Editing (and Saying So Long to) 'Strangers With Candy'
By Tommy Nguyen
October 18, 2000 04:16 PM PDT

Since its debut in 1991, the cable network Comedy Central has been making excellent, profitable use of the 1990's ultra-sensitive media climate. If it weren't for that decade's preoccupation with defining and pointing out things that were misrepresented, inappropriate or simply unfunny, then the more infamous shows on Comedy Central would have had a harder time locating moments of marked inappropriateness -- which, as these shows have proved again and again, is absolutely funny.

The network's direction couldn't have been more obvious than its creation of the bluntly titled "Politically Incorrect" in 1993 and its choice of the smugly cynical Bill Maher to host the series. (It has since moved to ABC.) Continue that tradition with the popular and unstoppably crass British import "Absolutely Fabulous," the scarring impact of "South Park," the daily dose of anti-news from the "Daily Show" and a host of others, and you begin to recognize the kind of laughter Comedy Central has become known for -- a laugh that falls out of agape jaws in intermittent gasps, because you can't help the stop-and-go mechanism that political correctness has placed in your mind: Is this a joke I'm allowed to laugh at?

Along these lines, a healthy consensus hails "Strangers With Candy" as the most rapturously appalling show the network has ever offered. Premiering April 7, 1999, the show was created by three of its stars: Amy Sedaris (who plays Jerri Blank), Stephen Colbert (Mr. Noblet) and Paul Dinello (Mr. Jellineck), along with their Second City writing colleague Mitch Rouse. It's hard to decide which character's heinous lack of moral fiber is the most comically inspirational -- from Principal Blackman (Greg Hollimon) to Jerri's stepmother (Deborah Rush) -- but it's Jerri's ravaged face that you simply can't get out of your nightmares. Jerri Blank is a 47-year-old ex-con, ex-prostitute, bisexual (perhaps even pansexual) high school freshman returning to school after dropping out 32 years ago. Jerri is evil incarnate -- it's even rumored that she may have been complicit in the murder of John F. Kennedy -- but remarkably, the character remains a classic sympathetic heroine because the school she attends, Flatpoint High, is even more hellish than she is.

Perhaps the only thing meaner than the show's acute imagination for the varieties of human torture was its cancellation earlier this month, after just three short seasons. EditorsNet spoke to one of the off-line editors of the most recent season, Pam Arnold, before she was aware of the unfortunate news. Under these circumstances, it's nice to have this interview serve as the memories of a "Strangers With Candy" family member and fan. But the show entered cult status even before it went off the air, so there's always a chance the show may return in some shape or form. In the meantime, we'll just have to accept these Godforsaken characters as part of a world moving on. In the final episode, as Flatpoint High burns to the ground and the students search for a new direction amidst the chaos, Principal Blackman lovingly puts his faith in Jerri's inspired guidance by saying, "Lead on, you stupid junkie whore." Yes, Jerri, lead us all.

How long have you been with the show?
I cut one episode the first season, six episodes the second season, and this season I'm splitting them evenly with the show's other editor, Kristen Huntley.

Have you ever edited a comedy show that had a live studio audience or laugh track?
No, I haven't.

I was going to ask if you preferred the "Strangers With Candy" format better, where the jokes aren't followed by that laugh-track delay. The show seems much more effective because the laughs aren't always marked out. You have to find them yourself.
Exactly. This show is basically a takeoff on after-school specials, which I actually cut a lot of back in the day.

Like the ones on ABC?
Altogether I cut about 10 of them, mostly for ABC, some for CBS. PBS had a version for a while called "WonderWorks," which were basically shot and directed like little films. "Strangers With Candy" is shot and directed in much the same way as a narrative film would be shot. But it's the content, obviously, that makes the show so funny, and it's so different because the purpose of the show is to emulate those after-school specials. In fact, there's one episode this season that is based on a special I edited many years ago -- it was about a swim team that took cocaine -- but on "Strangers With Candy," it's about a relay team that takes steroids. So they skew things a little bit.

Was it your particular experience on these after-school specials that brought you on board?
That was part of it. But also, the original producer was Jerry Cutler, and I had worked with him on "TV Nation," the Michael Moore show. So did Kristen. I don't know if that's where she first worked with Jerry, but that's where I first worked with him. When I heard that they were doing the show, I said, "Well you've got to hire me, because I've done a million actual after-school specials." The first season, the show had an editor who did the pilot and who, because they had a longer schedule, actually did most of the shows. There was a time when they needed an additional editor. I was lucky enough to have a break in my schedule, and they got me in there. That's how I got on the first episode.

