As we all know by now, Jerri Blank is a woman of contradictions: A social misfit who rejects the few people who actually treat her with kindness, she is also, in spite of her own highly unconventional life journey, a casual racist. You’d think someone open to having sex with a donkey would be more accepting of other cultures, but ours is not to ask why. It is simply to love Jerri for who she is: A highly entertaining bigot.
So far, Strangers With Candy has covered a whole host of Difficult Subjects, from alcoholism to drug addiction to the mentally retarded and their affinity for baked desserts. This week we arrive at “Let Freedom Ring,” an episode that boldly illustrates the ongoing problem of racism in contemporary American society (or something like that). A mysterious culprit has spray-painted a racial epithet—ending in the letters “I-G-G-E-R”—in the hallway of Flatpoint. The only witness to the crime is Paul Cotton, a seemingly harmless student who tells Principal Blackman he was in the bathroom doing a “number two” at the time of the incident. (Who knew Blackman had such a scatological fixation?) He inists he had nothing to do with the vandalism, but he instantly becomes the prime suspect.
Sensitive to the injustice—or at least her own raging libido—Jerri offers the young Mr. Cotton a cigarette and a sympathetic ear. Like Paul, she knows what it’s like to profess innocence and to suffer when no one believe you. (“The man locks you in a tin box under the punishing Florida sun after cutting sugar cane all day, soaking in your own filth,” she recalls with a sting.) Unlike Paul, Jerri doesn’t know what it’s like to actually be innocent. Her real motive isn’t protecting Paul’s reputation, it’s getting him in the sack. In a spectacular scene in the cafeteria, Jerri assures him that, despite rumors about her Sapphic tendencies, she likes the “pole and the hole.” As she strokes Paul’s face with a banana, she invites him to come over after school so she can make his “pinky all stinky.”
Even if raunchy humor isn’t your thing, you have to admire Strangers With Candy for its inventiveness: This show really knows how to find new ways to be crude, and takes the filth to a grotesque extreme. For example: Jerri finally lures Paul back to her house, where she impatiently pretends to study for a few minutes before tearing off her high-waisted stonewashed jeans and revealing her “Liberty Bell.” (“See the crack,” she says.) But as Jerri is rummaging around, a can of black spraypaint falls out of her bag. Could she be the mysterious vandal? And is she framing Paul?
Meanwhile, Jellineck is dealing with a nasty case of post-traumatic stress. He was the first person to lay eyes on the graffiti, and instead of opening up a dialogue about racism with his students (or something constructive like that), the art teacher chooses to indulge in some extremely narcissistic grieving. It’s reminiscent of the episode “Dreams On The Rocks,” where Sara’s drinking is a problem not because it’s a threat to her health, but because it might embarrass Jerri. In the world of Strangers With Candy, people are horrified by bad behavior, but for all the wrong reasons.
In the faculty shower, Noblet confesses his concerns about Jellineck’s state of mind to Blackman, who decides to call in “former grief counselor” Percy Kittens (played be the great but terminally underused Tim Meadows) for assistance. Percy—or should I say Mr. Kittens?—asks Jellineck to describe what he saw. Naturally, he begins by recalling the he wore a “dago tee” on the day of the incident; in case you didn’t know (I didn’t) “dago” is a slur used against Italians and Greeks, and as far as I can tell a “dago tee” is basically a wife-beater—excuse me, I mean a sleeveless cotton undershirt. And yet when he finally gets to the part of the story where he sees the graffiti, Jellineck is too verklempt to utter the n-word. Noblet, who’s been watching through a window in the classroom door (I love how Noblet is the protector in this relationship, and Jellineck the delicate flower who emits high-pitched screams), urges Kittens to stop with the interrogation. Blackman concurs: “Put away your claws, Kittens. He’s about to blow.”
I’m always reluctant to over-analyze Strangers With Candy, but it’s tempting to read this episode as a statement about hypocritical squeamishness over the use of the n-word. People like Jellineck are easily offended by the epithet, yet continually display their own casual but entrenched bigotry. I’m also tempted to compare “Let Freedom Ring” to the episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm and South Park that addresses the n-word in similar ways. Strangers With Candy never really became a cultural touchstone in the way that either of these shows were—and still are, to some extent—and I wonder how much of this has to do with just how weird it is. Sometimes it’s hard to tell just what point Strangers With Candy is making, or if it’s making one at all.
Whatever message there is in “Let Freedom Ring” is only further muddled by the revelation that Jerri was behind the vandalism—and even she’s not sure why she did it. She gropes around for an explanation, claiming the graffiti was meant to be a parable, or a pun, or maybe it was a riddle. In the end, Jerri shrugs and offers up a simpler motive: “I don’t like black people.” At least she’s being honest. For Jerri, that’s a huge step in the right direction.
- This is the first episode that doesn’t begin with Jerri’s “boozer, user, and a loser” spiel.
- You can watch “Let Freedom Ring” here.
- Although this episode aired several weeks before next week’s “Jerri Is Only Skin Deep,” it comes after it on the series DVD. Go figure.
- Jerri: “How’s it goin’, Susie? Nice camel toe.”
- Student in Noblet’s class: “What happened to Martin Luther King?” Noblet: “I’m not sure.”
- In art class, Jerri insists she’s not a racist, then shows Paul her drawing of a “Chinaman,” complete with buck tooth and slanty eyes.
- When Jerri comes home, Sara is spray-painting a black lawn jockey statue and ordering the gardener to cut back the “wandering Jew.” As she tells Jerri, she has no problem with the n-word, but she really doesn’t like graffiti.
- Jerri to Orlando: “You come from a country with a brutal and unforgiving penal system run by savage animals, much like Brazil.”
- Jerri trying to predict the message Paul is spraying on her door: “G spot? Gonads? Good times?”
- I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing anti-racism film that Kittens and Blackman make for Paul. Its absurd message—that a black man can be anything he wants to be, even a giant squirrel—is typical of Strangers With Candy’s skewed perspective.