Comedy Central // 1999 // 246 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // July 17th, 2003
The after-hours After-School Special
Sometimes, quirky works. Character actors and local on-air personalities have made quite nice livings, thank you, trading on personal peculiarities and unusual habits. Seems that true talent and charm can be tossed to the trash bin as long as someone is weird or odd. Crispin Glover, probably the quirkiest actor ever to take the silver screen, can magically transform a project from tame to troubling with his decidedly idiosyncratic dementia. Emo Phillips and Bobcat Goldthwait explore comedy from the autistic savant and Tourettes viewpoint, respectively. And the Coen Brothers have found a way to turn unconventionality into art so magnificently that anyone questioning the value of quirk need look no further than Miller's Crossing or Fargo to find a few fiercely enigmatic examples. But there are times when eccentricity drowns entities in a sea of their own strangeness. Jim Carrey, who many laugh at as if mandated to do so by patriotism, has milked his manic man overbroad personality to the point where he has become a caricature of a cartoon. Michael Jackson has moved from daft to deranged so substantially that the UN is poised to officially recognize the private world he exists in. And Mickey Rourke has turned himself inside out so many times that all that's left is gristle, tendons, and a troubling tortured coating of craziness. Strangers with Candy, the now defunct television series from Comedy Central, making its bow on DVD in Strangers with Candy: Season One, is another prime example of quirkiness gone awry. It wants to be a satirical slam on high school and social mores. But it devolves into a one-note inside joke that forgot exactly what it was ribbing, or to clue the audience into the premise checking references.
For three seasons (1999-2001), Comedy Central presented this original series developed by and starring Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, and Paul Dinello. All veterans of Second City in Chicago (and another CC sketch comedy cult favorite, Exit 57), the trio have worked together on many projects, recently releasing a book entitled Wigfield. Strangers with Candy is considered one of their biggest successes, drawing critical praise and a devoted fan base.
An attempt to take the After-School Specials of the '70s and '80s and mutate them into a seriocomic spoof on high school and social stigmas, the basic premise centered on:
Jerri Blank -- At age 46, Jerri is trying to get her life back in order. Having spent the last 32 years as a "teenage runaway," Jerri has decided (after a stint in prison) to clean up, move back home, and pick up her life right where she left it -- as a freshman in high school. An admitted "boozer, user, and loser," Jerri desperately wants to fit in with the rest of her classmates. But she soon learns that a life inside a bottle, out of a vial of coke, or under a drug dealer just hasn't prepared her for the social pitfalls and personal nightmares of secondary education.
At Flatpoint High School, Jerri is surrounded by Mr. Geoffrey Jellyneck -- Flatpoint High School's incredibly sensitive art teacher. He constantly wants the students to get in touch with their feelings. A single parent widower, he and Mr. Noblet, another faculty member at the school, have been carrying on a torrid love affair behind the backs of the entire administration. But the kids know otherwise.
Mr. Chuck Noblet -- Jerri's history teacher, he has a firm hand with his students and a rather limp wrist with Mr. Jellyneck. His instructional methods may seem radical (or downright incomprehensible), but he always finds a way of connecting with the young men and women he's been placed in charge of, even if it's through bullying and extortion.
Principal Onyx Blackmon -- A noble, intimidating figure of African American manliness, he rules Flatpoint High with a combination of threats and underhandedness. He believes in the value of student snitches, parental conferences, and long hot showers in the faculty lounge.
Orlando Pinatubo -- The Filipino student who is secretly in love with Jerri (not that he hides it very well). But instead of having his affections returned, Jerri usually has a racial epithet or racist remark to hurl back at him. Still, their mutual affection for anti-social behavior finds them hanging out a great deal, usually to throw rocks at the Tweetzie Railroad Indian.
At home, Jerri's family unit consists of Sarah and Guy Blank -- Sarah is Jerri's stepmother, a closeted raging alcoholic who hates her stepdaughter with a passion matched only by the love she has for her son, Derrick. Guy is an elderly dervish who moves at such a rapid, go-getter pace that he appears motionless to all around him.
Derrick Blank -- Jerri's half-brother, he's a typical dunderheaded high school jock. He loves to tease and torment his half-sister.
