|Strangers with Candy|
|Created by||Stephen Colbert|
|Country of origin||United States|
|No. of seasons||3|
|No. of episodes||30 (List of episodes)|
|Running time||23 minutes|
|Production company||Comedy Partners|
|Release||April 7, 1999 –|
October 2, 2000
Strangers with Candy is an American television series created by Stephen Colbert, Paul Dinello, Amy Sedaris and Mitch Rouse that originally aired on Comedy Central from April 7, 1999, to October 2, 2000. Its timeslot was Sundays at 10:00 p.m. (ET). The series, inspired by after school specials, follows Jerri Blank (Sedaris) a 46-year-old woman, who after living as a prostitute and drug addict, decides to go back to high school and start doing things the right way. The series was produced by Comedy Partners, with Kent Alterman serving as executive producer and Colbert as co-producer.
Strangers with Candy episodes were produced in a single-camera setup and were filmed between upstate New York and New Jersey. The pilot episode premiered on April 7, 1999, and three seasons followed. The series stars Sedaris, Colbert, Dinello and Greg Hollimon with a supporting cast that includes Roberto Gari, Deborah Rush, Larc Spies, Maria Thayer, Orlando Patoboy, Sarah Thyre and David Pasquesi.
Tonally, Strangers with Candy uses surreal humor to satirize after school specials and the useless and often saccharine advice they would give to kids. The show altered the lessons so the principal character would always do the wrong thing. It was Comedy Central's first ever, live-action, narrative series, and had low ratings during its broadcast. Despite the lack of audience, it is now known as a cult classic, having influenced numerous contemporary comedians and screenwriters. A prequel film of the same name was released in 2006. As of 2023, it is available to watch on Paramount+.
Set in the fictional city of Flatpoint, Strangers with Candy follows Geraldine Antonia "Jerri" Blank, a former prostitute and drug addict –referred to in the show as a "junkie whore"– who returns to high school as a 46 year old freshman at Flatpoint High. Jerri ran away from home and became "a boozer, a user, and a loser" after dropping out of high school as a teenager, supporting her drug habits through prostitution, stripping, and larceny. She has been to prison several times, the last time because she "stole the TV."
Jerri tries to do things the right way but always ends up learning the wrong lesson. Her hijinks often involve, either directly or indirectly, history teacher Chuck Noblet and his secret lover art teacher Geoffrey Jellineck. Every episode features a warped theme or moral lesson and ends with the cast and other featured actors from the episode dancing. The last episode features Flatpoint being turned into a strip mall because the show was cancelled to make room for a TV show called Strip Mall.
“I always refer to Paul and Stephen as the woodchoppers. And I'm more like a tree decorator. That's the way it is—they organize my chaos.”
—Amy Sedaris on Colbert and Dinello's involvement.
Sedaris, Dinello, Colbert and Rouse first created the sketch comedy show Exit 57, which debuted on Comedy Central in 1995 and aired through 1996. Although it lasted only 12 episodes, the show received favorable reviews and was nominated for five CableACE Awards in 1995, in categories including best writing, performance, and comedy series. After the show was cancelled, Colbert and Dinello were preparing a pitch for a show known as "Mysteries of the Insane Unknown.” Simultaneously, Rouse and Sedaris had developed their own pitch, which Sedaris described as "something based on after-school specials" inspired by shows like The Brady Bunch. They presented it first to MTV, as Rouse knew someone there; while his friend loved it, they were told the channel would not go for it. Comedy Central was prepared to greenlight "Mysteries" but Dinello convinced Colbert to go help Sedaris with her pitch. Colbert was reticent after hearing her idea because he knew it was better than theirs; he was right, and Comedy Central's Kent Alterman chose her show instead.
At first, Sedaris wanted to do a straight after-school special: "We wanted to play it dead, dead serious. No laugh track, nothing. But Comedy Central didn’t go for it." Rouse, Colbert, and Dinello went to the Museum Of Television and found several after-school specials starring Scott Baio, which they used as reference. Dinello later found a tape of Florrie Fisher's The Trip Back at Kim's video in the East Village; Fisher, a motivational speaker, recalled her days as a New York prostitute and heroin addict to a group of high-school students. After watching it, Dinello thought Fisher reminded him of Sedaris and promptly suggested doing a character—inspired by Fisher—that would go back to high school. Colbert added the idea of her learning the wrong lesson after every episode, and Sedaris said "Okay, she'll be a junkie whore this time." Rouse noted Strangers was a combination of Fisher's tape, the Baio specials, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, and Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies.
