SWC: History 101
by Tony Lagarto

What are you supposed to do when you fall off a horse? Most people would suggest that you get right back on again, but not Jerri Blank. She'd probably tell you to get a laminectomy and trade your horse in for a multi-talented donkey named Ramon. Then again, the character of Jerri Blank (portrayed brilliantly by Amy Sedaris) was not like most people and "Strangers With Candy" was not like any other situation comedy on TV.

When the series premiered on April 7, 1999, viewers were introduced to a 46-year-old former drug-addicted runaway prostitute who had returned home to live with her family and re-enroll at Flatpoint High School after 32 years of leading a life of decadence and crime in society's filthy underbelly. The premise of an unattractive pre-menopausal ne'er-do-well returning to high school, along with her corrupting influence, was the foundation for every mishap, misdeed, and misadventure that arose in each episode of "Strangers With Candy", which was conceived to be a twisted spoof of those preachy ABC After-School Specials that flourished in the 1970's. The folks at the Comedy Central cable channel chose "Strangers" to be their first original live-action series, having already worked with the same creative team on the 1995-96 sketch comedy series "Exit 57".

Stephen Colbert, Paul Dinello, and Amy Sedaris (the creators/stars/writers, with Mitch Rouse, of "Exit 57" and "Strangers With Candy") met in the late 1980's when they were all a part of Chicago's famed Second City comedy troupe. Amy and Paul were a couple at the time. They found that they both needed some time to warm up to Stephen, and vice versa, but they've been an inseparable trio ever since. Eventually, many of the people that they met during their stint at Second City would appear on "Strangers With Candy" or work behind the scenes: Greg Hollimon, David Pasquesi, Richard Kind, Tim Meadows, Jackie Hoffman, Rose Abdoo, Ken Hudson Campbell, Joe Liss, Cynthia Caponera, etc.

For "Strangers", they took the basic "fish out of water" situation, which has been a key element in most comedy classics for millennia, and turned the concept inside out. Even people who belong in high school often feel out of place, so you don't have to be thirty years older than everyone around you to feel like an outcast. But here is a woman who should stick out like a sore thumb, yet she ends up blending in with the rest of the freaks and geeks. Every primary character on this show is a misfit, in one way or another. The secondary characters, especially the popular students (whom Amy Sedaris refers to as the "Alpha Girls"), seem to thrive in the school's harsh environment, enjoying their ephemeral high school glories while shunning anyone who is less than perfect. Jerri Blank, however, not only accepts, but revels in her own imperfection. She doesn't seem to realize that the most attractive boys and girls in the school might be out of her league.

"Strangers With Candy" not only chronicled the trials and tribulations of Sedaris's dysfunctional middle-aged freshman, but also those of everyone else around her. The other fish flopping around on the deck of the S.S. Flatpoint were:

  • Guy Blank played by Roberto Gari: Jerri's catatonic but active father; her only supportive family member.
  • Sara Blank played by Deborah Rush: Guy's second wife; one of Jerri's many nemeses.
  • Derrick Blank played by Larc Spies: Guy and Sara's 16-year-old son; Jerri's constant tormentor.
  • Principal Onyx Blackman played by Gregory Hollimon: Stentorian despot; rules Flatpoint High with an iron fist.
  • Chuck Noblet played by Stephen Colbert: Flatpoint's Jerri-hating history teacher; a closet homosexual.
  • Geoffrey Jellineck played by Paul Dinello: Overly sensitive and narcissistic art teacher, but the only faculty member from whom Jerri will seek counsel; Noblet's secret lover.
And there was a host of regular supporting players, too:
  • Orlando Pinatubo played by Orlando Pabotoy: Jerri's best friend; a Filipino whom Jerri often compares to a chimp.
  • Tammi Littlenut played by Maria Thayer: Jerri's fiery and fiercely loyal little "coppertop".
  • Coach Cherri Wolf played by Sarah Thyre: Sexually ambiguous gym teacher; gives tricky assignments.
  • Stew played by David Pasquesi: The Blanks' meat delivery man; later becomes the widowed Sara's lover.
  • Iris Puffybush played by Dolores Duffy: Blackman's assistant; moonlights for Eterna Spring and the local VD clinic. Many fans feel, and Amy agrees, that Dolores Duffy is to SWC what Edith Massey was to John Waters.

