Flatpoint Forever
The Strangers With Candy Seminar at
The Museum of Television & Radio in New York
by Tony Lagarto

April 2, 2001  

After my September 2000 visit to the "Strangers" set and the show's final wrap party, I didn't think I'd ever have another opportunity to be gathered in the same room with those talented people again. I was wrong. On Monday, April 2nd, 2001, I found myself on my way back to New York City to attend the "Strangers With Candy" seminar at the Museum of Television & Radio.

Old Habits, New Beginnings
(Monday, 4/2/01, 12:00 - 6:00pm)

I had already been in Connecticut for a few days, visiting my family, and I decided to take the train into the city, rather than having to drive and find parking on a weekday. I was staying with my sister Barbara and her four daughters (all Jerri Blank fans). Since it was a school day, the girls would be occupied during the day and were then going to be watched by my brother after school, so Barbara was free to join me on my mini-adventure.

Our first stop was Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum at 42nd Street and Times Square. We took the typical goofy tourist photos with the "stars" and had a lot of fun. Before we knew it, though, it was time to head to the Museum of Television & Radio to see some real flesh-and-blood stars.

It's a short walk from 42nd Street to the museum on 52nd, so we had time to stop for a cup of coffee. It wasn't even 5:15pm yet and we noticed that a line had already formed in front of the museum, so we headed over there and took our place in the queue.

Before leaving D.C. for Connecticut, I had sent a message to Natasha's JerriBlank group at Yahoo! and notified seminar attendees that I'd be wearing my G.A.S. pin (from episode 2-01, "Yes, You Can't") and that anyone who recognized me and introduced themselves would get a "Strangers" memento. It didn't take long for Emilie from Cape Cod to introduce herself. Shortly after that I met Adam Plausinaitis, who has sent me exclusive Amy Sedaris pictures in the past. It was fun to finally meet people that I've only communicated with via email.

While waiting in line we had the added bonus of seeing Paul Reubens (aka Pee Wee Herman) stepping out of the museum and into a waiting limo. I recognized him right away, but nobody else seemed to notice.

Julie Ana Klausner, who worked so hard to arrange the seminar, had invited many cast and crew members to attend as V.I.P.s.  After Pee Wee passed by, a few "Strangers" actors started to arrive. The first was Mark O'Donnell, who played one of the librarians in episode 3-04, "Is My Daddy Crazy?". I had met Mark at the wrap party back in September, so we re-introduced ourselves. A few minutes later, Troy Metcalf arrived and we had a few minutes to catch up on our lives. (Troy appeared in many episodes throughout the run of the series, but his most memorable moments were in "Behind Blank Eyes" when he told the blindfolded Jerri that Mr. Jellineck had just impaled himself on scissors, "Blank Stare" when he told Jerri to eat his scab, and "The Last Temptation of Blank" when he shot a tennis ball at Orlando's eye.) He and his former fiancee, Michele, wed in December and have been enjoying married life.

Shortly before 6:00pm the doors of the museum opened and the line started to move inside to the ticket counter. We claimed our tickets and went inside to get seated.

The Seminar (Narrative by Carolyn Marie)
(6:00 - 7:30pm)
"Wow! All I wish is that we had had more time, lots more time, than ninety minutes -- including the pilot -- last night at the Museum of TV and Radio on West 52nd Street. Fun was had by all, love was in the air and sometimes left in moist puddles on the seats, Secrets Were Revealed, the name of Comedy Central was NOT cursed and everybody got to hug the Coppertop.

A pleasant surprise was in store a half hour before the seminar started, when we got an insert in our programs that Greg Holliman was going to be there too! The seminar had totally sold out weeks before and, for five bucks, you could go to the smaller auditoriums upstairs and see it onscreen via closed circuit TV. The audience appeared to be mostly young people who had just come from work, and what seemed to be a large gay contingent (mostly in couples), but actually all kinds of folks were there.