There are ten episodes making up the first season on this DVD set. The titles included are: "Old Habits, New Beginnings," "A Burden's Burden," "Dreams on the Rocks," "Who Wants Cake?," "Bogie Nights," "Jerri is Only Skin Deep," "Let Freedom Ring," "Feather in the Storm," "To Be Young, Gifted and Blank," and "The Trip Back"
When viewed through the lampshade of modern popular culture, the '70s and '80s can be blamed for shedding a rather foul light on a lot of current trends in terribleness: the whole junk closet fashion sensibility, where dirty, oily, smelly and stained are actual style accessories; street racing low riders, with its Ron and/or Clint Howard "Eat My East L.A Dust" mentality; out of control Afros, the kind of sky high hair piles that would make Angela Davis and David Jolliffe jealous. And the sick nostalgia for tainted television products. True, like their cinematic cousins, the boob tube industry saw its fair share of visionaries in the '70s: artists, actors, writers, and directors who created enduring works that stand the test of time. But for every All in the Family or M*A*S*H, there starts to creep in wistfulness for such bargain basement balderdash as S.W.A.T. or that Star Wars blood wart Battlestar Gallactica. When nice little nominal nonsense as Schoolhouse Rock is championed two decades later as an educational icon, you know there's some hell to pay on someone's part. Same goes with those lame, alarmist After-School Specials, which seemed to spawn a nation of victims, simply because kids could identify with the grossly over exaggerated issues facing the pre- and post-teens featured. Maybe James at 16 could happily exist in this feel bad environment, but for the majority of Generation Hex, those jingoistic exercises in extremism are best left as a lost, lonely memory.
So what do talented people like Stephen Colbert, Paul Dinello, and Amy Sedaris do? They go and base an entire comedy show around these melodramatic mounds of mung and then dare us not to chuckle at the outcome. So let's get the bad news out of the way right up front. Strangers with Candy should be a whole lot better than it is. It should sing with a comic genius derived from the years these actors put in at Chicago's Second City. They should have an uncanny knack for what works humorously and what doesn't. Yet their show just can't seem to find the funny. It wants to be "ha ha" hilarious but can only occasionally muster a "hmmm, that's quite clever" nod of the head. It's hard to hate it outright because it feels so much smarter and edgier than most current television trash, but when weighed against what it's supposed to be lampooning (which is unintentionally hilarious to begin with) and the resulting dreariness surrounding the majority of the episodes, it's hard not to harbor some dislike. Strangers with Candy is like that CD everyone tells you to buy or that novel that friends swear is a gripping life changer. It supposed to be great. It's supposed to say so much about life and laughter. But it ends up sounding as shameless as that suggested musical puke and as entertaining as a wallow through a dozen self-indulgent pages of hack writing.
Individually, only one episode really stands out, and that's because "Who Wants Cake?" was the only installment that made this reviewer laugh out loud. And it had less to do with the show, its storyline, or the acting in general and more to do with his personal love of the word "retard." Basically, innocent poor people being tortured in a cesspool of acid could evoke all kinds of pity and compassion, but let one of them utter the word "retarded" and this critic just can't help but crack up. Otherwise, the vast majority of the segments play out like missed opportunities mixed with stubborn artistic temperament. Strangers with Candy's modus operandi is "we're going to keep shoving that immobile old man in front of your face until you find it funny and laugh, dammit." But it's rare when the successive gags do anything but invoke your similarly named reflex. On the two-disc DVD set are the following episodes:
"Old Habits, New Beginnings" -- 46 year old Jerri is the running joke of Flatpoint High School. She is so desperate to fit in that she will do anything, including making a batch of the psychotropic drug "Glint" to give to the popular girls on campus. But when the magic mix turns Poppie Downes comatose, Jerri must find a way to keep the shadow of blame from falling on her head.
Some of this first episode of Candy is pretty good. Poppie's "Glint" reactions are wonderfully surreal and the storyline's overall resolution is handled deftly. But the rest of the show is static, since it has to introduce us to all the characters and start the stale set-ups for numerous running jokes (statue Dad, homosexual teachers, half-brother's threats). So it really has no time to completely come together.
