Strangers With Candy: “Who Wants Cake?”
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Strangers With Candy: “Who Wants Cake?”

Strangers With Candy is often described as a “high school satire” or a “parody of after-school specials,” but as I’ve argued before, the truth is much weirder and far  more interesting than either of these descriptions would suggest. It’s a series that, like its Comedy Central predecessor South Park, delights in un-PC humor, but where the two shows differ is that on Strangers With Candy, the point of all the offensive jokes is a whole lot murkier—if indeed there is one at all. “Who Wants Cake?” makes frequent use of the word “retard” and its derivatives, but it’s not entirely clear the show is trying to make some larger statement about the way we treat disabled people. In fact, the central joke of the episode is that, in the skewed world of Strangers With Candy, the word is essentially meaningless. If there’s a moral lesson in “Who Wants Cake?,” it’s this: Don’t look for one.  Trying to make sense of this episode only spoils the absurd fun. 

Since returning to high school after a 32-year absence, Jerri has rapidly ascended to the top of Flatpoint’s social ladder. A pariah in episode one, she’s already the star of the school play by episode three. But in “Who Wants Cake?” Jerri experiences her first significant setback: She gets braces. One of the running jokes on Strangers With Candy is the way it exaggerates the everyday humiliations of adolescence for the sake of narrative clarity. True to form, when Jerri shows up at school with her shiny new orthodontics and attempts to snack on some ribs she buys from a hallway vending machine (as one does), her classmates ridicule her mercilessly. Speaking from personal experience, braces are indeed hellish and embarrassing, but they’re also incredibly commonplace and therefore unlikely to elicit more than a quiet snicker or a cruel note passed between friends.

But, as we all know, realism is not the point on Strangers With Candy. The braces mean that Jerri is once again a social misfit, which gives her emotional motivation for what comes next. During Mr. Noblet’s history class, Jerri recites a poem called “Packing A Musket”:

When you work from your home and johns call on the phone, you’re a call girl. When you walk ’til you limp and give a cut to a pimp, you’re a street whore. When they’re beggin’ ya ‘please,’ to get down on your knees, near their groinage, ’scusa me, but ya see, don’t ya touch where they pee, without coinage.

Like her book report on Brazil in Old Habits, New Beginnings,” the poem has little to do with the assigned subject (the Louisiana Purchase), but it does remind us of the social divide between Jerri and her classmates. She’s a weirdo, even if they’re too bored and checked out to notice it.

Jerri is in a vulnerable state, so when Mr. Noblet asks Jerri to spy on her lockermate, Kimberly Timbers—who just so happens to be the only person to show Jerri any kindness since she got her braces and is also suspected of being a “retard”—she is conflicted. While the request goes against the moral code she’s been living by for three decades—she ain’t no snitch—Jerri, as an active member of the Pleasure Club, also desperately longs to go on the class field trip to Good Time Island. What’s a girl to do?

The entire scene in Noblet’s classroom is a work of weird, wonderful art. Of course, Amy Sedaris’ performance never disappoints, but I’d like to take a second to talk about Stephen Colbert. I’m an unapologetic Colbert fan-girl, and rewatching Strangers With Candy now, as a regular viewer of The Colbert Report, I find there are some interesting and unexpected parallels between the shows. There’s a lot of the same clever word play—for example, Jerri’s conversation with Sara about “mistakes” versus “choices.” And, like “Stephen Colbert,” Noblet is arrogant and a bit of a blowhard. But there’s also something different about Colbert’s persona on Strangers With Candy: He has the same, slightly bookish façade, but underneath it lurks someone who’s volatile, maybe even a little unhinged. Take the moment when he lashes out at one of Jerri’s classmates, screaming “Shut your dirty mouth!,” or the cruel way he taps on Jerri’s braces as he explains that retards are “drawn to shiny objects.” Noblet is one part bland history teacher, one part sadist.