Writing and production
Colbert, Dinello and Sedaris wrote most of the episodes, the process started with an "overlying outline," knowing the start and the end of the episode, they would build the scenes in between and later would improvise together in a room, whatever they laughed at went in the script. Colbert later said of this method: "Our rule was, if it makes us laugh, we put it in the script. There was not a single thing said by a character in that show that was right. Every choice was the wrong moral choice. Because of the freedom Comedy Central allowed us, we said and did things that were outrageous and extreme." They would also keep typos in. Sedaris recalled: "That's what I learned from working on Strangers. If you're not laughing, how do you expect anyone else to laugh?" Alterman said of the show's structure "The way we approached [it] was to present each one as a morality play where in the third act the protagonist, Jerri Blank, would always, without fail, make the wrong choice. And then to cap it off, she would come back in the epilogue in the fourth act to say what she learned, and she would also draw the wrong lesson from the wrong choice she had made. Very occasionally they would write with a collaborator such as Cindy Caponera, Mitch Rouse or Thomas Lennon. Some of Jerri's phrases like "You got skills to pay the bills" and "I like the pole and the hole" came from things Sedaris' brother, Paul, would say. Much of Jerri's past is taken from anecdotes in The Trip Back, some of which are also in Fisher's autobiography, The Lonely Trip Back. Several lines of dialogue in the series were taken verbatim from Fisher's public-service film. Sedaris would often watch the show without sound to see if a deaf person could follow: "Okay, if I couldn't hear or understand anything, could I still find the show entertaining?" And I did. 'Cause everyone was so interesting to look at." The third season was written in Charleston, South Carolina, Colbert's hometown.
Comedy Central picked up the series in 1998 after Colbert had already begun working on The Daily Show. As a result, he accepted a reduced role, filming only around 20 Daily Show segments a year while he worked on the new series. The title of the show came from the phrase "Don't take candy from strangers," which would probably be a lesson from an after school special. Sedaris has credited producer Kent Alterman with the development of the show: "He really helped us shape that show. We went in there with strong ideas, but he changed it a lot from the pilot to the first episode. He had a good eye and really good ideas, and we trusted him from the get-go." Doug Herzog, who was at the time, president of Comedy Central's parent company Viacom, also noted his influence, "Kent recognized the brilliance and genius of Strangers With Candy really early on. He really championed it when a lot of us were looking at it, going, “What is this?” The show faced slight censorship from the network, Sedaris said, "It was weird. Like they let you say "pussy," but not "faggot" — until the fourth show. They said, "You have to build up to 'faggot.'" And the script of one show had me writing in my "dirty, filthy Jew diary." Well, I could say "dirty," but I couldn't say "filthy." It was killing me." But were mostly left alone to their own devices.
Costume designer Vicki Farrell did the wardrobe for the show, when designing Jerri Blank's appearance, Sedaris told Farrell: "I want to look like I own a snake." Jerri would often wear high-waisted pants and snakeskin ankle boots, as well as turtlenecks because Comedy Central did not want track marks or tattoos to be visible. To complete the look Sedaris wore a fat suit. Some of her clothes were custom made or came from thrift stores. Sedaris wore a wig and fake lashes, and told the hair and makeup department she wanted Jerri to look like a professional golfer. It would take about 40 minutes for Sedaris to get into character.
When writing the pilot, they created the character of Principal Blackman, and would often do the voice, they realized they were actually imitating Greg Hollimon. Colbert called him to play the part, but his mother, who had dementia, forgot to pass him the message. A few weeks later Rose Abdoo was able to contact him, and he flew to New York to film. The creators, Hollimon, and many other stars of the series, were also alumni of Chicago's Second City. When they were auditioning for the role of Guy Blank, Jerri's father, they chose Roberto Gari as he was the only actor who was able to do the character's posture, and keep still for a long period of time.
The show was cancelled to give space for a new show called Strip Mall. A week after the show was cancelled, Colbert had a moral breakdown: "I found myself vomiting, weeping and quoting scripture because I'd spent three years trying to think of the worst possible choices anyone could ever make, morally, for every character, for three years, pretty much, 24 hours a day, and I thought Strangers with Candy was actually corrupting my soul at some level, just having to think that way for three years." In 2016, Sedaris said, "We never knew we had an audience. We never knew what the ratings were—we still haven’t been told we were canceled! But we were fine doing more or not doing more, either way."
Cast and characters
The Blank family
- Geraldine "Jerri" Antonia Blank (Amy Sedaris): A 46-year-old ex-con, ex-junkie, ex-prostitute, and high-school freshman at Flatpoint High.
- Guy Blank (Roberto Gari): Jerri's biological father, shown only in a motionless state during mid-action.
- Sara Blank (Deborah Rush): Jerri's hateful stepmother.
- Derrick Blank (Larc Spies): Jerri's arrogant teenage half-brother. He plays quarterback for the Flatpoint Donkeys football team.
- Stew (David Pasquesi): The Blank family's meat man. He engages in an affair with Sara while remaining married to the mother of his two children (Chuck and Patty).
Flatpoint High faculty and staff
- Principal Onyx Blackman (Greg Hollimon): Principal of Flatpoint High School. His image is prominently displayed around the school, in classrooms, lockers, and even paper towels.
