The Deranged Delight of ‘Strangers with Candy’ at 25

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25 years ago “Strangers with Candy,” currently streaming on Paramount+, premiered on Comedy Central from the brains of Stephen Colbert, Paul Dinello, Mitch Rouse, and Amy Sedaris. Sedaris also starred as Jerri Blank, the 46-year-old bisexual junkie returning to high school as a freshman. The sitcom was structured like an after-school special with Jerri rarely learning from her past mistakes as she navigates the lessons of being a teenager all over again. I began watching the show in college, after recognizing it from flipping through the TV channels because Sedaris’ Jerri in passing freaked me out.

Its psychotic humor coupled with my own favorite genre — the high school comedy — was a perfect cyanide comedy cocktail. Aggressively offensive with an earnest heart of gold, “Strangers with Candy” was unlike anything I’d ever seen before and Amy Sedaris became my comedy hero. (Yes, I have two “Strangers with Candy” tattoos.)

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It’s, frankly, a miracle that “Strangers with Candy” was made, let alone given three perfect seasons filled to the brim with Jerri’s deranged antics like dating her son, and off-color jokes that today would offend many. The creative team was inspired by afterschool specials and in particular by Florrie Fisher’s “The Trip Back.” Fisher was a motivational speaker who went to high schools sharing about her former years of heroin addiction and prostitution as a warning to students.

Thus, “Strangers with Candy” was born with Colbert and Dinello playing a pair of romantically involved closeted teachers, Greg Holliman as Principal Blackman, and Deborah Rush as Sara Blank, Jerri’s evil stepmother. Comedy Central allowed a lot of freedom and Comedy Central president Kent Alterman even helped with a lot of the development of what the series became.

In the pilot episode, Jerri wants to get in with the popular girls to have them go to her party. It’s a perfect encapsulation of what made “Strangers with Candy” so great. Jerri and subsequently all of the main players of the show never make the right choice, so Jerri instinctively going back to her “junkie whore” roots by making a street drug called glint which looks like Nickelodeon slime and accidentally killing said popular girl is ripe for comedy. It also established some of “Strangers with Candy’s” best running jokes —like Jerri’s father Guy who always appears frozen, Jerri’s love of strange pets like Shelly the turtle, and regaling her classmates with tales of her old life like a donkey show in Tijuana.

Each episode of “Strangers with Candy” is a joke a second masterclass — from the pictures of Principal Blackman all over the high school, Jerri’s insane costumes, and one liners like when Mr. Noblet (Colbert) asks the students to lock the door on the way out. Plus, the chemistry of the cast cements the absurdity of Jerri’s shenanigans in something that hints at realism: think Rush’s deadpan insults or Hollimon’s commandeering presence. As the series went on the supporting players got into just as many altercations alongside Jerri, but Sedaris’ central performance as Jerri holds everything together.

With a pronounced overbite, Sedaris plays Jerri in equal parts earnest and manipulative. Jerri’s voice is an exaggerated take on Sedaris’s own — with a distinctive twang. She’s not afraid to look utterly disgusting which makes Jerri’s always-heightened emotions even funnier: when her beloved pet turtle Shelly dies at Jerri’s memorial party for the popular girl who died from taking too much glint, Sedaris goes for it milking Jerri’s emotions. Walking through a glass door to get to her beloved turtle, wailing at the top of her lungs, yelling at everyone at the party until she realizes the lesson she’s supposed to learn. “Come this Monday morning, everyone at this school will have pity on me, and that’s gotta be worth something, right?” The lessons Jerri learns and that are reinforced by the people around her are always darkly funny whether it’s learning that being the father of a child is the best way to parent or having sex with someone discreet is the best way to keep up virginal appearances. As Jerri always says, she’s still doing the wrong things but this time around doing them in the right way. And watching her fail over and over again never gets old.

Fans of “Strangers with Candy” love the series—making it a cult classic 25 years later. Its deranged comedy legacy can be felt over certain parts of modern comedy. The works of Kate Berlant, John Early, and especially Cole Escola, who worked with Sedaris on her TruTV series “At Home with Amy Sedaris,” feel like Sedaris’ children in their irreverent comedy styles.

Recent films like “Dicks: The Musical” and “Bottoms” have plenty that feels like a direct line to “Strangers with Candy.” “Bottoms” surreal high school environment where the students take tests about famous women murdered in history could be administered by Colbert’s Noblet. And the final musical number in “Dicks,” “All Love is Love,” when it’s revealed that Bowen Yang’s God is gay, after he marries two gay identical twins (writers Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson) feels like a lost episode with Jerri auditioning for the school choir with that song. 

Everything in “Strangers with Candy” works to the degree that it does because of the unrelenting and perhaps psychotic commitment of everyone involved, even when the show goes to truly wild places. That commitment even led to a 2005 movie and a devoted fanbase. In a 2020 92Y panel hosted by “Schitt’s Creek’s” Dan Levy with Sedaris and Dinello, the pair described the audience for their comedy as for the “the losers, the misfits, the outcasts.” Apparently at the time, they didn’t think anyone watched “Strangers with Candy,” they were just trying to make each other laugh, and didn’t realize until later that they had a very special audience. One that’ll never get enough of their favorite 46-year-old high school freshman, Jerri Blank.

“Strangers with Candy” premiered April 6, 1999. It’s currently streaming on Paramount+.

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