Jerri’s dilemma is exacerbated by the fact that she’s also a pretty lousy spy. “Kimberly, how’s your brain?” she asks suggestively, leaning against her locker. “Sometimes I can be so retarded. Ever feel that way?” Having failed on her first reconnaissance mission, Jerri turns to her biggest booster, Mr. Jellineck, for advice. He’s drawing a portait of his lover, Mr. Noblet, in the nude—a scene that is largely irrelevant to the main plot but which nevertheless seemed important to capture in a series of screengrabs. You’re welcome:

Like seemingly all of the adults at Flatpoint High, Jellineck offers Jerri some dubious information (“most gay people are retarded”), before directing her to a helpful reference manual called Retardation: A Celebration. In an audiotape buried inside the book, narrator “Wilford Brimley” (as played by Colbert) explains that, more than anything, retarded people love cake. (The scene is lifted almost directly from the show’s original pilot.) In short, they’re just like you and me.

Conflicted, Jerri turns to her family to help. As usual, they are of little assistance. Derrick makes fun of his stepsister’s braces and calls her a snitch. “Read between the lines, pussy,” she fires back, holding up her ring, middle, and pointer fingers. (I have a perverse wish that when Amy Sedaris dies, this is the clip they show during the Oscars death montage.) Sara signals her disapproval of Jerri’s choice not to snitch by cooking a meal of corn on the cob, beef jerky, and candy apples, none of which Jerri is able to eat. The pressure only intensifies when Principal Blackman refuses to allow Jerri’s parents to chaperone the trip to Good Time Island unless she cooperates. Uncomfortable with the idea of spying on her friend, Jerri flees Blackman’s office only to find Kimberly in the lobby, madly stuffing her face with a piece of chocolate cake. Perhaps retards are to be feared after all?

The only sound advice Jerri gets in “Who Wants Cake?” comes from Dr. Link, her dentist (played by the always funny Richard Kind), and even then, it’s skewed—it is, to paraphrase Jerri’s opening monologue, right for all the wrong reasons. He preaches to Jerri about the importance of loyalty, citing his childhood bout with polio as an example. In accordance with his wishes, his mother never told anyone—not even his doctor—about his illness. His leg braces serve as a constant reminder of his mother’s constancy.  Heartwarming, isn’t it?

Jerri rushes off to school to make her final appeal before the buses head off to Good Time Island. She delivers a stirring third-act speech which, like her poem earlier in the episode, surely belongs near the top of any list of Jerri Blank’s finest moments:

I’m not the same Jerri Blank who informed on those blind orphans. I’m not the same Jerri Blank who revealed the hiding place of those Guatemalans, such as yourself. And I’m not the same Jerri Blank who took a crap in the Fleischmann’s holly bushes… last night.

Of course, it’s that pause followed by the slightly abashed “last night” that makes this speech a classic. The point is that, try as she might, Jerri hasn’t changed all that much. She’s still the kind of person who shits in her neighbor’s yard, and she’s most definitely the kind of person who’ll sell out a friend if it means a trip to the hedonistic playpen of Good Time Island. All Jerri has to do is utter a single sentence—“Clearly, she’s retarded”—and she’s off to get laid. Can you really  blame her?

Stray observations:

  • Watch this episode here.
  • Noblet: “For tomorrow, I want you to write a history poem on Hiroshima. But nothing too [writing on blackboard] faggy.”
  • I feel creepy for pointing this out, but I am almost certain you can see some of Colbert’s junk as stands up in Jellineck’s studio. Hey, you tend to notice these things when you’re making screengrabs.
  • I feel less creepy pointing out the tattoo (it appears to be a panther) on Noblet’s shoulder. 
  • Jerri to her dad: “A lot went down in school today. I’m really in a K-hole.”
  • Principal Blackman: “That’s an ugly word, Mr. Blank… Well, it’s different when we call each other that.”
  • Jerri’s doomed pet this week is a lobster named Clawson who accidentally gets dropped into a pot of boiling water during a scuffle with Sara (if you listen closely, you can even hear Clawson’s agonized death squeaks).
  • Like Jerri’s pet of the week and the portraits of Principal Blackman, the blackboard in Mr. Noblet’s classroom is running source of some very funny jokes. In this episode, he has writers’ names grouped into two categories: “Probably” (Shakespeare, Jewel, e.e. cummings) and “Definitely” (Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein). You do the math.
  • Blackman’s line about Jerri—“And by ‘audacity’ I mean ‘hubris,’ overweening pride”—is borrowed from former Chicago mayor Harold Washington.

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