The front rows were reserved for cast and crew. The audience buzzed as Jack Ferver (Jimmy Tickles), Deborah Rush (Sara Blank), and Larc Spies (who has the same peevish expression as Derrick Blank in real life) made their way to their front-row seats. Flaming red hair atop a slim black-clad body skipped down the aisle as the lovely Maria Thayer (anyone else catch her as Rosemary, the Irish nurse on "The Big Apple"?) swept in and embraced everybody, especially Deborah and Jack. When the principals, led by the smiling Greg, made their way down the aisle at last, the audience burst into applause and cheers.

The Museum's Curator, David Bushman (a name Jerri would appreciate), somber in a suit and tie, introduced a highlight reel that included the lusty first meeting of Noblet and Jellineck, Jerri's immortal reading of "Packing a Musket", Blackman's football game prayer, the Miracle Worker parody, Guy's session in the sack, and the last few moments of the final episode, from Jerri's cry of "Flatpoint Forever!" to Onyx's last line, "Lead on, you stupid junkie whore!". Wild applause all around. It's a good thing that many of us had memorized all of the classic lines, because people were laughing so hard and for so long that much of the dialogue could not be heard.

Six chairs had been set up on a small stage under the silver video screen. Bushman got up and, his conservative attire and dry tone completely at odds with the brief descriptions he gave of each character, introduced:

  • Kent Alterman, Executive Producer, in jeans and casual shirt. Amiable, intelligent, bespectacled, 40-ish.
  • Greg Hollimon, distinguished in a dark gray suit, white shirt, blue and purple tie, and gold aviator glasses. Still bald, still has the mustache, but now has an adorable small goatee to go with it.
  • Stephen Colbert, in gray pants and blue dress shirt sans tie. Also in glasses and also the cast member who had the body language and sounded closest to his character.
  • Paul, who has grown back the long Jellineck 70's hair, in a black outfit with a leather jacket. In contrast with Stephen he has a midwestern drawl that sounds nothing like Jellineck's plummy tones.
  • Amy, Amy, Amy. Wonderful little energetic pretty blonde Amy Sedaris, in black stockings, a red miniskirt, and a cream sweatshirt with red trim on the shoulders. Tossing her shoulder bag back into her seat and pouring her iced tea into her water glass, she got the most enthusiastic applause of all. She looked like what she was -- a successful theatre actress between shows. She had no diva attitude at all and the hugs were genuine.
First off was a set of questions from the curator. Bushman (hee hee) asked the panel about the origins of the show. Stephen, the most vocal besides Amy, said that Amy had always wanted to do an Afterschool Special. Paul had found a video, called THE TRIP BACK, about a woman who was a motivational speaker in the late 1960s, an ex-junkie who went around to high schools trying to scare kids straight ("You! The Negro in the back! I know what you've been up to!!") Many of her quotes were lifted and used on "Strangers". The troupe set up a few principles for the show: Nobody was to remark or even notice the fact that Jerri was 46, and each and every character was to be totally self-involved.

Amy laughed that she only HAS one character that she plays all the time under different character names. Stephen said affectionately that Jerri was very easy to write for (it was amazing how he and Amy and Paul were all so obviously on the same wavelength). Stephen can "do" Jerri and any other character with his voice alone. Amy seldom did "the full Jerri" with her mobile face but dropped a few phrases in Jerri's voice now and then.

Bushman then asked if the show was ever improvised. Basically it wasn't, replied Paul; they had a script and the shooting schedule didn't leave much extra time. The script was usually written improvisationally and lines that people made up on the spot were often kept, if possible. Multiple takes were done of most scenes, including the famous "I'll make your pinky alllll stinky!" line from "Let Freedom Ring". Stephen enacted half a dozen ways that Amy had tried the line. He was rib-achingly funny, convulsing Amy herself along with the audience. The quiet and slightly shy Greg remembered the "pinky" scene vividly; his voice is a LOT more casual than Blackman's and he obviously only wheels out the bass drum voice when acting.