"A Burden's Burden" -- Hoping to teach the girls in her health class a lesson in responsibility, Coach Wolff gives one lucky student a ten pound baby to care for. And guess who the lucky recipient is? When her attempts at motherhood fail, Jerri is paired with a fellow female student, which sets up a whole weird dyke/fem dynamic between the two and a plot to sell the brat on the black market.
Jerri as a bi-sexual bull dyke type comes so out of left field in this episode (even if her "leanings" have been hinted at more than once) that it's jarring. One moment she's the mopey Miss Unpopular, the next she's barking orders at her classmates like an effeminate Coleman Francis. Some of the ancillary subplots (stepmom's Asian exchange student crisis) are dull and distracting. Only the scenes of Jerri's attempted mothering have any energy to them.
"Dreams on the Rocks" -- When Jerri is cast as the old black mammy in Flatpoint's all-white production of A Raisin in the Sun, it causes her stepmother to increase her raging alcoholism out of jealousy. Mom was an aspiring actress in her day, and Jerri's success unhinges her. Jerri hopes to find answers at an Ala' Coholics meeting. But she may simply need to accept that it's better for some people to be boozed up all the time than to deal with their inner demons.
Missed opportunity number one: an all white Raisin in the Sun cast: nothing done with it. Missed opportunity number two: all the AA riffs: the "blame" game material is interesting but not fleshed out enough. Missed opportunity number three: raging alcoholic mother at parent teacher conferences: potentially hilarious highball hijinks devolve into bad sex puns. "Rocks" is an example of how Candy can occasionally hit on gangbusters material, but then do very little with it.
"Who Wants Cake?" -- Hoping to weed the unwelcome element out of the school, Principal Blackmon and Mr. Noblet ask Jerri to spy and snitch on her locker mate, Kimberly Timbers. It seems that the administration fears she is retarded. But poor Jerri has just been fitted with braces and feels too much like an outside amongst her classmates to add stool pigeon to her list of hateful traits. But as she learns more about the imbecilic, Jerri decides to help out the higher ups. Oh, and a threatened ban from the school's field trip to Good Time Island may be factoring in her decision.
Let's face it: calling people retards is funny. Yes, it's insensitive to those with "special needs" and "learning disabilities," but there is no more humorous way to undermine a person's mental perception that to refer to them as a semi-scientific termed dipstick. While the rest of the show suffers from the same start-stop in-joke jaggedness as the rest of the season, the retard storyline really satisfies.
"Bogie Nights" -- When a new student, Ricky, arrives at Flatpoint, he immediately replaces Jerri as the resident outcast. Since fellow freaks tend to gravitate to one another, Jerri is smitten. But she is also very conscious of her social standing. So as badly as she wants to ask Ricky to the Sadie Hawkins Dance, she is stuck with taking one of the "violent" students from Special Ed. But there may be more to Ricky/Jerri's relationship than a physical attraction. There may be an unknown biological link.
Hmmm, it's a tough call on this show. The bikini waxing and school dance segments (the golf theme -- "bogie" nights?) are rather amusing, but the whole Ricky/violent student dating stuff is just stupid. However, the notion of being "new" equaling "outcast" is well observed, so it's 50/50 on an episode that creates some humorous moments but can't sustain it for 22 whole minutes of show.
"Jerri is Only Skin Deep" -- On a dare from Orlando, Jerri runs for Homecoming Queen. But she realizes that unless she manipulates the balloting, she will never win. So she breaks into the nomination box and destroys all the other contestant names except hers and Becky Ann Bedecker, an equally unattractive student. But since "inner beauty" counts in voting, Becky's random acts of kindness have her way out in front. Jerri must learn to give of herself if she has any hope of winning.
The problem with this episode can be exemplified by the "motivational" speech Jerri makes at the Homecoming Queen crowning ceremony. Prompted to "give" of herself, Jerri is committed to sway teens away from the "loser" life she led before, but then she doesn't have very much to say. Now, that may be the joke, but it seems like a better take on the situation would be some manner of manic monologue. Anything is better than the smart ass "told you so's" she hurls at the students. In reality, this episode overall feels partly finished, like it wasn't completely thought through.
