The movie Strangers With Candy opens with the 46-year-old protagonist Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris) riding the Corrections Department shortbus away from her latest stretch in prison and earnestly musing in her banjo twang, "Can we chaynge?" This is a fundamental question in western narrative, and it has probably never been pondered by a soul less capable of change than Jerri.
Strangers With Candy was originally a sitcom created by Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, Paul Dinello, and Mitch Rouse that ran for three seasons on Comedy Central starting in 1999. The concept is that Jerri, who ran away at 14 and has bumped along as a junkie prostitute for 32 years, returns home and resumes her life as a high school freshman. Though worn from hard use, she experiences all the dewy hopes and crushing disappointments of a blushing teen.
The series is a twist on After School Specials, which set young people in dramatically pointed dilemmas at the end of which they learned important lessons. The character of Jerri, however, was based on Florrie Fisher, a middle-aged recovering junkie prostitute who in the '60s and '70s had a career as a motivational speaker. In a 1970 Public Service Announcement entitled "The Trip Back" (which has attained cult status), Fisher hectors a group of high schoolers, croaking that if they smoke one joint they'll end up like her. (That PSA is available on disk 3 of the complete Strangers With Candy series DVD.) The incorrigible Jerri always learns a lesson — and announces it straight to the camera — but the lesson is always a perversion or misapplication of the expected bromide (e.g., "I guess what I learned this week is that only losers do drugs … unless it helps you win. And in that case, only winners do drugs."). Strangers With Candy starts from a parodic concept but is so deeply ironic it digs way below parody.
You don't have to have seen an After School Special to get that the writers and performers are undermining our belief in human perfectibility. Perfectibility may be a noble ideal, but if it's your governing concept of human nature then way too much behavior becomes inexplicable. Did all the backsliders and recidivists, all the Mel Gibsons and Marion Barrys of the world, simply not hear enough uplifting slogans? In other words, the series is an expression of total irony, implicitly answering Jerri's question about whether we can change with a resounding "No" (and taking in "improvement" as well as "perfectibility").
This, for instance, is Jerri's explanation of why she won't identify a fellow student as a "retard," even though it means Jerri won't be allowed to go on the school trip to Good Time Island: "I've changed. People change.… 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 Fleishmann's holly bushes … last night." She changes, all right: after the principal is unmoved by her speech, she changes her mind, rats the "retard" out, and takes the girl's seat on the bus.
At the same time, the series manages to be as skeptical as Candide without Voltaire's righteous anger simmering just below the ironic froth. The trick is to assume that we will identify with Jerri not despite everything that's repellent about her, but because of those things. This makes the show bright and bouncy, even while Jerri's rankness allows Sedaris and her crew to conjure a nightmare version of our memories of that age (when, for instance, a teacher intercepts Jerri's note and reads it out loud to the class: "My vagina is on fire. I'm trying not to scratch it, Orlando, I'm afraid it'll get infected.").
Clearly, this identification is not served up with the usual cynical-naïve pathos. When the popular girls in gym class pick a student with two broken arms over Jerri for their basketball team, we are not asked to shed a tear. In fact, the makers know how to cauterize pathos by mimicking the emphatic techniques Hollywood uses to wring salt water from us. But neither is the irony affectlessly inflicted on the characters as it is in Todd Solondz's Palindromes (2004). Instead, we observe Jerri with detachment from the outside while at the same time identifying with her — in all her near-worthlessness — from the inside. Jerri's grotesque appearance, speech, and behavior expressionistically externalize how we fear people — justly — view us. In this sense, the identification with Jerri tickle-tortures a silent confession out of anyone who responds to the show.
At their simplest, the series and movie exploit the fact that Jerri brings to the typical experiences of a high school freshman not just the outlook of a middle-aged woman, but her anytime-anywhere taste for drugs and sex as well. (Sex with boys and girls — as she puts it with attempted worldliness, "I like the pole and the hole.") And all of this is inflected with the adaptations she's made on the street and in prison. For instance, her answer to a fresh-faced fellow student who asks what Jerri considers an obvious question is, "Does a pimp carry a razor?" The girl gives what she considers an obvious answer, i.e., that she doesn't know, and Jerri sets her straight: "Trust me — they all do."
The character is more intricately knotted than that, however. Jerri would like to do better, provided it takes no effort, but she's got too little to work with. She's both stupid and ignorant, unable, for instance, to read the movie's title before it disappears from the screen. (She's a blank that can't be filled in.) Moreover, she is guilty of all categories of vice — victimless, petty, felonious, and moral — even when indulging a vice is self-defeating. (When a friend asks whether she's thinking of signing up for the science fair, Jerri replies, "No, I'm thinkin' about pussy. Science fair's for queers.") In the mooshy uplifter The Enchanted Cottage (1945), a disfigured serviceman and a homely woman fall in love and in that magic cottage they can see each other for what they "really" are underneath their imperfect surfaces. In Strangers With Candy, by contrast, Jerri's lack of external beauty only masks her lack of inner beauty.
