STRANGERS WITH CANDY
STARRING Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello
DIRECTED BY Paul Dinello
Friday, August 18
Its not her penchant for appallingly racist comments. Its not her unrestrained sex drive and lax hygiene. Its not her permanently wayward fashion sense. Its not her inability to grasp even the simplest aspects of acceptable human discourse. Its not her habit of bellowing "I got something to say!" whenever she has, yknow, something to say. So, what the hell is it that makes Jerri Blank so lovable?
A 47-year-old junkie prostitute who has returned to high school 30 years after dropping out, Jerri made for a skanky enigma on Strangers With Candy, the Comedy Central series that ran for three seasons over 1999 and 2000 and has since become a DVD staple among comedy geeks prone to repeating salacious Jerri-isms like, "Im gonna make your pinky all stinky."
Now that a feature film version is being unleashed in theatres with series veterans such as faux-blowhard Stephen Colbert being joined by enthusiastic newcomers like Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker and Philip Seymour Hoffman its an excellent time to analyze the characters appeal with the woman who brings her to life, Amy Sedaris.
In a recent phone interview from her home in New York, the rubber-faced actor and comedian displays little of Jerris crassness but much of the manic exuberance she exudes in her appearances on The Late Show With David Letterman. (Her friends there came in handy: the movie was produced by Lettermans Worldwide Pants production company and Paul Shaffer helped write the score since most of the music budget was spent on the use of the Floaters seductive disco classic "Float On" fun fact!)
"The thing with Jerri," says Sedaris, "is shes such a clown but shes also such an innocent and so childlike. She can be fascinating to watch. Shes like a cartoon one day she can have a full set of teeth, then the next day she doesnt have any and you just accept it. I know for me to play her, its probably very much like Johnny Depp in his Pirates of the Caribbean character. Its just like a kid playing make-believe."
Though Sedaris has proved to be a remarkably versatile comic actor on TV (recurring roles in Sex and the City and Monk), in movies (Elf, School of Rock and upcoming features by David Gordon Green and Curb Your Enthusiasms Jeff Garlin) and onstage (The Book of Liz, written with her famous author brother David) and we cant forget the cupcake and cheeseball business she runs out of her apartment Jerri is the character that best reveals her genius as a performer. And as Sedaris notes, so much of Jerri lies in her battery of facial tics and expressions.
"The good thing about it is Im not using prosthetics or anything," she says. "I can be Jerry in a split second I can switch it on and off. Once I make the face, she just comes up."
The character was born when Colbert and Paul Dinello Sedaris friends and collaborators since their days together at Second City in Chicago -- saw a TV special about Florrie Fisher, a real-life ex-prostitute turned motivational speaker who cautioned youngsters about walking on the wild side. Their idea for Jerri merged with a character that Sedaris had already developed with David, with whom she would perform under the self-mocking moniker of "The Talent Family." As for an environment for Jerri, the comedians struck upon the idea of spoofing high school life as it appeared in moral-heavy TV after-school specials.
"We didnt draw from our own experiences," says Sedaris. "The three of us are so unhip, anyway thats one reason why we made up everything. We made up things. And whenever I see something thats supposed to be based in high school, I think, Wait a minute, why is everyone so frigging pretty and acting so well? That always confused me. I havent seen a movie about high school that felt real except for maybe Welcome to the Dollhouse."
Like the series, Strangers With Candy is more grotesque than accurate in its depiction of Jerris return to adolescence. It also serves as a prequel to the show, beginning with Jerris homecoming and discovery that her departure sent Daddy (Dan Hedaya) into a coma decades before. She enrolls at Flatpoint High with the hope that proof of her specialness will wake him up. The best way to do this is to win the science fair, but Jerri being Jerri, shes distracted from her goal by everything from a hunky jocks squat thrusts to pictures of monkeys washing each other on TV.
The teachers dont have any more focus, what with the secret affair between teachers Chuck Noblet (Colbert) and Geoffrey Jellineck (Dinello) hitting a rough patch and Principal Blackman (Greg Hollimon) worried about covering his gambling debts. The returning cast is joined by enthusiastic newbies like Broderick as a science-fair impresario, Parker as a brittle school counsellor, Sir Ian Holm as the Blank family doctor and Hoffman and The West Wings Alison Janney as school board members.
While the movie doesnt entirely escape the problems that afflicted previous big-screen incarnations of beloved cult comedy shows (expect the same erratic pacing and scattershot gags that marred Brain Candy and Run Ronnie Run), Strangers With Candy is still clever, funny and wickedly vulgar. Yet for all of Jerris grossness, she retains an endearingly human sweetness, which may be the ultimate source of the characters appeal.
"I like playing characters like her," says Sedaris. "I tend to play them very broad, but I do try to ground them in something. I know how I feel when I see someone play a character very campy, and maybe people think Im that way when Im playing Jerri. But I know why I play her, I take her seriously I try to play her as real as possible."
Sedaris adds that she likes who Jerri attracts, "the misfits and outcasts" who make up Strangers With Candys fanbase. Their numbers are set to grow with the arrival of the feature.
"Maybe theres more misfits and outcasts out there," she says, "more ugly people. The audience could be like the Children of the Corn coming at you 80 miles an hour. We might be like, Oh God, what have we done? But luckily Jerris such a disguise kit for me. Thank God I can still walk down the street."