"Let Freedom Ring" -- Someone spray paints the "N" word outside Principal Blackmon's office, and Paul Cotton may know who did it, but since he is not sure and cannot name names, the entire campus labels him a sympathizer and a racist as well. After several leads turn up cold, Paul discovers it was Jerri. Or maybe it wasn't. It takes a last minute confession by the black hating old hag to clear Paul's name once and for all.
Here again we have potential wasted and prospects overlooked. Racism is ripe for ridicule and satire, but guest star Tim Meadows of SNL is just not funny as a less than effective grief counselor (seems Jellyneck is taking the spray can incident really hard) and the interrogations of Paul are weak and without guts. And one final thought. Wouldn't it have been funnier if the word turned out to be something other than the "N" word? The stigma carries too much baggage for it to work as the center of a joke.
"Feather in the Storm" -- Jerri is desperate to join the debate team, but coach/moderator Mr. Noblet thinks that only skinny students make good arguers. So Jerri tries to diet away a few forensics-inhibiting pounds. It's not until she indirectly discovers the "benefits" of anorexia and bulimia that she starts to see results. She may not live long enough to make her first rebuttal, though.
There is one word to describe this episode: monotonous. There is not a single sharp or satirical moment. The debate team stuff is completely flubbed and the eating disorder decision is never played out for any sight gag potential. If it's all about laxatives and vomiting, some nice gross out humor should be in order, right? Instead, we get a flat, flaccid story with very little in the way of comedy...or competence, for that matter.
"To Be Young, Gifted and Blank" -- After bombing on the timpani, Jerri finds herself out of the school band. That is, until her abnormal virtuosity on the violin draws both Mr. Noblet and Mr. Jellyneck's attention. Jellyneck now wants her back in the orchestra. Noblet, however, wants to mold the unlikely prodigy into the stringed maestro he never became. But there may be one obstacle to Jerri winning the Tri-County Music Championship. Her father, who hasn't played or listened to the violin since Jerri's birth mother died years before forbids his daughter's bow rosining.
After a fairly funny opening (Jerri flaying away on the timpani is priceless), this episode plummets rapidly into boredom and stupidity. The scenes with Jerri practicing under Noblet's guidance could have been funny in a reverse Humoresque kind of way, but only when an irate Chuck beats a visiting Jellyneck with a Christmas tree does the material even remotely start to come alive. Anyone should be able to see the ending coming a mile away. It's interesting that, even as an obvious phenomenon, Jerri is still treated like crap.
"The Trip Back" -- After getting a "D" on her term paper, Jerri is poised, just one final exam away, from passing her freshman year and moving on to sophomore status. But a run-in with a student stoner has our middle-aged madam re-hooked on marijuana. As her drug use again threatens to pull the Blank family apart, pot's brain damaging qualities may just result in Jerri experiencing the ultimate humiliation in life. No, not jail time. Being held back!
Finally, some humor one can hang their hash pipe on. Stoner jokes work when they have the ring of the familiar with enough clever twists to warrant a laugh instead of a groan. Here, Jerri's degeneration into bong blower is quite clever and funny. Everything else though is awful, including the return of Officer Savillion as an undercover student and Jerri's injuring of Orlando, which acts as a means of moving the plot along, nothing else.
In general, unless you buy the premise, the running gags, the subtle under the gaydar humor, and attempts at social relevance, you will find Strangers with Candy a dreary, puzzling experience. For some reason, the show keeps reminding one of Pete and Pete, a Nickelodeon offering in which two brothers, both named Pete, have surreal adventures in a wacky suburban wonderworld. What both shows have in common is a droll tone, a self-satisfied inner acknowledgement that it's very funny and incredibly clever, and that only the "right" people will get it. That's correct, and as the old saying goes, only plumbers should appreciate toilet humor. You see, comedy is a very personal thing and no matter how well thought out or crafted, if you're not laughing, you must be watching Sex and the City. Occasionally, Candy can offer a hilarious moment or brainy comedy bit (the whole "man who had no shoes" line was very witty). But overall it's a highly stylized exercise in personal gratification. Which may be just another way of saying it's over-thought mental masturbation on the part of its creators.