Originally entitled "The Way After School Special", this politically incorrect "sick com" skewered the standard subject matter from many of the 1970's campiest cautionary tales for teens: popularity, drugs, alcoholism, illiteracy, teen pregnancy, guilt, death, sexual harassment, bullies, poverty, insanity, cults, abstinence, anorexia, racism, steroid use, peer pressure... you name it and it was addressed bluntly, but without all of the treacly touchy-feely sentimentality of the genre.

If you combined Sally Field's "Maybe I'll Come Home In The Spring", John Travolta's "The Boy In The Plastic Bubble", Helen Hunt's "Angel Dusted", Eve Plumb's "Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway", Mare Winningham's "Off the Minnesota Strip", Linda Blair's "Sarah T. - Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic", plus the documentary "Scared Straight" you'd get, "Maybe Dawn Will Come Home To Her Plastic Bubble In The Spring After She's Scared Straight Off the Minnesota Strip By An Angel-Dusted Teenage Alcoholic Runaway Named Sarah T.", but if you added a little "My So-Called Life" mixed with a dash of Chris Elliott's "Get a Life" and gave it a Second City twist, you'd end up with "Strangers With Candy".
One of the primary inspirations for the plight of Jerri Blank was a 28-minute 1970 documentary (produced by the New York Daily News) called "The Trip Back", which featured a 50-year-old former junkie prostitute named Florrie Fisher lecturing a group of high school students about the perils of drug use. Any resemblance between Florrie Fisher and Jerri Blank is purely intentional.
Florrie Fisher: ex user, boozer, loser
 
In fact, a number of Jerri's best lines were lifted almost verbatim from Florrie's ranting diatribe (see for yourself). After Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello, and Stephen Colbert saw "The Trip Back" they decided to tell Florrie's tale with a twist. Instead of being a former "user, boozer, and loser" who visits high schools to help young people to make the right decisions, their protagonist would return to high school as a student and would still make all the same old mistakes, but now she'd make them "the right way."  Amy was also influenced by a book from the early 1980s, Is There No Place on Earth for Me?" by Susan Sheehan, and partly based Jerri's background on that book's subject, a schizophrenic who is referred to by the alias Sylvia Frumkin.


Amy Sedaris as Jerri Blank
Amy Sedaris created the basic character that would eventually evolve into Jerri Blank about ten years earlier. Actually, Amy has two primary stock characters, the ones that she likes to include in all of her projects, especially the plays that she has co-written with her brother, David Sedaris (a critically-acclaimed essayist/playwright/humorist NPR commentator). The first she refers to as Miss Lexington, an earnest and simple woman with an overbite, and the other is Piglet, a foul-mouthed young redneck girl whose brain has no internal censor. Piglet is the yin to Miss Lexington's yang. The characters weren't always referred to by these names, but no matter what monikers Amy's alter egos sported they were almost always one of these two archetypes.

Shades of Miss Lexington and Piglet (and the future Jerri Blank) can be seen in various Amy Sedaris characters from "Exit 57" and also in her role as Pepper Mills in the short film "Wheels of Fury", a spoof of spaghetti westerns that was written and directed by Paul Dinello, Dan Dinello, and "Strangers With Candy" and "Exit 57" co-creator Mitch Rouse. "The Way After School Special" would merge Miss Lexington and Piglet into one character containing both vulgarity and an almost innocent naiveté.

When it came time to incorporate Amy's "stock characters" into their new live-narrative Comedy Central series,

Jodi Lennon & Amy Sedaris (as a very
Jerri-like character) in a scene from
the sketch comedy series "Exit 57"
the comedienne knew that she wanted her character's name to be either Toni or Jerri, she wanted her to dress like a female golf pro, and she thought that the character should look like "the kind of person who would own snakes." So Amy's creation was ultimately named Geraldine Antonia, and the earliest incarnation looked a bit like 1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, but the character still didn't have a last name. In the early scripts, wherever the character's last name was to be mentioned the writers just left a blank space. After referring to her as "Jerri _____ (blank)" a number of times, the name ended up sticking.

The title of the show was changed to "Strangers With Candy", which was just a name that the creators had come up with years earlier and had been wanting to use for one of their projects, and it ended up being attached to this one. The title has sinister connotations, which must have appealed to their comic sensibilities. Weren't we all warned during our childhoods to not take candy from strangers? The "Strangers" of Flatpoint High, especially Jerri, have lots of "candy" for young innocents to be wary of, especially sex, drugs, and rock & roll. But they also offer us, the audience, all kinds of "candy": unconventional wisdom, mangled morality plays, and a surplus of hearty laughs.