Kent (the producer, remember?) replied to another of Bushman's questions in an unexpected way: no, the Comedy Central Standards & Practices lady, named Renee Presser, did not always give them grief. In fact, Presser was a big fan and let them get away with tons of stuff they felt certain would come back with notations and changes. Stephen noted approvingly that she, unlike most censors, always took into account the context of the line, where it was going in the scene, and who was saying it. He recalled only two battles that they definitively lost. There was a line "That albino stole my dwarf!" that had to go, which was just as well since they were having trouble finding albino actors in NYC anyway. Also, in "Behind Blank Eyes" there was a scene in which the disabled Alan, thwarted in his quest to join the football team, was represented by a law firm where all the lawyers were also disabled. Alan's lawyer happened to be retarded. Comedy Central said "no". But that was about it, apparently. [Tony's Note: In March of 2000, when I first met Amy and Paul they shared another deleted line with me. In one scene, Jerri was supposed to say, "I'll jerk you off while your pour beer over me," but it was cut.]

Any lingering bitterness over the cancellation, if it existed, didn't show in anybody's face or voice. On the contrary, they all seemed amazed and happy that Comedy Central had allowed them to make so many shows.

Bushman (smirk) asked for the panel's opinion on the evolution of modern comedy. His poorly worded question confused the panel and audience alike, but eventually he clarified his inquiry. Stephen thought that today comedy can be darker than ever and audiences will still follow. Amy had loved SCTV, especially how cheap-looking, yet effective, it was. Paul had the most surprising influence: Rich Little, the gifted but relatively tame imitation specialist of the 1960s and 70s. But the way Paul looked at comedy changed forever when he first saw "Saturday Night Live's" famous "Final Days" sketch with Dan Ackroyd's Nixon trying to force Henry Kissinger (John Belushi) on his knees to pray with him ("You don't WANT to pray, Henry? Jewboy! JEWBOY!") The contrast between Rich Little's homespun humor and this brash, topical, confrontational style of comedy opened Paul's eyes to a whole new universe of comic artistry. Kent deplored the recent tendency of TV sitcoms to become self-referential (i.e. to become about TV itself). Finally, Stephen said they had tried very hard to keep Pop culture and the real world out of SWC. Amy commented on how well the costumers, prop crafters, and production designers on the show had worked with them; she said they were all of the same spirit.

Bushman then asked them to talk about their characters. Paul said that the twist with the Noblet-Jellineck relationship was the fact that it was the ADULTS who were carrying on the secret high school romance. When asked about Principal Blackman, Stephen said that he and Paul had been writing for the character and suddenly realized that they were hearing their friend Greg's voice and were ultimately writing for him, so they wondered, "why not call Greg?"  Greg interjected, "I don't sound like that!" and Stephen shot back, "Yes you do!" (He doesn't seem to, really).

Paul then graciously introduced all the cast members down in the V.I.P. section: a beaming Maria, Larc (Amy peered at him and asked, "What was the name of your character? I always called you faggot." Paul pondered and then offered "Derrick!"), Jack (who offered a campy bow), the diminutive and lovely Deborah Rush (who waved at us graciously), Mark O'Donnell, the JerriBlank group's own Matt Lapin, and finally, Iris Puffybush herself, Dolores Duffy! She may not be the prettiest lady in the room, but with a lovely winter coat, blonde hair nicely coiffed, and a broad smile on her face, she looks perfectly human and sort of like a cheerful Russian grandmother. She was also, Paul informed us, a hurdler on the US team at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland!

The next question asked why they had decided to make Jerri so unattractive. Amy reiterated that Jerri herself always thought she was pretty and her clothes were in great taste. The show was not supposed to be about "pretty" anyway. Stephen mentioned that, for all her life experience, Jerri was terribly innocent and naive, which Kent confirmed. "No life experience stuck to her," Stephen continued, "She was like Teflon."

Bushman's final question was the perennial "Which episode is your favorite?" The diplomatic producer demurred that they all were high quality and he couldn't choose. The show had been one of the easiest and most painless he'd ever worked on.

