Above: Amy Sedaris as Jerri Blank in Strangers With Candy
Strangers with Candy’s Jerri Blank—a 46-year old crack-whore-turned-high-school-freshman, prone to layers of makeup, disturbingly sculpted hair and crocheted vests—is one of television’s most revoltingly loveable anti-heroines. Jerri’s overbite, high-rise pants, and tendency toward inappropriate sexual advances require an actress in possession of excessive valor and gusto: enter the New York-born, North Carolina-raised Amy Sedaris, sister of David, baker of cupcakes and cheeseballs, and beloved comedic foil—she boasted the rubbery mug, incomparable commitment and high, squeaky voice necessary to spark Jerri Blank into hideous fruition.
Strangers with Candy debuted on Comedy Central in 1999, completing 30 episodes before fizzling. Conceived to lampoon the after-school specials of the 1970s and ’80s, Strangers was the collaborative brainchild of Sedaris, Stephen Colbert and comedy writer Paul Dinello. Blank, the series’ snarling protagonist, was inspired by former prostitute and heroin addict Florrie Fisher, who was (rather inexplicably) elected to deliver a Public Service Announcement in the 1970s (Dinello dug up a tape of the PSA at New York’s renowned Kim’s Video), and later penned an autobiography, The Lonely Trip Back.
Suitably inspired, Sedaris, Colbert and Dinello opted to toss Jerri into a contemporary high school, freeze her dad in a coma (snickering at the non-presence of patriarchs in most after-school specials), give her a nasty stepmother, and watch the perverse hijinks unfold. Add a closeted, gay, conservative-Christian science teacher who employs the Bible as a textbook (Mr. Chuck Noblet, expertly deadpanned by Colbert), an archetypical-jock stepbrother, a state science fair, a bumbling principal, and a handful of Hollywood cameos (Sarah Jessica Parker as a grief counselor, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Allison Janney as school-board officials, Matthew Broderick as a science teacher), and witness the big-screen incarnation of Strangers with Candy, the first feature-length film to declare “squat-thrusting” a competitive high-school sport.
FETISHIZING THE OUTSIDER
Women in test audiences for the film routinely dismissed Jerri Blank as too repulsive to endure, a reaction Sedaris finds endlessly perplexing: Sedaris is naturally lured to miscreants and outlaws, relishing in Jerri Blank’s more unsavory traits. “If I read an interview and someone said ‘I won’t watch that show because the lady’s too ugly,’ I would be like when’s it on? I would watch it!” Sedaris effuses. “I’m attracted to misfits. I think they’re far more interesting. For me, my big inspiration was when [my brother] David brought home that Diane Arbus book [the photography collection An Aperture Monograph]. That changed my life. I had never seen people like that before. Unattractive people have more hurdles to jump. I tend to want to go with someone with a f—ed up tooth, or an eye that’s staring off to the left.”
Unsurprisingly, Jerri Blank’s mesmerizing ensembles and absurdist name are entirely intentional, constructs of Sedaris’ sharp outsider fetish. “I wanted a guy name for Jerri,” Sedaris nods. “And we were, like, OK, Jerri blank, we’ll fill it in later. And then it was like wait, that’s perfect. Jerri Blank. It’s a horrible name. It’s a loser name.”
“And the look—I’ve always had the overbite; that’s just my face. That’s not prosthetics or anything,” Sedaris laughs. “We did a pilot where I looked like Mike Dukakis. The real Florrie Fisher looks like Mike Dukakis, don’t you think? Or Robert Blake, your choice. But then I decided I wanted to a have a professional male golfer’s hairstyle. Jerri Blank finds herself attractive, and I like it when unattractive people dress attractively. I wanted a really stylized wig. And for my outfit, all I said [to the stylist] was ‘Imagine this woman owns a snake.’ I mean, I love, love Jerri’s look. She’s as stylized as [Sex and the City’s] Carrie Bradshaw.”
A STUMBLE TO THE SCREEN
Becoming a cult hit almost instantaneously, Strangers with Candy enjoyed its limited run on Comedy Central, and the show’s creators seemed mostly satisfied with its modest-but-intense following. Sedaris, though, is endearingly blasé about the film’s inception. “I think someone approached Paul to write a script. Me and Stephen—we were like, ‘Eh, oh, a movie.’ But then the money came through for it. People were serious about it, so we thought, ‘Oh shit, we’d better focus on this script.’ But then the money fell through, and that was the end of it. Then I’m sitting at home, and I get a call from [David] Letterman’s company, saying that they saw the script—God knows how they saw it, none of us sent it out—but they really liked it and they were interested in shooting it and they wanted to shoot in five weeks.” So Sedaris, Colbert and Dinello began tweaking the script.
“We improvise, make each other laugh. Whatever makes us laugh goes on a piece of paper. And what’s on that piece of paper gets typed up until someone says ‘F—, the computer lost everything.’ But it’s really us sitting around, and what we think is funny goes in,” Sedaris explains. “It’s that simple.”
The film endured a bevy of delays and production snafus, ultimately losing its backing from Warner Bros. before enjoying a serendipitous pickup by independent production company ThinkFilm. “What I understand, and God knows if it’s the truth or not, was that Warner had just been sued for $17 million for Dukes of Hazzard. And they were having issues with getting things cleared for the movie, and I guess we weren’t clearing things fast enough,” Sedaris sighs. “But they were asking for ridiculous things to get cleared, like, ‘The doorstop in that scene, who made that?’ Ridiculous stuff. So I don’t think we did it, and I think they were a little nervous about it, and they pulled out. But it worked out, because ThinkFilm is perfect for Strangers with Candy, plus it’s perfect that Strangers with Candy didn’t come out when it was supposed to! It’s Strangers with Candy. It’s for losers! Of course it didn’t come out on time.”