Middle-aged wasteland

A 46-year-old loser goes back to high school in Amy Sedaris' Comedy Central series "Strangers With Candy."

Published April 5, 1999 10:22PM (EDT)

In Comedy Central's twisted new series "Strangers With Candy," celebrated New York playwright, comic and waitress Amy Sedaris plays Jerri Blank, a 46-year-old former teenage runaway, junkie, hooker and jailbird who returns home after 32 years determined to have the "normal" adolescence she never had. She enters high school (as a freshman), where she grapples with typical high school problems like unpopularity, bad grades and teachers who have it in for you for no reason. But Jerri is undaunted. Drawing on the valuable lessons she's learned from her life as a "user, boozer and loser," she finds that there's no problem that can't be solved by drugs, sex or a plausible alibi.

If you're thinking that "Strangers With Candy" sounds like the unholy spawn of "Get a Life" and "My So-Called Life," you're on the right track. Created and written by Sedaris, Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello, who were all involved in Comedy Central's mid-'90s skit comedy series "Exit 57," "Strangers With Candy" puts an absurdist spin on all the familiar crises of TV adolescence by having them experienced by a very weird adult. Like Chris Elliott in "Get a Life," Sedaris makes her character sublimely oblivious to the ridiculousness of her situation -- Jerri's a freak, but she doesn't know it. And Sedaris and her collaborators parody some of the same '70s TV sources Elliott mined in "Get a Life," especially ABC's "Afterschool Specials" ("Strangers With Candy" was originally going to be called "The Way After School Special"), those morality plays that sucked kids in with their topical teen issues and then either scared their pants off or confused them even further.

In "Strangers With Candy," Jerri copes with a different dilemma every week, spoofily portrayed in thuddingly obvious "Afterschool Special" fashion -- upcoming themes include eating disorders, drugs, racism, divorce, illiteracy and unwed motherhood. The giggly, dark premise is that Jerri gets terrible advice from the grown-ups she goes to for guidance and ends up learning all the wrong lessons -- which, in the skewed universe of "Strangers With Candy," are the right lessons. In the first episode Wednesday, Jerri tries to get her classmates to come to a party she's throwing, but is cruelly rejected until the extremely sensitive art teacher, Mr. Jellineck (Dinello), tells her to "dig deep inside and see what makes you unique -- dig around like a badger in a trash can and go with what you know!" So Jerri mixes up a batch of crank for the homecoming queen, who promptly ODs, after which Jerri dedicates her party to the girl's memory and gets a full house.

And the April 14 episode is a devilish spoof of those TV movies where high schoolers were forced to tote around sacks of flour or eggs as if they were babies as a lesson in the consequences of unprotected sex. In the "Strangers With Candy" version, the sex education teacher hands Jerri a real baby, which she can't give back until she learns the most valuable lesson a girl can learn about single motherhood. It's only after Jerri, sharing the baby with another girl, becomes jealous of her partner's focus on the kid and starts acting like an abusive boyfriend that she realizes what that lesson is. (Sorry, it's so cleverly sprung, it wouldn't be right to give it away.)

Comedy Central's first live-action original non-skit series, "Strangers With Candy" is one of the most inventively bizarre shows in a long time (right up there with HBO's recent trial run of the mock-rock duo sitcom "Tenacious D"). "Strangers With Candy" manages to sustain the "Afterschool Special" joke with its smudged, '70s neo-realistic look, generic pseudo-pop background music and Jerri's throwback wardrobe, which is so hideous I suspect it came from somebody's actual closet, not a Hollywood costume shop.

But while Jerri uses language that would make even Cartman blush, the humor of "Strangers With Candy" is so bone-dry that some "South Park" fans might end up staring at it in Beavis and Butt-headlike confusion. "Strangers With Candy" is not for kids, but that's not surprising, given Sedaris' impressive risumi of brainy-silly stagecraft. With her brother, author, playwright and National Public Radio commentator David Sedaris, Amy Sedaris wrote the Obie Award-winning 1996 play "One Woman Shoe," which she also starred in. She also appeared off-Broadway in Paul Rudnick's "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told" and is working on a Seattle staging of "The Little Frieda Mysteries," which she wrote with her brother. (She is also famously employed as a waitress at Marion's in New York's Bowery.)

Jerri Blank is an inspired creation, both childlike and haggard, and although Sedaris puts her face through buck-toothed contortions to play her and wears some of the most unflattering eye makeup this side of a "Phyllis" rerun, her all-too-human failings are oddly endearing. When Jerri seeks solace from the mean kids at school and her bitchy stepmother (Deborah Rush) and bratty, more popular half-brother (Larc Spies) at home by throwing herself across her bed and talking to the ashes of her late mother, she's every confused, lonely, misfit teenage girl on TV -- you can almost overlook the matronly curlers and cold cream. There's a semiserious message to "Strangers With Candy" -- you're never too old for a second chance. But Sedaris and her co-writers also know what most of us would use that second chance for. "This second time through high school, I'm a little bit wiser," Jerri states proudly into the camera. "I'm still doing the wrong things, but at least I'm doing them the right way!"

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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