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.
Sedaris and Colbert will not deny theirs is a frighteningly intense fan base--a gaggle of Blanks waiting for their heroes to fill them in. Earlier this year, the Strangersthreesome had published their book Wigfield, about a small town in danger of being flooded into oblivion with the destruction of the local dam. They "portrayed" several characters in hysterical, surreal chapters accompanied by disturbing photographs of the townsfolk, among them several that reveal Colbert as a rather stunning woman with beautiful, strippery breasts. After its publication, the three toured in conjunction with Wigfieldand discovered for the first time just who their fans were. They were delighted. And frightened.
"When we toured I got to meet a lot of those people, and they're all misfits," says Sedaris, seen of late in fleeting glimpses in such films as Maid in Manhattanand School of Rock. "As my brother says, 'Amy, your fans are ugly,' and I'm like, 'I know.' Jerri Blank's fans are unattractive because she just attracts misfits, so I'm like, great. They can be pretty freaky, but I just love how obsessed they are, in a way, but I'm totally nothing like her. I mean, I've had people come over to interview me, and they're so disappointed in me because I'm nothing like her."
"They're very nice people," Colbert adds. "But I have to say, sometimes when we were on the road with Wigfield, we'd be kind of scared by our fans. The freakyfans. Let me put it this way: I could tell by looking out at the line at the book signings who was a Strangersfan. For me, I could go, 'Strangers, Daily Show, Strangers, Daily Show.' Or, 'Strangers, Daily Show, anything else Amy has done.' They tend to be the ones with the shaved eyebrows. I think I understand what people mean by the phrase 'cult show' because there is that kind of cult look in some of the people's eyes, which is greatfor us. Maybe not a resounding endorsement of the people who raised these people, that they would respond so positively to something so anti-authoritarian as Strangers With Candy."
Writing the film, for which someone gave the trio money, much to their surprise and delight and fear, hasn't been terribly easy. They've been away from the characters for a long time--Sedaris' having detoured into film and television work (she was a recurring guest for a while on Sex and the City), Colbert's working three days a week on The Daily Show, Dinello's writing and performing in his own works. Giving voice to characters silenced three years ago is rough going. For now, all that exists are jokes without much of a story, which is fine with these old friends--"The intention was to make each other laugh while we were writing the show," Colbert says, "and that never changed"--but unlikely to satisfy producers looking for a...whatchacallit...actual story.
Still, for Sedaris, it will be a pleasure to become Blank again. She has spent the past few years playing bit roles in movies and television shows written by people who cast her because she's Amy Sedaris, then hand her roles that could be played by any bar code with breasts. They will tell her to improvise, then cut out those scenes; they will dress her in funny clothes, then forget to give her funny lines. Only her scenes in Elf, in which she plays a secretary who de-claws kitties in her trailer for fun, were satisfying, because director Jon Favreau allowed her to improve her dialogue--11 times--and kept the best take. And she got to work with Andy Richter and Will Ferrell, who appeared on Strangers.
"I've never done heroin or anything, but it's easy to do it for Jerri somehow," Sedaris says. "I don't know what it is. It's fun to do Jerri because she is so naïve, and she just really wants to learn, but she is just incapable of it. It can be fun, but if I ever had to meet her or hang around her as one of my friends, I don't think I would. She can be really annoying, and she's constantly taking and not giving. I would be amazed by her if I was in school, but I wouldn't want to hang out with her."
Of late, Sedaris has become a sort of fixture of late-night network television--David Letterman's latest replacement for Richard Lewis or Regis Philbin or Tony Randall, last-second fill-ins guaranteed to entertain at least the host, who is always in need of a quick fix. Every few weeks she strolls onto the Sullivan stage and brightens up Letterman, who's enamored with a woman who bakes cupcakes and cheese balls when not tending to her pet rabbit or papering her apartment with candy wrappers--or taking roles in movies and TV series, more of which are offered to her with each Letterman appearance. And with each role comes a call from Colbert or Dinello to remind their old friend and collaborator she is nothing without them.
"What I like about working with Paul and Steve is we all have other things going on, so it makes it fun to get together and create something," Sedaris says. "What I love about Paul and Steve is they'll call me. Like, one time I did an episode of Just Shoot Me, and they called me and were like, 'Amy, that's the worst thing we've ever seen you do.' I love those phone calls. They're so brutally honest with you, ya know what I mean? We're really mean to each other. We can say some really mean stuff. You have to. And when you try to be that way with somebody else and they don't get it, it's like, 'Uh-oh, I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. I'm sorry. Why are you crying?' It's like, fuck."