Greg had liked, as he described them, "Virginity, Retard, Track Meet, and Racism".

Stephen felt that the Indian episode came out the closest to their original vision.

Amy adored "Raisin in the Sun."

Paul disagreed. he felt that the show hadn't reached its full potential. Before he could say what his favorite was, though, Bushman glanced at his watch, raised an eyebrow, and hurriedly threw open the floor to audience questions.
[Tony's Note: in the past, Stephen chose "Bogie Nights", Paul chose "The Blank Page", and Amy chose "Let Freedom Ring".]

The first question asked whether we'd see Jerri again, which Amy answered as Jerri with a lewd-sounding "Whaddya mean by that?" Actually, nobody knows, but they've toyed with the idea of doing a big-screen "Strangers With Candy" movie.

About their plans for the future: Amy has her great Drama Dept. show, "The Book of Liz". Stephen and Paul are working on the film "Trifecta", which they'll star in with Amy and David Pasquesi (Stew), and another untitled script is in the works. They all miss the work they were able to do on Comedy Central, though. "They let us fail for thirty shows!" marvelled Amy. Paul agreed that they'd given them lots of freedom and few notes, the troupe had been thoroughly spoiled.

They were asked about the possible release of "Strangers With Candy" videos, but they have no idea when or if that will ever happen. Comedy Central had given THEM terrible, twelfth-generation copies. They have no say in the matter and anyone who is interested should be beggin Comedy Central.

When asked who was the hardest character to write, Paul answered without a word as he instantly assumed the grimace and clutching hands pose of Guy Blank! Stephen admitted that they simply had run out of ideas for him and so they killed him off. Originally they had wanted him to die in the jaws of cougars (probably the mascot of Flatpoint's rival, the Carlot Cougar), but they would have had to build a special pen around the whole field, so they shrugged and used "rabid" dogs instead. Earlier, they mentioned that they were "cheap" writers, willing to forego special effects and settings when necessary. Scenes would be moved indoors, like Wolf's mechanical bull rides, or moved from the auditorium to the cafeteria.

Stephen told a long and hilarious story about the auditions for Guy. Many of the 70-years-plus actors were so old they couldn't hold still for very long before they started shaking. One guy kept walking around the room to show how vigorous he still was, missing the point completely. Roberto Gari (the mere mention elicited applause) was perfect for the role. He came in, sat, posed, and held held held it. On the other hand, the episode where Guy meets his tragic end convinced Stephen's mother that she didn't want to watch the show any more. Everyone struck Guy Blank poses as Stephen talked, and of course Amy's was the best. The timing was good for Guy's death, though. They had been wanting to do an episode about a death in the family, anyway.

They were asked what they thought about the "MAD TV" show. Amy hasn't seen it. Stephen has, but said, "We never did parody" in a tone that implied that they didn't think it was on the same level with what they did. Apples and oranges.

Somebody commented on Greg's rollerskating ability. Greg smiled shyly and said that he couldn't play basketball or any other sports but, yes, he could skate. Paul recalled an SCTV troupe stop in an all-white town in rural Pennsylvania where the mere sight of the ebony-hued Greg, huge headphones atop his bald head and all 6'6" clad in a flourescent jogging outfit, skating through the town, had made people call in their kids and lock their doors.

Another person mentioned that it appeared to him that Jerri had gotten prettier (or less ugly) as the show developed over time. Amy didn't know, but Kent and Paul insisted that they tried to keep her ugly.

Asked about their influences, the cast mentioned "SCTV", "Saturday Night Live", "My So-Called Life", "The Mike Douglas Show", and those Lifetime movies that are so much like Afterschool Specials that they found them as useful to study as the real Afterschool Specials (which, apparently, are getting very hard to find). In fact, Stephen and Paul had researched some of them upstairs at this very Museum!