- Charles "Chuck" Noblet (Stephen Colbert): Chuck is the school's history teacher and sponsor of the school newspaper, The Donkey Trouser. He and his wife Claire have a son, Seamus. He is in a secret sexual relationship with Geoffrey Jellineck.
- Geoffrey Jellineck (Paul Dinello): Geoffrey (pronounced JOFF-ree as opposed to the conventional JEFF-ree) is the school's art teacher. He is an emotionally fragile and narcissistic man who is engaged in a secret homosexual relationship with Chuck Noblet.
- Coach Cherri Wolf (Sarah Thyre): The girls' gym teacher.
- Iris Puffybush (Dolores Duffy): Secretary to Principal Blackman (and, as implied on several occasions, "much, much more").
- Cassie Pines (Janeane Garofalo): The school's guidance counselor.
Flatpoint High students
- Tammi Littlenut (Maria Thayer): Jerri's red-headed friend, who is often referred to as "Coppertop".
- Orlando Pinatubo (Orlando Pabotoy): Jerri's Filipino sidekick, about whose heritage she makes many racist remarks. It is insinuated in both the series and film that he is in love with Jerri.
- Jimmy Tickles (Jack Ferver): Jerri's sexually diminutive date in The Virgin Jerri; later a recurring character.
- Paul Cotton (Jared Ryan): Jerri's love interest who gets to see her "Liberty Bell" in Let Freedom Ring.
|First aired||Last aired|
|1||10||April 7, 1999||July 19, 1999|
|2||10||January 17, 2000||July 3, 2000|
|3||10||July 10, 2000||October 2, 2000|
|Film||June 28, 2006|
Legacy and influence
“It certainly influenced a generation of comics and comedy writers. There’s an old thing that people say in rock ’n’ roll: The Velvet Underground didn’t sell a lot of records, but every record they sold went to someone who started a band. Their influence is enormous. I would say the same thing about Strangers With Candy.”
Although the series had low ratings during its emission, it became a cult classic, and served as inspiration for other comedians and screenwriters. When talking about Would It Kill You to Laugh? John Early and Kate Berlant cited the show as an influence, with Early saying: "It pushes back against schmaltziness in general, I feel a real kinship with that. It’s irreverent and it’s handled so well that it feels very personal." Lena Dunham also talked about it as an inspiration for Girls and cited Jerri Blank as one of her favorite television characters. Cole Escola who was Sedaris co-star on her craft oriented show also praised Strangers with Candy and recalled watching it as a teen with his high school boyfriend. Ilana Glazer claimed “Jerri Blank is at least 15 percent of my facial expressions, so I thank her for part of my face.” Julie Klausner, who worked as an intern on the show while in college, said of it: “I can’t really overestimate how influential that show was to me, [...] It’s not for everyone, but the people it is for love it so passionately that when fans meet each other, it’s almost like finding some sort of kinship.” Rapper Amanda Blank based her stage name on Sedaris's character. Other fans of the show include Dan Levy, Sara Benincasa, John Mulaney, Dave Atell, Justin Theroux, and Danny DeVito.
In 2003, Dinello said of the show's cult status: "People were angered by it or fanatical about it. We were mocking the conventions of after-school specials and most of what you see on television--how easily things are sewn up, how false relationships are." In a panel with Levy, when asked about why they think the show had such a dedicated fanbase, Dinello and Sedaris said, "We embrace losers, misfits and outcasts." Sedaris has described the audience for the show as "Drag Queens getting ready on a Friday at 5:30." as well as "Homosexuals and 14-year-olds and farmers and ghosts." She has also said, "I’m just glad it still lives on. It’s fun to know that you threw a hole on the wall, you went through it, you did this show that you didn’t know what it was, and now there’s a whole new generation of kids watching it. It’s still out there and still alive, and we’re all really proud of it. Colbert echoed the statement: "It's a badge of honor that I served Amy's comedic vision. I could do hack shit for the rest of my life, but I'd go, "Yeah, but I also wrote that stuff."
On February 7, 2006, film company ThinkFilm announced that it had acquired the distribution rights to a feature film based on the series. The film, a prequel to the television show, was completed in 2004 and acquired by Warner Independent at Sundance in 2005, but release of the film was delayed due to legal clearance issues. Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, and Paul Dinello reprised their roles for the film; several other characters were recast because the actors who played them now looked too old to be in high school. In addition to acting, Colbert is a co-producer and Dinello is a director for the film. Worldwide Pants, a production company owned by comedian David Letterman, was also a producer. This is the company's first feature film production. A teaser trailer for the film was released in April 2006.
The initial theatrical release was June 28, 2006, in the New York City area, followed by the remainder of the United States on July 7. A DVD of the film was released in November 2006. Amy Sedaris said of Jerri Blank that "she's like a rash; you never know when she's going to pop up."
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