From The Vault: Strangers With Candy S1E1 – Old Habits, New Beginnings

A cult classic that needs a second look.

Strangers With Candy is one of those those that doesn’t get talked about much these days, and when it does the conversation usually revolves around “you couldn’t air that on television nowadays,” or “I can’t believe Stephen Colbert was a writer on this.” And while it is absolutely true that the humor is likely a large factor in why Comedy Central hasn’t shown reruns in a long time, the nature of the show itself is so brilliant that it should be on any comedy-lover’s must view list.

First a bit of light homework; Strangers With Candy was inspired by a 1970 PSA by Florence Fisher called The Trip Back. Fisher yells at high school students for a half hour about how marijuana is a gateway drug and if you smoke a single joint the next thing you know you’ll be a prostitute sleeping on a mattress on the street and doing whatever for your next hit of horse. The film was noticed by a comedy troupe including Paul Dinello and Stephen Colbert who realized that Fisher looked a lot like fellow troupe member Amy Sedaris.

Strangers With Candy aired on Comedy Central for three seasons from 1999-2000, with a movie prequel releasing six years later. It parodies the popular after-school specials of the time by introducing Jerri Blank, a 46 year old high school freshman who spent thirty years as a teenage runaway and has now inexplicably returned home to start her life right where it left off.

Episode 1 of Strangers With Candy puts Jerri in the dilemma of choosing popularity or academic success. Her history teacher Chuck Noblet (Stephen Colbert) warns her that after three days of class and one pop quiz she is destined to fail. Jerri is more concerned with becoming popular and no longer being the new kid but she doesn’t want to be held back because if she doesn’t graduate high school before she’s 50 she’ll be the laughing stock of the school.

And here we get into the brilliance of the show; Strangers With Candy likes to drop what would otherwise be notable tidbits and never acknowledge them. For instance nobody in the show seems to notice or care that Jerri is 46 and a highschool freshman.

We also meet Jerri’s family this episode. Her younger step-brother Derrick (Larc Spies) is the jock type, the favorite child of the family and constantly talking about losing weight to make the school championships. Step-mother Sara (Deborah Rush) plays the stern yet full of lessons mother who loves her son and hates Jerri.

And then we have possibly the best performance of the show; Jerri’s dad Guy (Roberto Gari). Roberto Gari never moves when visible on screen although we regularly hear him moving when the camera is facing the other direction. In scenes where he does talk, the camera cuts in just as people are responding back to him. Gari plays his role so well that watching this show as a ten year old I was convinced Guy was a wax figure.

Jerri learns a lesson from art teacher Geoffrey Jellineck (Paul Dinello) to “go with what you know.” Taking this lesson in stride, she offers to make drugs for popular girl Poppy Downes in order to gain acceptance by the cool kids. She makes a bag of “glint” which Poppy rubs on her lips and immediately turns her into a zombie who thinks she’s a bumblebee. When Poppy falls into a coma after trying to force her way through a keyhole, Jerri faces the very real prospect of losing her popularity if Poppy wakes up and rats on her.

It’s all an exaggerated take on the old DARE commercials; the pretty popular girl who does drugs just once and dies. Jerri shows up to the hospital aiming to pull Poppy’s life support only to find that she had passed several hours before. The nurse confuses Jerri for Poppy’s uncle.

At her memorial party Jerri is reveling in her new popularity when she realizes that the hot fruit she’s serving was made in the glint bowl and everyone is getting high. When one of her guests kills her turtle, Jerri compares its death to Poppy’s noting that when she gets to school on Monday she’ll have everyone’s pity and that has to be worth something.

Strangers With Candy had a pilot episode whose plot elements mostly got absorbed by other episodes in the first season, but this one feels like a pilot for a few reasons. Chuck Noblet and Geoffrey Jellineck are definitely friendlier toward Jerri compared to later episodes Chuck has outright contempt and Geoffrey somewhat tolerates her presence mostly as an outlet for his own self-pity. Principal Onyx Blackman (Greg Hollimon) is curious but not quite yet the insane man he plays going forward.

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