“Old Habits, New Beginnings” S1 / E1
- B+ Community Grade
Strangers With Candy debuted on Comedy Central in April 1999—a cataclysmic moment in the history of American adolescence. Less than two weeks after the première of the show, which garnered reviews that ranged from glowing (Rolling Stone called it “gleefully absurdist”) to curtly dismissive (“leaden satire,” according to Time), two troubled teenagers in Colorado opened fire on their classmates at Columbine High School. It’s tempting to read some meaning into the timing: However daft it is, Strangers With Candy is at its core a show about the cruelties of high school, and its heroine, a 46-year-old freshman named Jerri Blank, is living proof of the protracted trauma of adolescence.
But then Strangers With Candy is also a show that resists any attempts to glean a larger social or political message; it is aggressively, defiantly weird, too strange to be read as a simple parody. Like its Comedy Central precursor South Park, Strangers With Candy traffics in all kinds of off-color humor—to call it politically incorrect or irreverent doesn’t quite do justice to lines like, “That’s a chink with the spic food I ordered.” But whereas South Park makes its satirical point loud and clear, Strangers With Candy pokes fun at the very idea of teaching lessons through pop culture. It is, on one level, a parody of the ABC After School Specials of the ’70s and ’80s that taught Generation X about the mortal dangers of hallucinogenic drugs and touchy-feely family friends, and which have since become a shorthand insult for ham-fisted, morally didactic storytelling.
But Strangers With Candy is much funnier, and much more warped, than this basic summary would suggest. For those of you who don’t know the show’s history, here’s a brief summary: Jerri Blank is inspired by Florrie Fisher, a recovered drug addict and motivational speaker who traveled to schools in the ’60s and ’70s and traumatized thousands of American teenagers with her tales of addiction, prostitution, and general dereliction. Her 1970 appearance at a New York City high school was recorded by the New York Daily News and made into a PSA called The Trip Back.
It’s one of the most unintentionally brilliant comedic performances ever caught on film: For 20 minutes, Fisher rambles about the dangers of recreational drug use, peppering her diatribe with misused slang, hyperbolic horror stories, and uncomfortable tangents on her personal life. It would be easy to write several thousand words about the wonders of Florrie Fisher, but that’s not why we’re here. (Besides, Rich Juzwiak already did itbetter than I ever could.) Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello saw the film and thought Florrie resembled their friend and fellow Second City alum, Amy Sedaris. Strangers With Candy was born.
“Old Habits, New Beginnings” (season 1, episode 1; originally aired 4/7/1999)
Given the extent to which Jerri is defined by her past, “Old Habits, New Beginnings” is surprisingly light on the exposition. The episode opens with an anti-drug assembly at Flatpoint High. Jerri sits in the bleachers, salivating as Officer Civilian (get it?) shows them a tin filled with various street drugs (including something called “goofballs”). Perhaps in an effort to distract herself from the temptation, Jerri turns to the camera and introduces herself. She delivers a version of a speech she’ll repeat many, many times going forward:
“Hello. I’m Jerri Blank, and I’m a 46-year-old high school freshman. For 32 years I was a teenage runaway. I was a boozer, a user, and a loser. My friends were dealers, cons, and 18-karat pimps. But now, I’m out of jail, picking up my life exactly where I left off.”
That’s pretty much the extent of Jerri’s back-story—but with a perfectly honed bio like that, who really needs more? We don’t know what crisis brought her back to Flatpoint after three decades as a runaway, how her family responded to her return, or how she managed to re-enroll in school. But we also realize rather quickly that none of those details really matter: This is decidedly not a show that’s grounded in any kind of emotional or logistical reality.
As out there as Strangers With Candy is, it does employ a very neat three-act structure—inspired, no doubt, by the formulaic storytelling of the After School Specials. In the end, Jerri always learns a lesson, but it’s almost always the wrong one. Conflict arises in “Old Habits, New Beginnings” nearly as soon as the credits stop rolling. After history class, Jerri tells her teacher Chuck Noblet that she needs to leave class early the next day to get her uterus scraped. He pulls Jerri aside and warns her that she’s in danger of failing, even though she’s only been back in school for three days. She is more concerned that no one is interested in coming to the party—complete with meat and “hot fruit”—she’s throwing, but Noblet suggests that she cools it with the celebration and focuses on her studies. Jerri faces a dramatically oversimplified choice: popularity or academic failure.
In the bathroom, Jerri runs in to popular girl Poppy Downes and her minions, who laugh at their classmate’s misguided attempts at friendship (“Who wants to go to a cockfight? I’ll drive.”). In a panic, Jerri heeds the words of her art teacher, Geoffrey Jellineck, who counsels her to “go with what you know,” and impulsively promises to make Poppy drugs that will “make you trip your tight, little ass off.”
At home, things aren’t much better. We meet Jerri’s catatonic father, Guy, and her cruel, dumb stepbrother, Derrick. Jerri’s only allies are her pet turtle, Shelley, and her late mother, whose ashes she keeps in an urn at her bedside. Jerri’s alone in the world; can we really blame her for wanting to make friends with drugs? As Jerri whips up a batch of some homemade narcotics, she reminisces about the olden days. “I’d turn people onto hash, or Thai stick, or a palm full of goofballs, or some ludes,” she says wistfully. One thing Sedaris really nails is Florrie Fisher’s jivey way of talking, full of inventive (and quite possibly invented) street slang.
At school the next day, Jerri offers up a bag of the gooey green paste—known as “Satan’s hairlip” or “Glint”—to Poppy, who enthusiastically rubs it all over her mouth. Jerri warns her about using too much: “It’s gonna numb it wherever you apply it, which can be a godsend. I used to apply it liberally when I did this donkey show in Tijuana.” (Like Jenna Maroney, Jerri tends to throw in colorful details of her life story into casual conversation.)
