‘Strangers With Candy’ makes shift to big screen


If nothing else, while watching “Strangers With Candy” one can be glad that their high school experience was not nearly as bad as Jerri Blank’s, whose second run through school is shown in the film.

Jerri (Amy Sedaris) is an ex-con in her 40s who goes back to high school in the 21st century. She quit when she was 15, leaving to lead a life of prostitution and drugs (though we can hope both weren’t her motivation to leave). The film uses the same bizarre humor to tell Jerri’s return as the TV show of the same name that ran on Comedy Central until October 2000. The basis of the film is that Jerri returns from prison to find that her father is now in a coma. She believes that to revive him, she must make him proud – by finishing high school.

I had seen a handful of episodes of the TV show, and 30 minutes there could sometimes seem like too much, depending on the mood of the writers that week. The aspect that both the series and the film excel at is showing the contrast between Jerri and her peers – the difference is startlingly hilarious. Her over-sexual nature with the guys who want nothing to do with someone their mom’s age with haphazardly-applied makeup is always a crowd-pleaser – though her predictable come-ons to fellow female students (hi, she was with only women for years in prison) get old after a while.

The main part of the movie that truly annoyed was a thrown-in science fair idea. Sure, it produced some laughs; but by the end I was just thinking, “OK, this is seriously enough already.” Over-the-top is the preferred style of Sedaris, Stephen Colbert (yes, that Stephen Colbert) and Paul Dinello, all of who had a hand in both the film and series. Fans of “The Colbert Report” might remember the three of them from an impromptu tumbling act this summer on the fake pundit show. Some of the humor transfers. In the end, however, “Strangers With Candy” could have just stayed a TV show and had the same overall effect.

This almost occurred – without enough funding, the movie almost was not made, until David Letterman’s production company stepped in. Letterman explained that he stepped in because Sedaris is one of the (evidently few) people who can make him laugh. This can be seen in the film. Sedaris is the person who holds it together (though Colbert and Dinello are fantastic as teachers at the high school) as its comedic center. Luckily, several great actors, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Allison Janney, Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, also grace the movie. The cast saves the movie during its more outlandish moments.

After watching “Strangers With Candy,” I could not help but wonder why the movie got made, exactly. Parts were hilarious, but others were merely so-so; couldn’t it just be left as a good TV series?

Then I got an answer.

In an interview with AVClub.com, Sedaris said, “Paul, Steve and I were working on our book ‘Wigfield’ ? We kept coming up with funny Jerri Blank stuff to say, so it would go into a file, and by the end of the book, Paul opened the file and there was all this Blank stuff, and he said, ‘Oh, it would be so funny to write a movie.’ That’s really how it happened.”

The motivation is clear now.