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Wolfville, Nova Scotia
Canada

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Strangers With Candy

Chris Campbell

Strangers With Candy
If you're gonna reach for a star, reach for the lowest one you can.

How did I miss this? In 1999 Comedy Central began airing Strangers With Candy, a very dark comedy set within the framework of an after-school special. The series was created and written by Mitch Rouse, Paul Dinello (who played the art teacher), Stephen Colbert (who played the history teacher), and Amy Sedaris (who played central character Jerri Blank). I had vaguely known about it earlier, but it wasn't until I heard an interview with Colbert (whose work on The Daily Show is brilliant), where he talked about Strangers With Candy, that I wanted to see it. The way that he described it was that it was an after-school special where all of the characters consistently make the wrong decision.
It falls within the genre of cringe comedy and in some ways could be seen as a precursor for Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Office (at least in terms of preparing people for it). As with both of those later shows, it took me a while to understand the show and figure out the rhythms of it. My initial reaction with all of those shows was not to really like it, but after I figured it out they became some of my favourite shows. Within all of the shows a common thread in the central characters is a lack of self-awareness combined with a selfishness. Strangers With Candy has an absurd level that takes it beyond the documentary styles of the other shows.
The central conceit of Strangers With Candy is that Jerri Blank, a self-described "boozer, user and loser" who returns to complete high-school at age 46 after running away and having a life of drug abuse, crime and prostitution. Nobody notices or mentions that she's nearly 30 years older than her classmates as she deals with typical high-school after-school special problems every week. Jerri Blank's years of experience haven't changed her much and she still has an odd innocence and lack of social skills. Jerri has no filters and she interacts with her classmates, teachers and family (all stereotypes) and learns all of the wrong lessons.
The framework of the show follows the tried-and-true after-school special delivering valuable messages, but sprinkled throughout the series are great sight gags and characters. Principal Onxy Blackman (played by Greg Holliman, is an authoritarian principal who has his image scattered throughout the school and speaks in bizarre metaphors and has secret doorways in his office. At one point he says, "I'm an obtuse man, so I'll try to be oblique." The strange non-sequiturs extend to the end credits, which consist of cast members dancing to different songs as the credits roll.
I've watched the first two of three seasons and the second season really clicked for me. In the first season it felt a bit uneven and Jerri Blank is a difficult character to warm up to. Amy Sedaris is remarkable as Blank. Her face distorts in ways that don't seem humanly possible and with odd physical and verbal tics, she creates a singular character who is somewhat repulsive, but still strangely interesting.
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