Cut to Coach Wolf’s gym class, and Poppy is in a sweaty, drug-induced mania. Believing herself to be a bumblebee, she tries to force herself through a keyhole and winds up in a coma. (Alas, the keyhole scene takes place off-camera, but we do get to see an amped-up Poppy scramble to the top of the gym-class rope in record time.) Poppy’s story is pretty clearly a spoof of the apocryphal anti-drug tales told by hundreds of D.A.R.E. officers across the country: A pretty, popular girl takes a dangerous drug just one time and loses her mind. (All that’s missing is the part where she puts a baby in the oven, believing it’s a turkey.)
Jerri faces another conundrum. If Poppy lives, everyone will know where she got her drugs. If she dies, Jerri will be safe but, well, Poppy will be dead. What to do? Naturally, Jerri decides that Poppy must die. Under cover of night, she sneaks into the hospital and unplugs what she thinks is Poppy’s life support, but a male nurse tells her some good news: Poppy is already dead. It’s a win-win for Jerri, who is relieved not to have to resort to murder to maintain her hard-won acceptance.
In the third act, Jerri has to confront her own guilt. Will she “do the right thing” and confess to giving Poppy the Glint, or will she exploit Poppy’s death to boost her social status at Flatpoint? She chooses the latter option, throwing a Poppy Downes memorial party at her house. At first, the soiree is a smashing success: It’s jam-packed, everyone believes that Jerri was Poppy’s best friend in her last hours, and Jerri looks fetching enough in a pair of tight, off-white leather jeans to seduce the dead girl’s ex-boyfriend. Even Noblet has changed his tune, giving the party an “A+.” (The inconsistency of Jerri’s supposed authority figures is a running gag on this show.) But eventually Jerri’s chickens come home to roost. Hopped up on Glint-tainted hot fruit, a few partygoers decide to play a game of catch with Shelley, who winds up being hurled through the patio door. Distraught, Jerri crashes through the broken glass in an attempt to rescue her beloved turtle, but it’s too late: Shelley is dead. (Cue the dramatic music.)
Holding Shelley’s corpse with both hands like a Big Mac, Jerri seems to realize the error of her ways. “Oh Shelley, for reasons I’d rather not say, this is bitterly ironic,” she laments. “What a heavy price to pay for popularity.” Has Jerri really learned her lesson? Not likely. Just minutes later, as she settles into bed wearing curlers and a hair net, Jerri displays no such compunction. “With the exception of Shelley and Poppy Downs, everything turned out to be pretty okay,” she concludes. “I’m still doing the wrong things, but at least I’m doing them the right way.” In other words,Jerri continues to misbehave, but this time around, the high jinks are working in her favor socially—and isn’t that all that matters?
Strangers With Candy is hyper-irreverent—a show that’s too willfully bonkers to be taken seriously on any moral level. Anyone who watches it and thinks it sends the “wrong message” to America’s youth is a small-minded scold. But even though it operates according to its own absurd logic, the show also has its strangely sweet moments. In the closing scene of “Old Habits, New Beginnings,” Jerri pours Shelley’s ashes from a pill bottle into her mother’s urn. “Don’t you two stay up yakking all night!” she says cheerfully. It is, dare I say it, kind of adorable. There are moments like this when Amy Sedaris’ ebullient personality comes bubbling through Jerri’s façade, and rather than detracting from her performance, they actually strengthen it. Ultimately, maybe the weirdest thing about Strangers With Candy is just how lovable Jerri is.
- For those of you following along, all three seasons of Strangers With Candy are available onHulu Plus.
- This week, I only covered one episode; going forward week-to-week, I’ll review two at a time.
- For our purposes, I thought it would be easier to skip the original Strangers With Candy pilot, “Retardation, A Celebration,” which (as far as I know) is only available on the series DVD. There are some notable differences: Jerri’s makeup, for one thing, is far more grotesque; she has an after-school job as a candy striper; and we also see her getting her uterus scraped. Various elements of the pilot were reworked into episodes of the series (you can read a detailed summary of the pilot here). “Retardation, A Celebration” is funny, but I think the changes made to the show before it made it to air represented a big improvement.
- Thanks to YouTube, you can watch all of The Trip Back right here. The most amazing material arrives around the 13-minute mark, but just do yourself a favor and watch all of it. Florrie Fisher also wrote a memoir, called The Lonely Trip Back, rare copies of which are available on eBay and Amazon for unreasonable sums of money. I tracked a copy down at my library and will report back with any significant findings. Anything in the name of journalism!
- A tidbit gleaned from the commentary track on my DVD: Sedaris and company couldn’t decide on a last name for Jerri and so they kept calling her “Jerri [blank].” It stuck.
- Noblet: “It’s important that we never forget the atrocities the Japanese committed against our boys.”
- As Noblet, Stephen Colbert mashes his fingers into the calculator, a gag he still uses on The Colbert Report.
- During the bathroom confrontation with Poppy and her gang, Jerri nervously reaches for the sanitary napkin dispenser. For some reason, that moment makes me laugh really hard.
- Sedaris is always brilliant, but she’s at her best in the scene at the dinner table, where she nervously looks at the bottom of her dinner plate while her family discusses Poppy’s health. She leaves the table in a panic, and begins to unbuckle her pants. Without even looking, Jerri’s stepmother, Sara, warns her not to spread her feces on the lampshade. Caught in the act, Jerri storms off in a huff:
- Male nurse to Jerri: “You must be her uncle.”
- Jerri’s outfits are, of course, an important part of the Strangers With Candy experience. My favorite look in this episode has to the poo-brown turtleneck worn with loose-knit, sleeveless sweater and fringed jeans.