During that first season, what was your first reaction to the show's outrageousness?
I loved it. I saw the pilot and all the shows because I kept trying to get on the show. It didn't work out until the ninth episode of the first season, which is the first episode I cut. I liked that kind of humor because I was familiar with the background material. I knew what they were going for. There were times when I thought the show veered a little bit toward bad taste -- and maybe not quite funny enough to justify it -- but overall I was a fan of the show even before I worked on it.

I mentioned the absence of a laugh track, but a lot of the punch lines in the show have a way of coming out of nowhere and then running away -- all of a sudden there's a quick cut to the next scene. Is there a traditional rhythm that you like to work with when you arrange these punch lines throughout the show?
It depends on what the jokes are. A lot of the humor is obviously in the writing, and it comes from the unexpected response: Amy Sedaris' unexpected reactions to things and so on. For me, comedy is getting the response or the line or the reaction that is unexpected. So when you're cutting it, you try to keep that in mind so that you time the responses, at least for normal dialogue. That's the thing about the show: The dialogue is all delivered seriously, so you cut it as you would a serious scene.

The timing of the actors is already so good in the show, but I was wondering if editing can dramatically improve timing for actors?
Yes, you can help it. But as you said, the timing of these actors is very good, so you're not saving the show, you're just making it as good as it can be. It's in the timing of where you put a reaction, and that's something that's definitely done in editing, where you cut away to people reacting to things or cut away to people doing other things that are not directly related to the dialogue. It's also when you cut to people's responses and when you cut to what they say.

So what's the editing schedule of a single episode?
The way it works is we put together the show as they shoot it. We complete a first version of the show, which we then show to the director, and the director makes his changes: a director's cut. As we go, we put in scratch music and effects and everything. We try to make it as complete as possible, for different reasons. One is the schedule. It has to be pretty close because there's not a lot of time to tweak it for endless weeks. Also, I always try to make my first cuts as smooth and as complete as possible, so that people know what they're looking at. They can see it as a show instead of saying, "Oh, that's going to work when we put in music," or "That's going to work when it's tightened up a little bit." Why wait? Let's look at the overall show and see where the problems are. Doing a good first cut helps that.

We put in what sound effects we can, and then when the show is locked, it goes to the sound designers. They put in the rest of the effects and fix the dialogue. The episode then goes to the composer, and we spot the show with the composer and the sound people, and talk about where we think the music should be. We put in the composer's music, and we get it over to the sound people, who do a pre-mix that contains the music and effects. Then it goes out to the producers and the director. Based on their notes, we'll do the final mix, and usually that's it. This all takes place a lot quicker than it ought to. Usually, after we lock it, we spot it the next day and the pre-mix has to go out. The composer, if he's lucky, gets two days. The sound guys, if they're lucky, get three days.

I don't recall the show using many published songs.
Generally we don't. When we're editing, we'll use the library of music that the composer Mark Levinson has done for the past three seasons. For example, last year, I cut a show that involved the big football game. I needed a lot of marching-band music, so I get this library music with marching-band stuff and that we'll keep, because Mark will score that. There are a few exceptions. For example, in one episode I edited, they wanted to use a Loretta Lynn song for the end dancing sequence. They were able to purchase that. But it's Comedy Central, so it's low budget. They know they can't always afford things.

I saw the season premiere again recently. Can you remember a sequence from that episode you enjoyed cutting?
The scenes in the classroom with Blackman and his flashing eye sign, his voice over the loudspeaker, which we kind of altered a little bit to make it sound like he was hypnotizing them. And that whole thing where (Jerri) is in the parachute and leading up to her trying to call and the mother hanging up the phone. There was a lot of good stuff in that episode.

What's it like working with Amy Sedaris? Is there a lot of contact between you two?
There's not a lot, but she's great. The thing that was astonishing to me from the beginning was how good-looking she is, and you can see it in the dailies because it's 90% her expression. It isn't just the wig and the makeup, because when they say cut and she relaxes her face, the difference is just unbelievable. Before they say action, she looks very cute, and then they say action and she just snaps this face on.

Isn't that a strain on her face?
She still looks good after three seasons of it, so apparently the face isn't sticking there.