In the late ‘90s, audiences were introduced to Jerri Blank, a 46-year-old ex-drug addict, ex-prostitute who was returning to high school to finally earn a degree and maybe learn a few lessons along the way. Of course, anyone who watched the three seasons of Strangers With Candy knows Jerri never learned a thing, or, more accurately, always learned the wrong thing. But we didn’t care. We were happy to just watch her bumble her way through teenage society, saying and doing things we didn’t know could be said and done on television. This week, GQ sat down with the show’s creators and stars, Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello, and Stephen Colbert, to talk about the show’s inception and why it was such an obviously brilliant idea from the start.
Comedy nerds will remember that Sedaris, Dinello, and Colbert made their television debut on the short-lived but critically acclaimed sketch show Exit 57. Though Comedy Central cancelled the show after only twelve episodes, they invited all three of the performers to pitch ideas for new projects. Dinello and Colbert came up with something they were sure was going to be a slam dunk (a proto-Ancient Aliens parody called Mysteries Of The Insane Unknown), but once they heard Sedaris’ pitch for a show based on after-school specials, they knew their idea didn’t stand a chance.
“I said, ‘Oh come on, we’ll just go support Amy,’” Dinello says of Colbert’s initial reluctance to abandon their own project, which Comedy Central had shown some interest in. “We pitched Strangers, and they went, ‘Yeah, we’ll do that.’ They never mentioned our show again.”
But whatever show these three ended up doing would have been a success because of the well-oiled comedy machine they’d turned into over the years, with Sedaris spouting unrefined genius and Dinello and Colbert translating for the masses. “I always refer to Paul and Stephen as the woodchoppers. And I’m more like a tree decorator,” says Sedaris. “That’s the way it is—they organize my chaos.”
This mini-oral history of the show also goes into the origins of Jerri Blank’s iconic look, which is based heavily on a VHS tape Dinello found of motivational speaker Florrie Fisher.
Using Fisher’s “Mike Dukakis” look as inspiration, Sedaris says she told the hair and makeup department to make her “look like a professional golfer” and told wardrobe, “I want to look like I own a snake.” And with those two succinct phrases she accurately summarized Jerri Blank’s entire aesthetic.
You can read the whole interview on GQ, which includes some discussion of the show’s unceremonious cancellation and the few times Comedy Central ever pushed back on the show’s outrageous brand of humor.
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