When we think about sex on television, we usually think of it as steamy and, well, sexy. Traditionally attractive actors in various states of undress writhe against one another in a vague approximation of the human reproductive act. A little eye candy, and an easy way to get people excited for a show. Or, conversely, sometimes it’s played for laughs, sure, because things will go wrong or be embarrassing, but there will also usually be some degree of sexiness in there, too, because why not?
And then, there’s Strangers with Candy. It was as sexual as any show on television, but in a way that was outrageously atypical. In this world, sex isn’t sexy. At all. It’s ugly… and it was hilarious.
You can be forgiven for not remembering Strangers with Candy. It ran for three seasons, and 30 episodes, on Comedy Central, but they cranked those episodes out between April 7, 1999 and October 2, 2000—that’s three seasons in less than two years. The network didn’t really support the show, which was made abundantly clear in the series finale. This was unfortunate, because it was a very good show, worthy of greater support.
The series starred, and was created and written by, Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello, and another fellow named Stephen Colbert. Sedaris played Jerri Blank, a 46-year-old “junkie whore” who got out of jail and decided to go back to high school. From there, the show worked as a spoof of after school specials. There was always a lesson to be learned about a serious topic, such as drug abuse or bullying or, sex, but the lesson learned was always the wrong one. One of the best episodes involves Jerri outing her locker mate as mentally challenged so she can go to Good Time Island. Of course, the language the episode uses is a little less politically correct than that, because Strangers with Candy is a show populated almost entirely by awful people who learn nothing from their terrible actions.
In the hands of the show, though, no topic was more hideous than sex and sexuality. Jerri may no longer be turning tricks (at least until the season finale), but she’s still as sex obsessed as ever. Even the episodes that aren’t focused on sexual lessons are usually rather sexual, to some degree. This is partially because of Jerri’s predilections, but also because of the saga of Chuck Noblet and Geoffrey Jellineck. Noblet, played by Colbert, and Jellineck, played by Dinello, are both teachers at Flatpoint High, and they are also having a torrid, secret gay affair. In these modern times, such a storyline would be treated as tragic, or it would be leading towards some feel-good moment where they come out and everybody is happy because now these two gay lovers can live their truth, or whatever. But Strangers with Candy just wanted to make a bunch of jokes about two guys secretly banging, and how obvious it should be to everybody, but it isn’t.
There is no heart to Strangers with Candy, and the series certainly has no interest in romance or sexy sex. Those ugly aspects of sex are, somehow, more worthy of our attention. Jerri hits on just about everybody she comes across, male or female. And when she hits on somebody, she goes in hard. In search of the grossest pick-up lines of all time? Look no further than Strangers with Candy. It’s a place where you can hear Sedaris—and keep in mind that she is deglamorized to the nines in this role—use the phrase “moist as a snack cake” in a sexual manner. Jerri’s sexual advances are always meant to be revolting, and there is great humor in that revulsion.
Jerri is a character the likes of which we will probably never see again. She becomes an advice columnist and suggests a girl let her boyfriend have sex with her, without using a condom. Jerri gets pregnant. Jerri is sexually involved with a guy who wants to keep it a secret because she is so, well, revolting. Jerri learns an important lesson from this—namely, that she doesn’t care, because she has no self-respect. Another episode centers on Jerri falling for a boy who ends up being her son. This is… not a dealbreaker for her. She’s done worse, and she’ll happily reminisce about it. However, when it comes to the thoroughly hideous take on sex that Strangers with Candy loves to traffic in, no episode is a stronger, more horrific example than “Jerri’s Burning Issue.”
You could describe “Jerri’s Burning Issue” as the STD episode of Strangers with Candy, but that doesn’t do it justice. Jerri has sex with her new boyfriend, a virgin, and they are later named Lord and Lady of the upcoming dance. Then, Jerri finds out from a former sexual partner that he has syphilis, and she has been exposed to the disease. When Jerri goes to the clinic, she finds out she is littered with STDs, but she doesn’t want to tell her new boyfriend, because she told him she was a virgin. Eventually, the “Purity Dance” they planned on having becomes an “STD Dance,” with all that entails. Oh, and Jerri forgot to tell Jared about the syphilis, so now his body and mind are falling apart. This isn’t even the pinnacle of sexual ugliness, though. Both Noblet and Jellineck begin the episode with cold sores. Obviously, they’ve gotten it through sexual actions together, but they have to deny that. As the episode goes on, the cold sores get worse and worse, and by the end of the episode, when they happily show off their cold sores at the STD Dance, they are truly disgusting. You just don’t get that on, you know, Scandal or whatever.
It’s important to consider that the show didn’t traffic in the realm of “sexually explicit=funny” like so many other shows have. For example, that new series Not Safe with Nikki Glaser seems to essentially presuppose that saying something sexual qualifies as a joke. Again, this show was the brainchild of Sedaris, Colbert, and Dinello. They are all very funny people who know how to turn sexual ugliness—not mere explicitness—into genuine humor, and they never let up for a moment. Strangers with Candy was fully dedicated to its ugly little world full of awful people. They could not, not even for a moment, be sexy. It just wouldn’t have made sense. Nothing was ever sacred, and everything was always a joke. Sex has always been put on such a pedestal in so much of pop culture, and it was so refreshing that Strangers with Candy thought it looked better down in the mud.
We live in a world where shows are lauded for their sexiness on social media; a world where the sexiest movies or TV shows are cataloged, exhaustively so. Strangers with Candy will always exist on the other end of that spectrum. The incomparable Jerri Blank had had enough sex to last 10 lifetimes, and she knew just how ugly and gross it could be—and the series brilliantly projected the humor therein. Thanks to Strangers with Candy, we too have seen the decidedly unsexy side of sex. And those of us who have borne witness will never be the same.
Chris Morgan is not the author of THE book on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he is the author of A book on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s also on Twitter.