Splitsider

Friday, September 7th, 2012

Colbert, Sedaris and Dinello Discuss the Life and Death of Jerri Blank

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

Strangers with Candy, starring Amy Sedaris as former junkie/whore Jerri Blank and her two high school teachers Chuck Noblet and Geoffrey Jellineck, played by Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello respectively, was not for everybody. The lead character was designed to look as ugly as possible without being distracting, nearly every character on the show was completely self-centered and if at the end of 22 minutes a lesson was learned, it was always the wrong one. It may have come at the wrong time for Comedy Central. Having just had their first taste of major success in the form of the mega-hit South Park, the off-beat and at times off-putting show may have been lucky to get three seasons. But there's no denying that the thirty episodes that this incredibly talented group of writers/stars managed to create during their short run were absolutely hilarious.

On April 2nd, 2001, almost exactly two years after the premiere of their show, fans and former cast members alike were delighted to see the reunion of stars Colbert, Dinello, and Sedaris along with Greg Hollimon, who played Principal Blackman and producer Kent Alterman. The short version of Strangers with Candy's origins, according to Stephen Colbert, are as follows: "We had done Exit 57 together and when that got cancelled we wanted to work together again." (Dinello adds, "And do something else that would get cancelled.") However, the origins are a bit more complicated than just that. Sedaris states that she always wanted to do her own after-school special. When Paul showed Amy a video from 1970 called The Trip Back featuring Florrie Fisher, a former prostitute, junkie, jailbird turned public speaker who, as it turned out, Sedaris could do a pretty funny impression of, the idea for the show was born. According to Kent, they frequently borrowed direct quotes from the original PSA, and if one watches just a few minutes of the film on YouTube the similarities to Ms. Blank are evident immediately.

Since the three creators of the show all met at the Second City in Chicago and all have strong improv backgrounds, this impacted the production of the show greatly. Though there was always a script for each episode, Dinello tells the audience that the process for actually creating those scripts was complete improv. The writers would first determine what was going to happen in a scene and then improvise the dialogue as a group. Colbert talks about one rule that they had in their writer's room, inspired by their previous experiences while working on other shows. He says that in other rooms there would be times when something funny would be written, everyone in the room would laugh, and then someone else in the room would have to shoot it down saying that they couldn't REALLY put that line in the script. On Strangers, whatever made them laugh would be put in the script. Despite the tight scripting of the show, there was some improvising with the actors. Particularly with Sedaris, directors would make a habit of leaving the cameras running after a take to see what other ideas they could come up with.

Given its often incredibly risqué subject matter, it probably comes as no surprise that this show had quiet a few run-ins with Comedy Central's Standards and Practices division. One line in particular stands out to Greg Holliman: Jerri's pick-up line of, "I'm gonna make your pinky all stinky." Initially the line was one of a few options that were written for the character to say, but when the footage came back, Sedaris had used only that one, thereby forcing everyone's hand (pun not intended). As a result, Kent, who was in London at the time, had to get on a conference call with legal and S&P to discuss the scene and, "the more we talked about it, the more we realized there's nothing wrong with that line," and so it stayed in. According to the show's producer, the woman in charge of standards was a big fan of the show and gave them a lot of leeway. The only thing Dinello can remember them saying no to was the line "That albino stole my dwarf," and once casting had begun for said dwarf and albino, the line was shot down and became "that madman stole my hobo."

Occasionally other factors would affect the production of the show as well. For example, Guy, Jerri's perpetually-frozen father became very difficult to write for once they had run out of funny poses for him to appear in, and so the decision was made to write him out. And since they were parodying after-school specials, what better way to get rid of a character than to kill him off? And what better way to kill a character off than to have him be devoured by cougars? Well, unfortunately if one wants cougars on their show some sort of enclosure has to be built, so instead Jerri's dad was eaten by a few dogs who refused to even snarl.

Despite its short run, the show developed quite a bit over its thirty episodes. Alterman himself said that they were their most consistent in the third season and that the show only would've gotten better had they been allowed to continue. (Paul: "I think we never truely reached our potential… Just kidding. Sometimes we did, sometimes we didn't.") One of the major things that the cast believes they finally got right later in the series was finding the correct level of grotesqueness for Jerri, which they agree they finally found through the second season. There were several changes in the show that were made between the show going to series and the unaired pilot (which was screened following the Q&A). These include Amy's helmet-like wig (which she says made her look like Michael Dukakis), Sarah Thyre as Jerri's 24-year-old mom, who would later be played by Deborah Rush, Jerri Blank having a job as a candy striper at the local retirement home and Colbert and Dinello playing multiple roles in the show. Initially the pair played two male nurses at Jerri's workplace named Troy and Laughton. Colbert, without his glasses, and Dinello, without sleeves, ultimately didn't seem different enough from their high school characters and the entire hospital subplot was removed from the series. According to Kent, the pilot seemed "a little too cartoony" and wouldn't have the longevity they wanted. By placing the characters in an environment that seemed more natural, the ridiculous situations and dialogue would stand out more.

When this panel was conducted, the future of Strangers with Candy seemed very bleak. The movie was still several years away and not even written, with the trio hard at work on their then forthcoming book, Wigfield: The Can-Do Town That Just May Not. However, the very passionate fans and former co-stars (the actors who portrayed Tammy Littlenut, Derrick Blank, and Iris Puffybush were all in the audience) seem happy enough to enjoy being in the company of people who appreciated the show. Even the cast isn't bitter about their recently departed program, realizing how lucky they were to be able to make as many episodes as they did. Amy answers the question of what she wants to do next by saying, "I like doing things for Comedy Central. On a network they would have aired two episodes and then cancelled it." Strangers with Candy didn't last all that long, but while it did, it was truly a can-do show that just may not have.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

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  • http://twitter.com/megh_wright Megh Wright

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