Merchandising, they were sad to say, didn't get very far. Matt Lappin, in the audience, confirmed that they'd received over 10,000 e-mails for the "Ask Jerri" column. Amy mentioned a fan who had sent her a wonderfully hideous and accurate Jerri doll, complete with locker, but she lamented that she hadn't found a good way to sell her cheeseballs online.

At this point it was 7:00pm, time for the pilot to be shown. Amy mentioned that she had to get to Barrow Street for her 8:00pm performance in "The Book of Liz", but she hoped we'd enjoy the pilot, even though "I looked like Michael Dukakis".

Stephen prefaced the pilot by saying that it had been "too cartoony" and they'd been amazed that Comedy Central had even picked it up. But he was glad they had because, and all his castmates nodded as he said it, "We all had a ball."

The pilot started and Amy discreetly grabbed her things and slipped out, smiling at her fans along the stairs and tagged by Stephen, who gallantly escorted her out and returned quietly a few minutes later. When it was over, Bushman thanked the panel and the audience and then dismissed everybody. Everyone in the reserved section: cast, crew, and writers hugged and mingled together as the audience departed.

Through the magic of videotape, the seminar is available for everyone to see, as long as you can get yourself to midtown Manhattan or Beverly Hills, where the Museums are located.

The Last Temptation...
(7:30 - 8:00pm)

When the seminar ended, Barbara and I waited in the lobby for the castmembers to exit. Of course, we wouldn't have a chance to see Amy because she had to rush off to her 8:00pm performance downtown in "The Book of Liz". While standing there, I was recognized by Ann Marie Spina, a friend of Paul's who I've been communicating with via email for two years now, but whom I haven't had a chance to meet in person. Both times that I was going to meet her at the New York Underground Film Festival we were foiled in our attempts by circumstances. Ann Marie will be one of the producers of Paul, Stephen, and Amy's film "Trifecta". She told me that they were hoping to be able to start filming in Albany in May, but rewrites and the upcoming industry strikes would probably push the start date into Autumn.

Barbara was thrilled to meet Greg Hollimon, Paul Dinello, Stephen Colbert, and Maria Thayer, but the highlight for me was meeting two cast members that I had not previously met. Larc Spies had already left the building, so I didn't get to meet him, but Jack Ferver was with Maria Thayer so I asked her to introduce us. He was really campy and funny, just as a "Strangers" fan would expect.

The big treat was meeting Deborah Rush. I was so disappointed back in September when I learned that she wouldn't be at the wrap party. I have laughed over and over when I think about my favorite Sara Blank scene, from Blank Stare, when Jerri calls home from Safe Trap House and a frantically concerned Sara picks up the receiver and just hangs it up, reapeatedly. I told Deborah about my web pages and she dug into her purse to look for a piece of paper so she could write down my web address. I took the opportunity to verify some biographical information that I had heard about her. Someone told me that she was Walter Cronkite's daughter-in-law. This turned out to be true, except Deborah toyed with me a little by saying that she is Walter Cronkite's mother: Walter Cronkite IV, that is. She was just as charming and gracious as I'd thought she'd be.

Before leaving, I wanted to get a picture with Maria Thayer and Jack Ferver, but just as we were about to snap it a museum employee told us that we'd have to go outside. They've got some rule about taking pictures within the museum because of copyrighted material, even though we were going to take the shot against a blank wall. We stepped outside and had Matt Lappin join us for the photo opportunity.

Our evening was coming to an end, so I popped back inside to say goodnight. Paul and Stephen were making dinner plans with Mark Ibold and Victoria Farrell ("Strangers" Costume Designer). I said "hello" and "goodbye" to Mark and bid farewell to Paul and Stephen, expressing the hope to see them again once they begin filming "Trifecta". Back outside, we said goodnight to Troy and Michele Metcalf, Maria Thayer, Jack Ferver, and Matt Lappin and went off on our way back to Grand Central Station. And so ended another trip through the looking glass.

Matt Lappin, Jack Ferver, Maria Thayer,
and Tony Lagarto

I finally got to meet Deborah Rush!!!