During its original run on Comedy Central, the crude, politically incorrect Strangers With Candy drew comparisons to South Park, but the shows share more in common than their off-color humor. I’d argue that what makes them both great is their realization of a complete comedic universe, a place where things look somewhat normal but are in fact deeply, fundamentally weird. South Park, Colorado is a picturesque mountain town where strange occurrences are commonplace, and Flatpoint is a seemingly average American high school with its own surreal social code. It’s the kind of place where the black students aren’t bothered—in fact, they’re pleased—when Jellineck picks an all-white cast for his production of A Raisin In the Sun, and, as Jerri discovers in “Feather In The Storm,” it’s also the kind of place where potential debate team members are judged not by their ability to formulate an argument, but by the width of their hips.
At the risk of sounding insensitive, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that eating disorders don’t get made fun of nearly enough. Not that I think anorexia and bulimia aren’t very real and very serious, but they also provide plenty of fodder for comedy—especially when it comes to the dumbed-down pop cultural depictions of them. Strangers With Candy is obsessed with the oversimplified motivation and compressed timelines of most Afterschool Specials, and in “Feather In The Storm” we get maybe the most dramatic illustration of this. Jerri develops anorexia and drops down to 80 pounds in what appears to be a single 24-hour period. It’s ridiculous, to be sure, but only slightly sillier than, say, the episode of Beverly Hills, 90210 where Kelly gets hooked on diet pills.
In her latest attempt to get involved at school, Jerri’s trying out for the debate team, but it turns out her pear-shaped figure is not quite what Mr. Noblet is looking for. That’s right: She’s too fat for the debate team. Noblet, in the middle of a deep-frying session in his classroom, breaks the news to Jerri. “Slim arguments come from slim hips,” he says, prodding her lower-belly paunch. Of course, this makes absolutely no sense, but that’s the beauty of Strangers With Candy. It’s got all the familiar trappings of a high school drama, but the logic—or lack thereof—is entirely its own. Her chief rival is the impossibly svelte Lizzy, played by pre-Grey’s Anatomy Ellen Pompeo (I don’t think I could have dreamed a better piece of casting), who teams up with Noblet to pick on Jerri.
One thing I love about “Feather In The Storm” is how food and weight loss suffuse the entire episode, even its visual and aural details. It makes it feel as if the world of Flatpoint suddenly conforms to whatever it is Jerri is going through at any given moment. In the opening scene, for instance, Blackman canoodles with a hot-to-trot Russian named “Carne,” offering her a potato to dip in some caramel fondue. During the intervention with Jerri’s family there are paintings of hot dogs, hamburgers, and pizza scattered around Jellineck's classroom, and Jerri is wrapped in a blanket with various food items painted all over it. And of course there’s the Joni Mitchell-esque “Fat, Fat, Fat” song (sung by Stephen Colbert) that keeps popping up on the radio. The lyrics seem suspiciously relevant to her situation—“You stand alone, holding your chicken, Stew ate your waffles and you're feeling blue”—yet somehow it’s the number-one song in the country.
Not surprisingly, Jerri’s family isn’t terribly supportive of her situation. Sara is preoccupied with Derrick, who’s trying to lose weight for the wrestling team, and also with Stew, her flirtatious butcher. The only person concerned with Jerri is Mr. Jellineck, although he unwittingly encourages her by explaining that throwing up allows you to “eat anything you want, anytime you want, and it never shows.” (Like Noblet, he also alludes to eating half a strawberry cheesecake at 3 a.m. and never gaining an ounce; I love how the show slowly paints a portrait of their totally bizarre relationship.) It sounds like a brilliant strategy, especially for someone like Jerri, who’s incapable of saying no to any kind of sensual experience—whether it’s a joint, a make-out session with her long-lost son, or a plate of jalapeno poppers. Why not just barf it all up?
By the end of the school day, Jerri’s developed a severe eating disorder. It doesn’t go unnoticed. Noblet compliments Jerri on her “recent” weight loss, while Jellineck is more concerned for her health. While out on a run with Noblet, he stops by the Blank household. Wearing tiny shorts and a fanny pack, Jellineck expresses his concern about Jerri’s dangerous new habit—and about the bag of appetite suppressants and suppositories he found in her locker. Sara is upset by the news, but only because the pills belong to her. The entire scene is a thing of genius, especially Jellineck’s assertion that anorexia is contagious and “often sweeps through third-world countries that are stricken by drought,” and this pun-filled exchange with Stew:
Jellineck: “Simmer down, Stew.”
Stew: “I’m just so angry.”
Jellineck: “Obviously you have a beef stew, but please don’t stir things up.
If we don’t help Jerri know she could become a vegetable.”
Jellineck: “Let him talk!”
Stew: “Him who?”
Jellineck: “Him me!”
By the time the debate auditions rolls around, Jerri has wasted away to 80 pounds. Strangers With Candy requires us to suspend a whole lot of disbelief, and one of the more credulity-straining aspects of the series is the idea that Jerri is especially chunky. Amy Sedaris is a tiny person, even with extra hip padding that warps the proportions of her little frame. So it’s interesting to see her, however briefly, minus the “fatty suit.” Jerri’s nice and skinny for the audition, but she’s too delirious from starving herself to be able to issue a decent retort—though, to be fair, it’s hard to make a compelling case for incest, even if you’re Jerri Blank. Her response is hilariously wishy-washy. “Ok, granted,” says Jerri, swaying to and fro.” Sometimes…occasionally things can get out of hand. Alright? So uh, thank you.” Then she passes out. Jerri eventually comes to, only to discover she didn’t make the debate team. But on the bright side, her entire family is there, talking about her problems. “All I have to do is starve myself to the bring of death to get attention,” she figures. Lesson learned. In the end, Jerri loses her beloved exotic chicken Suki—who “baked herself voluntarily” so that her owner might live—but she gains a Camaro and at least a few seconds of attention from her family. In other words, it’s all worth it.
“Feather In The Storm” is right up there with “A Burden’s Burden,” an episode that’s got every single ingredient I look for in Strangers With Candy that’s: a deeply subversive premise, dialogue scattered with all kinds of wordplay, a brilliantly funny performance by Amy Sedaris, and plenty of Noblet and Jellineck. Also, it’s also got Tammi Littlenut. What more could you want?
- Watch “Feather In The Storm” here.
- This episode introduces Stew, played by Second City alum David Pasquesi, who also popped up on TV in Boss last year, but don’t hold that against him.
- Blackman tells his lady-friend not to worry about getting fat from fondue: “Just consider it a deposit in the old booty bank.”
- Jerri, walking into Principal Blackman’s office-turned-sex chamber: “Smells like a seafood paella in here.”
- In the shot where everyone grabs for a piece of “baked Suki,” you can see a prosthetic hand and a baby doll arm.
- Sara: “These suppositories are going right back where they belong, and you, young lady, are going to bed without supper.”
- Tammi Littlenut’s mom is forcing her to lose 15 pounds so she’s no longer able to get pregnant.