on paper that’s a little shifty; we have something in our heads. But really when we’re up there doing it, that’s when we do a lot of rewrites and add stuff, improvise a lot … Even when it’s filmed and shot and airing, we’re like, “Shit. We should rewrite that.”
I know you have a strong background, especially with Second City, in improv. How did that workon Strangers With Candy? How much of a script did you have going in?
Each season was different. The first season the scripts were kind of long and a little overwritten. The second season they were getting a little better, and the third we thought was tighter. But on set we did play around a lot and improvised, or I did. Some of the stuff that was written for students they pretty much stuck to,but I was able to come up with stuff, especially physical stuff. A lot of it got into the show, which is good.
How did the character of Jerri develop,specifically some of the cruder aspects and being bisexual, and the off-color, sort of racist remarks? How did that come about?
It just kind of happened once I had the look down, I knew what Jerri Blank looked like. I knew I wanted her to look like she owned a snake, and I kind of wanted her hair to be nice, like a professional golfer’s, and I wanted her to have a nice style. But yeah, she means well, and she’s innocent, but she is a racist, and she can be very nasty. She’s like a kid. All of her emotions are very raw.
She has no delay, it seems?
No she didn’t, which is a lot like me. Trust me, Jerri Blank and I are a lot alike, not with the history of the booze and all that, but just like, “What did I say?” Plus, once I get that mouth thing down, automatically I start acting differently. Also having a wide bottom, you discover things you can do with that. I’m a lot freer and sexier with a fatty suit on.
Once you’ve got a character down, things just kind of happen. You don’t know how they happen; they just come out of the character.
What about the other characters, particularly the relationship between Stephen and Paul’s characters?
They’d been doing those kinds of characters at Second City, you know, straight guys who always had the desire to be with each other. It’s really funny because they’ve been doing that for 16 years, whatever that means. What I like about it so much is, I mean, who would want to be with Noblet at all? Either one of them really, but I don’t understand what Jellineck gets from Noblet.
I don’t know. The mustache in the second season: that was pretty sexy.
Ha. Yeah that was really sexy wasn’t it?
When you were working, both in writing and in rewriting, were you ever consciously thinking, “Will other people think this is funny?” or was it more about cracking each other up?
Well, the way we create stuff is if we don’t laugh, it doesn’t go on paper. It’s always about cracking people up in the group. But I always wonder, “Who’s gonna watch this?”
When it comes to promoting anything, I’m always like, “Well, let’s just see who comes.” I don’t want to push it or make anybody come. They’ll just come, maybe. So it didn’t bother me when Strangers With Candy got a bad review. I mean, of course The New York Times isn’t going to like Strangers With Candy, and it’s not going to be for everybody.
Comedy Central seems to let people get away with more than other cable networks. Did you ever have any tension or censorship over stuff you were doing on the show?
Yeah, we had a few things, but they never made any sense. We always had a good attitude, like, “OK, fine, we’ll do this instead.” Like we could say “filthy Jew diary” but we couldn’t say “dirty Jew diary.”
Was there stuff that you got away with and thought, “Wow. I can’t believe we got away with this?”
Yeah, there were a couple of things. Jerri saying, “I’m gonna make your pinky all stinky” was one of them. We were pretty shocked that that got in. Another one was “faggot” and “pussy.” One we could say, and then after four episodes we could say the other one.
So it was sort of like quotas?
Yeah … But they were pretty good. We really had a lot of freedom, and by the last episode, episode 30, there were no grownups on set. Nobody in charge was there. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to do that again, have that amount of freedom and fun.
What else are you working on now?
We’re working on the Strangers With Candy movie. They asked us to do it, but now it’s really kind of hard to revisit it. We haven’t been doing those characters, and so it’s been hard to write it. And again, a movie, I don’t know. I can see it on TV, but a movie? Jerri Blank on the big screen. Yikes. We’re supposed to shoot it in April, and we’re on the second draft right now. It’s going to start with Jerri just getting out of prison and going home and realizing her Mom’s dead and her Dad’s in a coma.
So it’s sort of a prequel to the show?
Yeah, but then she goes in to see Principal Blackman [Onyx Blackman, the authoritarian principal played by Greg Hollimon] and then boom, it’s about being popular. Then it’s like an extended episode.
After doing Strangers With Candy, you were on a lot of other shows, like Sex and the City and Just Shoot Me. Did you find that doing Strangers With Candy has led to other opportunities?
I don’t know if it was Strangers With Candy. Maybe, because a lot of people, their goal was, “Let’s see what Amy looks like without all that stuff on. See, you can look pretty, and you can do this.” So it was a challenge. But I don’t feel comfortable doing stuff just looking like myself. I just don’t feel different enough to pull it off. I have to hide behind something.
Well, with Jerri, you said you played off the physical traits. Is that the way you work in general?
I like it, yeah. I have to have something to hide behind, even a mole or a hunchback or something. I know that’s lame, but I can feel more playful if I’m pretending to be someone else. But if it’s just you and you’re sitting there in a canary yellow suit with high heels and a clipboard and you’re hair blow-dried and people touching you up every few seconds, it’s like, “Where’s the fun in this? You can get anybody to do this. I’m just going to squeeze the funny out of it, trust me.”
In the end, what do you hope people get out of watching Strangers With Candy?
What do I hope they get out of it?
Yeah, I know, it’s kind of a vague question. Don’t think too hard on it.
Maybe if they get anything out of it they’d be inspired to try something different, like, “Wow, you can do anything you want,” because Strangers With Candy was a little different for TV. But we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. We just thought it was funny.