The character is inconsistent — eager for success yet incapable of applying herself; arriving at lessons though unable to grasp a concept or stick to it; vulnerable to insult and exclusion yet lacking in tact, generosity, and compassion; aggressive with street confidence yet mostly the loser in confrontations. She's inconsistent but not incoherent. For instance, in the movie some cool girls make fun of Jerri as she approaches the school for the first time all over again. Jerri, trying to pass along the pain, immediately makes fun of a boy in the same way; when he walks up to her angry and hurt, however, she asks him hopefully if he wants to carry her books for her. In other words, the writing team has replicated in a raunchy cartoon how the chaos of our experience correlates more than we may care to admit to the chaos of our personalities.
What underlies Jerri's mad grab-bag of traits is a fundamental and unmitigated self-absorption. When a teacher chides, "Does everything have to be about you, Jerri?" she replies, "Well, I may not be much, but I'm all I think about." Jerri's not alone: there isn't a teacher or administrator with a vocation for his work (or even a basic competence in his subject). In the movie, as soon as Jerri enters the office of school grief counselor Peggy Callas (Sarah Jessica Parker, fitting her virtuosic sense of gesture and timing to the material), the woman blurts out, "Oh, God, it never ends." At the end of the abbreviated session, she blandly accepts Jerri's lunch money as a mandatory "tip." The parents are no better; there isn't one who could be trusted to put his child's needs ahead of his own desires — always excepting Jerri's father, who's in a coma.
Taken together, the series and movie put folly, self-indulgence, and corruption on display as panoramically as Pieter Brueghel the Elder's Fight Between Carnival and Lent, except that there's not even a corner of the vision dedicated to a meaningful spiritual authority. Strangers With Candy reposes so little faith in our aspirations that life becomes one extended example of comic bathos. The makers see our species as worse than it is and laugh nevertheless, infectiously; not laughing in response would, if anything, make you more like the characters rather then less.
Of course, this kind of irony doesn't present the whole truth. Rather, it's intended as a counterweight to the countless romances that glamorize or gloss over unpleasant facts and intractable problems, and that spin fantasies of accomplishment for us to project ourselves into. Even given its extreme bias, irony like Strangers With Candy can be more honest than such romances, and more recognizable. At the same time, insofar as Strangers With Candy is comic irony, it favors impact over plausibility, shocking us by assuming our identification with the loser-protagonist as she fails in ways that are depicted with no quarter for taboos or sensitivities.
The movie stretches the material of a half-hour show to an hour and a half, with no subplots, and lifts a number of the best lines from the series. It's stretched but holds its shape and definitely shows the benefit of those three seasons of development. (The relationship of the series to the movie is comparable to the Marx Brothers' taking their show on the road to test the material that became A Day at the Races .) As a thoroughgoing example of low-comic irony, the big-screen Strangers With Candy deserves a niche of honor alongside the Farrelly Brothers' Kingpin (1996) and Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor's Citizen Ruth (1996), as well as the very best of Chaplin's early shorts, the ones in which he really comes across as a scroungy tramp rather than the "soulful" Little Fellow who protects dogs and blind girls and orphans.
Strangers With Candy is unimaginable without Amy Sedaris as Jerri. Sedaris is pretty enough to have had a repeated role on Sex and the City but has an hallucinatorily elastic face: she gives Jerri a buck-toothed grimace that is as tempting as it is difficult to imitate. In this respect, Sedaris is easily on a par with Jim Carrey, and in her lack of concern for being conventionally attractive or likeable, she's way ahead of him.
A portion of our responses are due to the costuming and the hair and make-up: Sedaris wears unflattering "Comfort Zone" get-ups over "fatty" padding on her ass and thighs, hideous stiff wigs, garish eye shadow, and stains on her teeth. But she's also a fantastic mime. Her head movements perfectly punctuate the lessons she's getting wrong, and she's absolute mistress of a buggy eye tic.
In addition, Jerri always finds cruel jokes and painful mishaps funny, no matter who the victim is, even herself, and Sedaris does a single-shoulder movement when she laughs to rival Chaplin's ability to make sobbing, when seen from behind, indistinguishable from agitating a cocktail shaker. Sedaris's voice, unlike Chaplin's, is constantly surprising you as well. It can parodically mimic girlish expectancy, the "wisdom" of hard experience, a jailbird's bravado, seductiveness, frustration, and simultaneously both breakthrough realization and idiocy.
Moreover, the writing team has a Swiftian perception of the grossness of human physicality; no equally achieved comedy with a female protagonist has ever been nastier. Jerri, for instance, thinks it alluring to inform intended partners that she's "moist as a snake cake down there." What you see in one episode of "down there" — (a stunt double's) bruised, cottage-cheesy inner thighs, crowned by a little bell hanging from an unseen labial piercing — will definitely put you off your snake cake.
