Strangers with Candy was a twisted show that ran for 3 seasons on Comedy Central. The main character, Jeri Blank (Amy Sedaris), was inspired by Florrie Fisher, a former junkie who turned her life around and became a motivational speaker. Fisher’s “hook” was her candid and unvarnished account of her debauched and terrifying life. Her speech includes such colorful phrases like “18-karat pimp” or “I’d drop a dime on him” and “Twenty-three years of living with nothing but gutter hypes and junkies.”
In Strangers, Jeri has been released from jail and now lives with her father, Guy (Robert Gari) an elderly man who is frozen in some kind of suspended rigor. Guy is remarried to Sara (Deborah Rush), Jeri’s spiteful and loathful stepmother. Jeri also has a half-brother, Derrick (Larc Spies), a particularly obnoxious and horrible teen who tries to make Jeri’s life hell.
Not only is Jeri trying to rebuild her relationship with father, but she has also returned back to high school, Flatpoint high, which is populated by various students and faculty, including her best friend, Orlando (Orlando Pabotoy), a Filipino kid, who is often the butt of Jeri’s racist jokes; art teacher, Mr Jellineck (co-writer and co-creator, Paul Dinello) a fey, self-involved man who is in a secret relationship with married history teacher, Mr Noblet (co-writer/co-creator Stephen Colbert). Ruling the school with an iron fist, and oblivious mind is Principal Blackman (Greg Hollimon).
The show was created by Dinello, Colbert, Sedaris and Mitch Rouse. The writing is comedy at its darkest – the humor is mined from various physical disabilities, racial or ethnic differences, ailments or emotional problems. Jeri is a misanthrope who looks through life through a warped and acrid view – she’s solely interested in instant gratification, whether it be her addictions to drugs or sex (with both sexes). Jeri’s not the only likably unlilkable character: the faculty at Flatpoint are highly indifferent, if not often hostile to the students. And Jeri’s family life can be charitably described as disastrously dysfunctional.
Taking pot shots at After-School specials, the episodes have Jeri addressing the audience with some insane “lesson” that she’s learned from her decadent, drug-fueled adventure. For example, in one episode, Jeri’s quest for popularity has her cooking a highly-potent drug that kills one of the students, and due to related circumstances, her pet turtle dies, as well – the kicker of the episode, is that Jeri only learns the lesson after her turtle dies (she actually is relieved the student dies, because Jeri won’t be found culpable); In another episode, Jeri’s illiteracy prevents her from being a cheerleader, and at the same time, she befriends a former busdriver who cannot drive. The two form a pact to achieve their respective goals, but it ends in tragedy, when the driver tries to drive a bus, even though he still cannot drive – the lesson? nothing good comes from reading.
The jokes aren’t for the easily-offended. There are racist, sexist and homophobic quips all through the show and though it’s all done to show the ignorance of the characters, it can be difficult to hear at times. Also, one should approach the show, knowing that good won’t always prevail (in face, evil will often win). There are no real lessons to learn, and there aren’t really any characters to root for.
So with a show like this without any sympathetic characters and unimaginably horrible situations, why would anyone want to watch Strangers with Candy? The answer lies primarily in Sedaris’ on-point performance. The comedienne, who in real life, is very attractive, creates a grotesque alter-ego, with a bow-legged gait, and an overbite with teeth that look like candy corn. To be sure, Sedaris isn’t called on to mine too many emotions beyond disgust, anger, lust and contempt, it’s still a sure-footed comedic turn. Her costars, Dinello and Colbert are also brilliant – in fact Colbert, unsurprisingly, steals scenes as the embittered, closeted Noblet – there’s a simmering layer of rage and misery that leaks out spontaneously, and with Colbert’s very nondescript looks and appearance, the peaks into a psychotic pathology makes it all the more startling and hilarious. Also important to the show’s success is Hollimon’s perfect essay of the pompous Mr Blackman. I would also be remiss to not give a special mention to Rush, who is along with Colbert, the show’s greatest asset, as the wicked stepmother. There are some good guest stars including Will Ferrell, Janeane Garofalo, Richard Kind and in an especially brilliant performance, Winona Ryder playing against type.
The show only lasted for 3 seasons (there was also a film), and the episodes are surprisingly consistent in their quality. The show didn’t have time to dip in quality – and though the show does seem a bit one-note, but Strangers with Candy isn’t a show to watch for emotional truths – it’s a show that takes every cultural taboo we hold dear and shred them mercilessly.