By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
All they ever wanted was someone who got their brand of humor--or, barring that, at least someone who could stomach it. It would not be easy to find a network executive keen on the concept of a 46-year-old ex-junkie whore returning to high school after decades on the street and in the alley, much less a concept fleshed out by incidents of mother-son incest and parental death...played for laughs, ha ha ha. And that high school was populated by grief counselors without any notion of compassion, an African-American principal named Onyx Blackman who ruled with an iron fist in a leather glove and guidance counselors who believed their students doomed for dead-end gigs at the artificial flower company. Flatpoint High School wasn't where they sent the bad students; it's where they gathered the worst teaching staff this side of...well, pretty much any public school, come to think of it.
Nonetheless, there was a taker for this idea, conceived by three old friends whose only motivation was to make each other laugh, and for a time their boozer-user-and-loser had a home on a cable outlet that allowed her three seasons and 30 episodes. During that time Jerri Blank creeped out a small, manically devoted segment of a nation that found this woman with a grotesque overbite and shellacked hairdo and fanny-pack thighs simultaneously delightful, hysterical and altogether nauseating--very much like the high school experience itself, at least among those who did not experience the joys of thinly veiled homosexuality called, in some parts, "playing varsity football."
From the spring of 1999 till fall of the following year, Jerri Blank lived on Comedy Central in a show called Strangers With Candy, the ghastly but oddly wondrous creation of Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello, who were part of Chicago's Second City troupe in the late '80s. They were not friends, at first: "Paul thought I was some stuck-up guy from Northwestern whose tie was too tight, and I thought he was a Neanderthal who could barely read," Colbert recalls. "As Amy said, 'They were both right.' Then we fell in love."
They all wrote and produced and starred in every episode: Sedaris as Jerri Blank, the hideous darling of freaks and geeks; Colbert as history teacher Chuck Noblet, who found his students more trouble than they were worth and occasionally dressed like a tear-stained clown; and Dinello as art teacher Geoffrey Jellineck, the sort of sensitive man who cast white students in the leads of A Raisin in the Sunand gave black students the roles of trees. But before the third season, new executives came into power at Comedy Central and freaked at the sight of the freak show and hastily kicked Jerri back to the gutter from which she came.
"They wouldn't say whether we had been picked up or not," recalls Colbert, also a longtime contributor to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. "They would say, 'No decision has been made.' That's why the final decision of Strangers completely reflects what was happening in our lives at that time--the fact the school board is telling Onyx Blackman, 'Onyx, no decision has been made.' At the time, we were going to be replaced by a show called Strip Mall, so we said the school was being turned into a strip mall. It was that simple. We're not imaginative people. We're just bitter people."
Like all things beloved and weird, and weirdly beloved, Strangers With Candyhas become only more popular in its absence--thanks, in large part, to eBay, where pirated videos of the show were once available for upward of several dollars. That was until Comedy Central began distributing this odd-tasting Candyon DVD; season two is just available. The network still reruns the show early in the mornings, where it can be easily seen by stoners and loners needing a freaky fix before stumbling into bed with smoldering cigarettes and trying to keep the mattress from catching fire.
"Boy, you forget how wrong these characters think," says Colbert, who has been watching old episodes for new DVD-collection commentaries--and during the writing of a Strangers With Candyscreenplay with Sedaris and Dinello, which so far is only 121 pages of jokes. "There's hardly a word, a thought, an action that isn't somehow direct contravention of proper human behavior. And they're insanelyselfish people...Somebody watching the show the other night said to me, 'Whoever were Stephen Colbert's authority figures have some answering to do,' and I think that goes for the people who like the show, too. Whoever were their authority figures have some answering to do, because they upset these people."
These peoplealso contribute to a fetishistic Web site devoted to the show, www.jerriblank.com, run by a fan named Tony Lagarto, who continues to chronicle the doings of its cast, creators and guests and provides an episode guide so in-depth you need never have seen the show to be familiar with its minutiae and marginalia. (Lagarto, like an obsessed tour guide, even points out the posters on the wall, among them one in Coach Wolf's class that reads, "C.P.R. Learn to blow.") Most intriguing about Lagarto's site are the dozens of "fan fiction" entries that imagine the further adventures of Flatpoint High; such writings are often the hint that a show has amassed a glassy-eyed cult.