The nearest equal to Sedaris's performance would be Laura Dern's in Citizen Ruth, but Sedaris has a talent for mimicry and pantomime beyond Dern's. Sedaris's performance is something like the performance that the Tracey Ullman of A Dirty Shame (2004) might have given as Citizen Ruth, but even baser. In fact, Sedaris plays Jerri with all the incongruous comedy (but none of the tragedy) of Charlize Theron as the butch-lesbian roadside whore and soon-to-be robber-serial killer Aileen Wuornos interviewing for clerical jobs in Monster (2003).
Sedaris gives the most staggering female slapstick performance in the exaggerated, creepy-frantic Keystone vein in movie history, and with more tang than any Keystone comedienne ever had. As Jerri, Sedaris embodies an ironic view of human nature that borders on a revelation of the horror of total hopelessness but then turns that glimpse of horror back into all-out burlesque. With the series and now the movie, Sedaris has become the all-time queen of the one-dimensional, so-bleak-it's-comic visionary. (For my money, she gave the most unforgettable performance by a lead actress in 2006, edging out even Judi Dench, who in Notes on a Scandal finally gave the astonishing performance she has repeatedly been credited with.)
The movie wisely retains almost the entire supporting cast from the series, and Stephen Colbert as the teacher Chuck Noblet is a close rival as a mime to Sedaris. He does split-second 180s, emotional as well as physical, and on a broad scale, windmilling his limbs like a baseball pitcher. But he does more than invent the body language of an unfit, rebarbative teacher; he creates a character who compensates for his inability to conceal anything effectively with a lightning ability to put the other person in the wrong. And he does all this while nailing the over-explicitness of bad acting in bad scripts, yet without setting himself apart from the movie. Currently, Colbert is da man when it comes to multi-level fakery.
Paul Dinello as the art teacher Geoffrey Jellinek (who is involved in a "secret" relationship with Chuck) lacks Colbert's pantomimic boldness and precision, but has distinct assets of his own. He's the best practitioner of false modesty since Harvey Korman and has one of those cracking voices that everybody loves in '30s comedians. Dinello also effortlessly sends up a narcissism so blatant and dopey that both compassion and anger are kept at bay. (And he has a phenomenal bod, too little seen.) Geoffrey's self-love is believable for a gay man but the jokes feel more inside than the average fag joke. You are way free to laugh.
As Jerri's wicked stepmother Sarah Blank, Deborah Rush has a brittle delivery that adds a high-comic exactness to the proceedings. (Her voice also cracks on cue.) The poise with which she combines her suburban hostessliness and her dislike of Jerri is matchlessly poisonous. Rush, who was particularly memorable in Compromising Positions (1985) and Family Business (1989), maintains her high-comic, needle-prick adroitness even when she asks Jerri in front of her new, popular school friend whether she wiped her ass on the bathroom towels. Finally, Gregory Hollimon as the openly and even criminally self-serving principal Onyx Blackman reads his lines with a gusty delivery that gives the man an authority that is both formidable and hollow.
I don't want to claim too much for the movie. I am not, however, asserting that the people behind Strangers With Candy intentionally put everything I've written about it into the show and movie. It's clear from the group interview at the Museum of Television and Radio, included on disk 4 of the complete series DVD, that they were aware of the ground rules by which they played, but both the series and the movie are so good because those rules fully express the group's ironic intuitions. These are people who know how to stay in their lane while relentlessly chasing laughs.
At the same time, the dialogue is as imitable as in any comedy in recent memory (e.g., Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan , Napoleon Dynamite , Romy and Michele's High School Reunion , and Clueless ). The writers have a low-comic genius that also involves brain-teasing wording like nothing I've ever heard. In the series, for instance, Mr. Noblet asks a question so incomprehensible that his students fail their midterm exam before taking it simply by raising their hands. (If you want to see line-crossing low comedy without wit, and that's syrupy despite its irony, rent Another Gay Movie .)
Other neat tricks include the way the teachers confuse the students' interests with their own. When Mr. Noblet insists on grooming Jerri as a concert violinist, he tells her, "I am the only one who can help you realize my dreams of yours." There's also the way the characters lie, transparently, to evade the consequences of their behavior (e.g., "I wasn't pushing you away, I was pulling me toward myself"), or the way they say what they mean without exactly meaning to (e.g., "Look, there's a really ugly rumor I'm about to start, and I want to make sure I've got it right"). This last is an especially important verbal component of the show's nightmarish quality. And the nightmare never ends because these verbal and mental contortions infect your thinking and speech. When my boyfriend recently answered an accusation with, "Believe me, if I had done it, I would be the first to not admit it," I knew he had a dose as bad as mine. (And I believed him.)