In the late 1990's there was a backlash to our society's rigid adherence to the concept of "political correctness".
Paul Dinello and Amy Sedaris in ''Wheels of Fury''
Paul Dinello and Amy
Sedaris (as Pepper Mills)
in "Wheels of Fury"
What started out as a desire to treat all people with respect turned into an oppressive moratorium on anything that might possibly be construed as offensive or insulting to anyone. This backlash helped to usher in a host of "gross out" movies like There's Something About Mary and American Pie, and television projects like "The Tom Green Show" and "Jackass". But the creators of "Strangers With Candy" weren't just trying to shock their audience. They mastered the delicate balancing act of Schadenfreude, finding humor in the misfortunes of others. "Laughter through the tears," as Amy always says. Jerri Blank goes from her home life, which is mired in Chekhovian bleakness, to the Kafka-esque bureaucracy of her high school, but for us it's all hilarious.

The original pilot (which never aired but was shown at the New York Underground Film Festival in March 1999, at the "Strangers With Candy" wrap party in September 2000, at the New York's Museum of Television and Radio in April 2001, and is included on the Season One DVD) was filmed in the Fall of 1998. Its production values seem a bit different from the series and there are a few character changes: there are more bright pastel colors throughout, Jerri's bedroom and nightgown are really "girly", her hairstyle is very plain and subtle, she has a volunteer job at Fossilton Rehabilitation Center after school, and her stepmother (played by Sarah Thyre in the pilot) is much younger than she is. Another big difference is that Paul Dinello does not play Geoffrey Jellineck. Instead, he and Stephen Colbert take on dual roles: Paul's being Sears, the librarian at Flatpoint High (similar in voice and demeanor to Jellineck), and Troy, the disorderly pill-popping orderly at Fossilton; and Stephen's being Mr. Noblet at school, and Laughton, an uptight but friendly orderly at Fossilton (The characters of Troy and Laughton appeared in a sketch on "Exit 57" with basically the same personalities and relationship dynamics).

Comedy Central apparently liked what they saw enough for them to order the first ten-episode season to be shot in early 1999. Gone were Jerri's after school job at Fossilton (and the characters therein) and her younger stepmother, but the rest basically stayed the same, just a little darker. Plot points, scenes, and dialogue from the pilot ended up being utilized in a number of first season episodes, so any fan who views it today will find much that's familiar.

To follow the production/airdate timeline of "Strangers With Candy"'s three seasons, go to my Episode Guide.

During the show's run, it built a loyal "cult" following that included a number of famous names among its fans: Al Pacino, Janeane Garofalo, Cher, Winona Ryder, Tina Turner, Paul Rudd, and Tori Amos, to name a few. But, apparently Comedy Central was hoping for more than just impressive reviews, sharp writing, a list of potential guest stars that would make any TV casting director wet her pants, and a "cult" following. They wanted South Park's ratings, but after three seasons they still didn't have that key element, and the decision was made not to renew the show for a fourth season.

Since "Strangers" left the air in September 2000, Amy's Jerri-like "stock character" has appeared onstage as Sister Elizabeth Donderstock in the Talent Family play, "The Book of Liz", and as the ancient looking 47-year-old Mae Ella Padgett in the Colbert/Dinello/Sedaris book collaboration (and its stage presentation) "Wigfield: The Can Do Town That Just May Not". A new incarnation of Dinello's Geoffrey Jellineck also appears in "Wigfield" as the bunny-loving theatrical entrepreneur Julian Childs.

A large portion of the "Strangers With Candy" fan base (not just "14-year-olds and homosexuals," as Amy suspects the majority of her fans to be) has visited jerriblank.com since I created the site in the middle of 1999. I hope that I've done a good job helping to keep the show alive on the internet, both here and at my FlatpointHigh yahoogroup.

In mid-2003 there were two encouraging developments that hint to a possible resurrection of the series: the Season One DVD release (which quickly rose to #6 on amazon's list of top selling DVD's), and the announcement of the scheduled filming of the Strangers With Candy movie in the Fall. The Season One DVD was soon followed by DVD releases for Season Two and Season Three, but it turned out that filming for the Strangers With Candy movie didn't begin until July of 2004. Better late than never, though, because a few months after filming wrapped, the film premiered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2005. With any luck, our favorite Strangers will be keeping me busy here for a long time to come.


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