Slithering out of Comedy Central’s womb in 1999, Jerri Blank, a 46-year-old dropout junkie whore, returns to high school as the new kid and picks up her life right where she left off in the colorful, fictional world of “Strangers with Candy,” the network’s first original, non-skit, live-action series.
A parody of the afterschool special format, each week of “Strangers” provided a morality tale where, for all of her prison yard worldliness, a naive Jerri learns wrong lessons the “right” way. Subverting virtually every television convention of its day, the show played out like a handbook of red flags for the Standards and Practices department thanks to Blank-delivered morals like “Befriending new people can lead to having sex with your children, accidentally” and “being a virgin is a wonderful and precious thing to hold on to—as long as it doesn’t interfere with you having sex.”
Donning a fat suit, a geriatric wig, and a nicotine-stained overbite, Jerri was brought to life by the show’s incomparable co-creator and writer, Amy Sedaris. Over three seasons and 30 episodes, Sedaris’ unapologetically insensitive Jerri takes viewers on a questionable morality journey through hot-button issues such as racism, blindness, and bullying.
As a series, “Strangers” is rife with narrative inconsistencies, but it is wholly consistent in its comically deranged performances, most notably Sedaris’. Her all-in willingness to take the character to the brink week after week while she tackles troubles ranging from anorexia to joining a cult (you know, normal teenage stuff), coupled with her weird animal-like tics and rubbery facial expressions, is ultimately what provides the show with its energy, heart, and humor, even as the subject matter is oftentimes gross and disturbing.
A shining example of Sedaris’ gift for humanizing the beast comes in Season 2’s “The Blank Page.” Realizing that it gets you the guy and gets you out of class participation, a clearly illiterate Jerri suddenly decides that her dream is a spot on the cheer squad. Not realizing that she has to be able to spell to be a cheerleader, Jerri turns up at tryouts in her very best “Let’s Get Physical” digs, ready to claim her spot on the team. As the mean-girl captain spits out directives to “Gimme a V-I-C-T-O-R-Y!” Jerri enthusiastically parrots it back before quickly lunging into a joyful, triumphant almost-cartwheel. “And what does it spell?” “WIN!!!” Silence fills the room. She tries again, picking a leotard wedgie. “Fandango?” More silence. “Hobo camp? Hobo camp!” Quickly realizing that she’s illiterate, the gym erupts in gasps of shock, which turn to laugher, as Jerri stands mortified in the center of the room.
The other cheerleaders quickly circle her, literally pointing in her face and laughing. And you laugh, too, because beyond the absurdity, this is the girl that, earlier in the episode, told her Filipino friend that he isn’t “in her species.” Jerri Blank practically begs for your mockery and contempt. But while funny, the moment is also somehow terribly painful to watch, with each cut back to Jerri feeling like a shiv to the gut, encapsulating all the shame and embarrassment of our own personal adolescent missteps in a series of contorted facial images over the course of less than 10 seconds.
Sedaris has provided us with a trove of memorable, outlandish supporting characters in the decade since “Strangers” went off the air, but none as real or relatable as the caricature of Jerri Blank. That such a self-absorbed monster of a character can elicit any kind of sympathy, let alone come off as somehow human and shockingly lovable, all the while being reflective of our own flaws—and all in a fat suit, to boot—is a testament to Sedaris’ singular talent.
Tyler Martin is a graduate of New York Film Academy. He lives and cooks in Astoria.
Inspired by this post? Check out our audition listings!