Strangers With Candy has a lot more going on in it than the very funny Borat, another movie expanded from its star's TV work. As the whole world (including several courts of law) now knows, in Borat, the Englishman Sacha Baron Cohen plays the eponymous Kazakh TV news anchor who comes here to make a documentary about America for the benefit of his homeland. Cohen's m.o., perfected on Da Ali G Show, is to speak to people on camera who don't know he's putting them on and get so outrageous that the interviewees either figure it out, make asses of themselves, or get so angry they end the conversation. (It's like the premise of Allen Funt's Candid Camera pushed right up to the point of deceit, harassment, assault, and battery.) In the movie, Borat and his producer travel cross-country from New York, which enables Cohen to patch together the most successful of these stunts in an ironic version of a quest romance. (Initially his quest is for "cultural learnings" but then switches to a pursuit for the hand of "virginal" Pamela Anderson.)
Cohen has two main sources of inspiration: a low cunning about what will puzzle, shock, offend, or outrage people and a live-comedy genius for taking his victims slowly, by degrees. In one sequence, Borat has wangled a gig singing the national anthem from the center ring of a rodeo. Before starting, he offers cheers for the current President Bush, which begin relatively innocuously and then head downward. When he sees that he can get away with, "I hope you kill every man, woman and child in Iraq, down to the lizards!" he sinks further, exulting, "May George W. Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq!" You can practically see Cohen thinking, Are they ready for this next one? Will this be too much?
Eventually he starts singing — the tune of "The Star-Spangled Banner" but the lyrics of the supposed Kazakh national anthem, which, boasting of the country's superior potassium, sounds like something by Tom Lehrer. And eventually the crowd begins to boo. It's theatrical genius: Cohen has devised a split-level act in which being hooked off the stage by his in-the-movie audience makes for success with his at-the-movie audience.
Cohen's shtick is almost entirely opportunistic; far too much has been made of the content of what Borat says and elicits from his victims. Most of the humor that doesn't derive from the tension of live encounters with unwitting participants is dialect humor about the simplicity and backwardness of immigrants, which was a staple of the vaudeville circuit. And the fact that the rodeo audience seems at first to go along with Borat's zany oratory doesn't tell you anything besides the fact that an audience hearing something so out of the ordinary will react slowly, because it's out of the ordinary and because there can be a certain inhibition among members of a relatively random group. Cohen thus makes possible some highly unusual sociological observation, but the comic substance resides solely in what he's saying and doing.
True, Cohen, an observant Jew, lampoons peasantly Old-World anti-Semitism in the carnivalesque "running of the Jew" in Kazakhstan and in Borat's fear of the Jewish-American owners of a bed-and-breakfast where he stays. (He remains wide awake in bed, clutching dollar bills to throw at his hosts so they won't harm him. When two cockroaches (released by the filmmakers) scurry under the door, he throws bills at the supposedly shape-shifting Jews and runs for his life.)
Thus, there's a strand of satire in Borat, but the majority of the set-ups, including the rodeo scene, which begins with Borat leading the organizer on to make homophobic remarks, and the dinner party at which Cohen pretends not to know how to use an indoor flush toilet, are not examples of it. Not even the infamous RV ride, in which three South Carolina frat boys get drunk and make moronic comments about "minorities" and women, is satiric. How could it be—Cohen didn't know what they were going to say until he got them to say it. Satire, by contrast, implies militant intention on the author's part. There may be a satirical purpose in Cohen's selection of clips, but that's pretty weak as satire goes because it doesn't permit enough distortion. (Dryden, for instance, doesn't let Shadwell speak for himself, however ill, in MacFlecknoe, because the target of his scorn would never have worked out a caustic, mock-heroic caprice featuring himself as the King of Nonsense's successor, "[m]ature in dullness from his tender years.")
These sequences show Cohen as a sneaky, extemporizing dramatist of confusion and audience discomfort. One of the funniest episodes in the movie is when Borat and his producer get into a fight over Pamela Anderson, which turns into a staged nude wrestling match in their hotel room followed by a live streak in a crowded elevator and through a busy hotel conference room. Though gauche, Borat is deferential and unfailingly well-intentioned, but just under the skin of the character you can see that Cohen the performer has nerves of carbon composite, and those nerves propel and shape the show. He is as focused on exploiting opportunity as a comedian can get and he fears no boundaries (as shown by this incident last November on a New York street). All the world's an improv stage.
Its spontaneity makes Borat more alarming than Strangers With Candy in some ways, especially for people who are prone to squirm over awkward scenes in public, even ones that don't involve them. This also means, however, that Borat lacks the completeness and amplitude that Strangers With Candy achieves precisely because it's scripted (by wizards and devils). Both movies made me laugh so hard I hee-hawed, but Borat didn't spank my mind to attention the way Strangers With Candy has.