Jerri gets braces.
Approaching an episode of Strangers With Candy requires a unique understanding of how the show works. South Park is politically incorrect but ultimately has some sort of point. Drawn Together was not PC and had no point other than grossing out or shocking the audience. Strangers With Candy seems to position itself in a bizarro world where its lessons make complete sense to the characters despite being wholly alien to us the viewer.
And it’s better for that.
But it is the absurdity of the world that Jerri Blank inhabits that makes the faux moral lessons funny instead of being deeply disturbing and in the context of any other show a premise like Who Wants Cake would be a case study in how deep into depravity a show can reach. If you’re going to introduce someone to Strangers With Candy, Who Wants Cake is a great place to gauge if they can handle it.
Jerri begins this episode on the receiving end of bad news; she needs braces. She complains that the braces will make her the “laughing stock of Flatpoint High” to which her dentist (played by Richard Kind) informs her that she’ll just have to live with it. He says this while standing up revealing his polio leg brace.
Unfortunately for Jerri she lives in a world where existence warps itself to fit with the theme of that week’s episode. The vending machines dispense racks of ribs, everyone is fixated on each other’s teeth, and mom’s making corn on the cob, beef jerky, and caramel apples for dinner. Thankfully Jerri finds a friend in her lockermate Kimberly Timbers (Tamera Gindlesperger) who is attracted to her braces because they are shiny.
Jerri gives her history poem called “packing a musket” which is less about packing muskets and more about sex workers. Noblet dismisses the class just as Jerri is about to finish her line “but I straddle and squat to show you my-” and reminds the class that they need their permission slips for the field trip to Good Time Island. Noblet corners Jerri on her way out to introduce this episode’s main plot.
Principal Blackman has tasked Jerri with spying on Kimberly Timbers. The reason? They suspect Kimberly might be retarded but they need Jerri’s confirmation before they can act. To ensure Jerri’s cooperation, Noblet implies that she won’t be allowed to go to Good Time Island otherwise. The school has made up its mind, Jerri’s agreement is just for paperwork.
If I had to venture a guess, I would have to conclude that Who Wants Cake is at least partially a commentary on the double standards of television censorship in the late 90’s, early aughts. This is one of the few, if potentially the only, times that Jerri is censored and it’s over the word “twat” which you can’t say on TV.
However Chuck Noblet is free to assign the class a poem on Hiroshima with the caveat that the performance isn’t “too faggy” without fear of the TV censors, nor would they stop Geoffrey Jellineck from making statements like “most gay people are retarded” or the overall idea that the retarded are surprisingly cunning and nefarious. They also don’t seem to have much of a problem with the concept of Good Time Island, explicitly described as a place where the High School takes its underage students to get laid and has even established a pleasure club.
I’m also fairly certain that you can see Stephen Colbert’s ballsack in the scene where he stands up being painted in the nude by Jellineck. That missed the censors. It didn’t miss my brain.
Jerri and Geoffrey go to the library to find a book to learn about the retarded, which of course appears in the form of a cassette tape. This is where we get the title of the episode, as Wilford Brimley (Stephen Colbert doing a bad Wilford Brimley impression) warns not to lock eyes with the retarded as they might go into a violent fit, and you might be saying “no no no” but all they hear is “who wants cake?” and they all do. They all want cake. As part of the show’s twisted logic, the book ends with the positive statement “it’s important to remember they’re just like you and me.”
It’s also the episode that cemented one of Greg Hollimon’s more famous lines as Principal Blackman; “And by audacity I mean hubris overweening pride.”
There’s another commentary in this episode about how racism can be accepted and downright laughed at if played off-screen by a character the audience loves. Principal Blackman calls Jerri’s parents to explain that if Jerri doesn’t cooperate that her parents can’t go to Good Time Island either. Blackman tries to explain this to Guy Blank (who of course we never hear speak) before shouting “that’s an ugly word, Mr. Blank. Well it’s different when we call each other that!” Having a character angrily drop a racist slur at the only black character would be a step too far even for this show.
A character who otherwise doesn’t talk doing it off-camera? That’s hilarious. Jerri’s parents being unapologetic racists (especially Guy) is a topic that will come up several more times.
This week’s lesson is delivered by Jerri’s dentist who talks about the importance of integrity and honesty while giving the story about how he begged his mother as a child not to tell the doctor that he had polio and because she loved him, she kept his secret. Now he has a leg brace to remind him about the power of loyalty in a world full of betrayal.
Jerri returns to the school to announce that she won’t betray her values, only to immediately betray those values when informed that she won’t be going on the trip. Kimberly is carted off the bus and Blackman asks Jerri what she’ll do when she gets to Good Time Island.
“I’m gonna get laid!”
It seems very likely that the term retarded in Strangers With Candy means something very different than how we would see it in the real world, and probably has no meaning whatsoever. I feel like with how evil this reality the show’s characters inhabit tends to be, that Colbert and Sedaris wouldn’t be so cruel as to have genuinely vulnerable people exist where everyone around them is greedy, self-centered, and so ready to exploit people they’d see as easy targets.
The closest we see to a “special ed” idea are the violent students in Bogey Nights which is more likely just SWC’s idea of an in-school Juvi as those students are deliberately never referred to as retarded and just seem to be the troublesome students at Flatpoint High.
This plot point was the main theme of the pilot episode and ended on a darker note as Jerri tells the camera that the school tried to put her retard strength to a productive use and she ended up dying from it.
- Noblet: “I can’t read this permission slip, Jerri. The handwriting is too uncooperative.”
- Jellineck: “Most gay people are retarded.”
- Jerri: “But they’re just like you and me!”
Blackman: “I don’t care if they’re just like me and me, they’re a menace!”
- Blackman: “We’re doing our best to weed them out, but these retards are incredibly clever.”
- Kimberly: “That’s too bad, she usually enjoys pleasure. I sure hope she comes.”
- Kimberly: “I almost had to have braces once, but then at the last minute the dentist realized I had perfect teeth.”