Although I’m reluctant to start tossing out the superlatives this early in my look back at Strangers With Candy, it’s safe to say that “A Burden’s Burden” is one of the funniest, filthiest episodes the show ever produced. It may also be the most quintessential, full of all the ingredients that make for a satisfying Strangers With Candy experience: alarmingly off-color humor, a plot that puts an absurd twist on a stock TV narrative, forbidden love, and a masterfully weird and fearless performance from Amy Sedaris.
The episode kicks off with a memorable cold open. Chuck Noblet is relieving himself in the dimly-lit men’s room at Flatpoint High when he’s interrupted by Geoffrey Jellineck. “Is that your boy out there on the playground?” Jellineck asks, breathing down Noblet’s neck. “Seamus? Yeah he’s a real scrapper,” Noblet replies, totally unfazed by the flagrant violation of his personal space, before adding, “Sure does miss his mom.”Strangers With Candy loves to mine comedy from incongruous moments like this one, where the extraordinary or bizarre behavior of one character is met with the indifference—or even good cheer—of another. The conversation itself is also fantastically strange, suburban-dad small talk punctuated with off-hand references to dead spouses and served up with a heavy portion of homoeroticism.
Noblet hands over the urinal to Jellineck, and leans flirtatiously against the wall. The following conversation ensues:
Noblet: “So… is there no Mrs. Jellineck?
Jellineck: “No… ”
Jellineck: “She was, uh, she was murdered.”
Noblet: “Sometimes that can be just as painful.”
The men lock eyes, smash the bathroom’s lone lightbulb, and begin to tear each other’s clothes off. The camera pans left to reveal Jerri, standing against a wall scrawled with penis graffiti. She lights a match and launches into the latest variation of her trademark spiel: “Thirty-two years ago I ran away and became entangled in the slithering underbelly of America… ”
The episode never really lets up from here. In the first act, Jerri gets an assignment from Coach Wolf: In order to learn about the responsibility of parenting, she has to take care of a 10-pound baby. It’s a spoof on the stock narrative in which an adolescent is charged with protecting some fragile object—usually an egg— in order to better understand the challenges of being a parent (and, presumably, not to engage in unprotected sex). It’s one of those things that rarely seems to happen outside the world of family-friendly sitcoms, and “A Burden’s Burden” underscores the absurdity of this well-worn plot device by making Jerri take care of a real baby.
At first Jerri objects to the assignment, insisting that “I’ve had plenty of babies. Just none I’ve carried to full term.” She slowly warms to the chubby infant, whom she decides to call “Dizzy,” but she’s unable to manage the demands that come with being a parent. Sleep-deprived, Jerri rolls into Jellineck’s class without having completed her homework assignment. He suggests she needs to get her priorities in order: “I have a son. He’s not always first on the list. Often he doesn’t even make the list.” Perhaps discouraged by Jellineck, Jerri once again gives in to her bad habits, abandoning Dizzy in the playground so she can go “throw rocks at an Indian.”
Hours later, she rolls back home, abuzz after a thrilling day of mischief, but she spots one of Dizzy’s pacifiers on the front steps and is suddenly hit by a tidal wave of guilt. This is another Strangers With Candy hallmark: exaggerated moments of revelation. Conflicted, Jerri turns to her stepmother for some maternal advice. Like seemingly all adults on this series, she doesn’t have much to offer in the way of guidance. “As for what it was like raising you, I’ve got no idea, darling,” she says. “I do know that when you ran away it killed your real mother.”
Along with the Noblet-Jellineck affair, the other big development in “A Burden’s Burden” is the introduction of Tammi Littlenut, the petite redhead who awakens Jerri’s latent Sapphic tendencies. After Dizzy is discovered in the park at 3 a.m. by Noblet and Jellineck, Principal Blackman and Coach Wolf decide to pair Jerri up with virtuous Tammi. (Jerri’s defensive reaction to the news: “Is this because I circumcised it?”) Jerri is excited to work with Tammi, but for all the wrong reasons. She instantly becomes infatuated with “Copperhead,” inviting her to ditch Dizzy and go skinny-dipping at the quarry. (“Watch out for the snapping turtles,” she cautions suggestively.)
By the time lunch rolls around, Jerri is already acting like a jealous, abusive husband, interrogating Tammi after she leaves the table to get some milk and insisting her partner take the baby so she can go play liar’s poker. It’s an absurdly accelerated narrative arc, another one of Strangers With Candy’s favorite devices. Sedaris’ performance in this scene is astonishing, distinguished by idiosyncratic physical gestures that take a very funny script to another level of hilarity. Notice, for instance, the playful little shuffling motion she makes with her arms on the table. It’s almost impossible to adequately describe the gesture with words, because it’s so particular, but that’s exactly why it’s so funny.
In the final act of the episode, Jerri lures Tammi to a seedy motel by claiming there’s an emergency with Dizzy. She’s gotten dolled up for the occasion, crimping her hair and donning a fetching peach tracksuit. Tammi, however, is only concerned with Dizzy’s welfare. Even after Jerri whips out some chilled Jagermeister and a bright red thong (security tag still firmly in place), Tammi merely shrugs it off the misguided attempt at seduction. She’s focused on finding little Dizzy before he’s sold by Kim Luc on the black market. On any other sitcom, Jerri’s sexual overtures would elicit all sorts of shocked reactions, but Strangers With Candy takes the opposite tack. Only rarely does anyone respond with horror to Jerri’s inappropriate behavior—or, for that matter, to her garish outfits, her dubious tales of past debauchery, or even the fact that she’s a 46-year-old high school freshman. For whatever reason, they simply accept Jerri for who she is. The pattern of non-response heightens the sense that Strangers With Candy takes place within its own skewed, surreal universe.
Eventually, Principal Blackman and Coach Wolf pull into the parking lot, interrupting not only Jerri’s rendezvous with Tammi but also Noblet and Jellineck’s latest tryst. Jerri tells Blackman how much she’ll miss co-parenting with Tammi. “It was a lot easier being a single mother when I was neither single, nor the mother,” she says. Lesson learned.
- Jellineck: “It doesn’t matter when you get here, just what time.”
- Jellineck: “Spiro here had swimming practice and look what he was able to accomplish.”
- Jerri to Derrick: “Being a mother has softened me. So take a hike, dick lick.”
- Jerri on the blob of clay she presents as her homework assignment: “Clearly it’s a monkey’s paw… an ashtray… a sleeping pill.”
- Jerri on hotel porn: “Pretty good movies. They cut out before the money shot but you can still see plenty of uh… pink.”
- Watch this episode here.