At least the DVD presentation from Comedy Central is first rate. The full screen video image (the show is filmed and then transferred to videotape) is crystal clear and there are no flaring or color "hot" spots that one usually associates with television transfers. The aural offering is also first rate. While there is limited use of the surround sound technology, the Dolby Digital stereo is hi-fi-fantastic. On the packaging and bonus side, we get a decidedly mixed bag. The cardboard keep case is delightfully colorful and has some nice "high school" art design touches to it. As for the extras, well, we get four really crappy commentaries, an interesting look at the original pilot for the show, and some horrendous Comedy Central Quick Cuts that are nothing more than ads for other shows on the cable channel.
It's too bad that the narrative offered on selected episodes by Sedaris, Colbert, and Dinello is not better. They spend far too much time laughing at their own jokes and slapping each other on the back about how clever they are, they never really get to the job of what a commentary track is: the explaining of the concept and visual presentation of a entertainment product to an audience. They offer minor backstage anecdotes and occasionally seem genuinely surprised by the opinions each offer (didn't these people work together?). What could have been used to sell someone with a borderline interest over to their side of the comedy corral is instead another in a long line of Strangers with Candy associated missed opportunities. The pilot is another issue altogether. Imagine several of the best jokes from six or seven of the current episodes, meld three different storylines together (one of which is dropped in the series proper), and you'll get an idea of what the initial show of the series was supposed to look like. As it deals with the retarded it's got a plus going for it already, but the whole tone here seems not quite as desperate and forced as the actual show. You truly believe that a sitcom surrounding a 46-year-old ex-junkie's return to high school might actually work. And then you watch Strangers with Candy: Season One and see just how wrong you can be.
Picking on Strangers with Candy is a lot like hog piling on Seinfeld or ripping apart the previously mentioned Four Whores in Search of a Disease. Each show has their champions and you will never convince the converted that what they are witnessing is anything less than brilliant and well conceived. Roger Ebert makes a very concise point when he says that a comedy succeeds or fails on one simple principle: does it make you laugh. And since Jerry and his mutually miserable Manhattanites or those bawdy wenches of HBO make people pass water with their funny bone bon mots, they must be successful. As is Strangers with Candy. To attack its lack of focus or overworked quirks is to merely suggest that perhaps, it has an untold depth in an arena -- i.e. the television comedy -- where such profundity is scarce. As this is the first season of a series that ran for several (well, three), it's also hard to hold mistakes in tone and take against them. One assumes that they eventually worked all the problems out. Why would a company put out a DVD collection of a show that many consider to be a bomb? So what if this critic didn't weep with witty joy? This is someone's cup of tea. And they should relish the chance to steep and savor it all over again.
It's important to remember that overly bland isn't any more entertaining than the overly quirky. Jay Leno may have gotten his start making buddy Dave Letterman shoot coffee through this nose on the old Late Night set whenever he went off on one of his "big beef" jags. But in the millennial light of 2003, he is just one Taliban joke away from complete comedic collapse. Sting may have moved The Police along the learning curve from new wave to reggae to AOR, but all that yoga must have damaged his fun cells, since he seems to have so little of it nowadays. Not to mention the fact that Muzak is suing him for stealing their registered trademark lite rock rot. Even our counter-cultural mainstays have found a way of becoming as beige as bilge water. Rolling Stone once heralded the cutting edge of gonzo journalism. Now it's a media friendly fad dandy. Punk was the cry of misspent youth in rebellion. Now it's incoherent skank girls glooming about "sk8" rats. At least when it comes to Strangers with Candy, the last thing you can say about it is that it's mild. Perhaps it's too obtuse, wearing its quirky quips on its velour shirts for all to see. But idiosyncratic does not always translate into funny as the Strangers with Candy: Season One DVD box set proves. Now, if you're talking about Wild Man Fisher, that's another story altogether. That dude is we-eird. And funny as hell!
Strangers with Candy is found guilty of being a humorless comedy show so insular it forgets to include the audience so that they too can get in on the fun. While the DVD set is not without merit, the entire enterprise is sentenced to 25 years in the Idiosyncratic ward of Quirk Prison.
Review content copyright © 2003 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Comedy Central
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 246 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary by Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello on Four Episodes
* Original Un-Aired Pilot
* Comedy Central Quick Clips
* Tony's Strangers With Candy Companion