"Strangers With Candy" is the project that people know Paul best for. It is the brainchild of Paul Dinello, Stephen Colbert, and Amy Sedaris. After working together on Exit 57 on Comedy Central, they pitched a new idea for a show and Strangers With Candy was born. It ran for three seasons from 1999-2000, spanning thirty episodes.
The concept behind "Strangers With Candy" was brought together from individual ideas from the trio. Amy had been wanting to do an after school special for a long time. She had enjoyed the cheesy melodrama's growing up and thought that even just reading straight from the script would make a good show. She brought the idea to Paul to help formulate it. He was doing research for another project and became interested in government propaganda films from the 60s, especially anti drug ones. He discovered Florrie Fischer, a woman in her 50s who traveled to high schools and basically yelled at the students while chain smoking and relating her tale as a former junkie and prostitute and the jail time she did as a result of it. Paul thought she would be a good model for the main character of their developing show. Paul said she "reminded me of Amy" and thus Jerri Blank was born. Stephen thought that each week Jerri should learn the wrong lesson, so those three ideas came together to bring "Strangers With Candy" to frustration.
"Strangers" was the first ever, live-action, narrative comedy series to ever run on Comedy Central. It was placed in the time slot after South Park. The show wasn't recorded in front of a live studio audience, a departure from their previous work. "We're trying to capture the look of an after school special- single camera films," Paul says. "We wanted to have the feel of a little movie, not a sitcom."
"It was stuff you couldn't possibly do in front of an audience," adds Colbert.
They weren't sure how many episodes they would be picked up for, so they had a tendency to do each show as though it were their last. The trio has expressed mixed feelings about Comedy Central and the way things for the show were run. "They were checked out in a way. Which was good when we were in production and horrible when we weren't. At the time there was nobody watching the store really. The person who was [behind the show] left and were invested in other shows,” says Paul.
But in other ways they were allowed a lot of creative freedom. They were often shocked by the things that they were allowed to put on the air. "We keep going further and further out on the plank waiting for someone to stop us," Colbert said. "Hoping someone will stop us." The team who worked on the show had a cohesive idea of how individual parts worked together so they wouldn't have to worry about how the wardrobe or props would work. “For us we've been really fortunate. We do these projects where there aren't any adult around. The stuff we learned was really how to get a show on the air. We were fortunate we didn't have to deal with a lot of bullshit,” says Paul.
The trio took a different approach to the show than many creative teams do. “We wrote everything. They tried to force a head writer and writers on us but we rewrote everything." Comedy Central often times wouldn't allow them the time they needed to work on new episodes. "We'd shoot an episode and edit for a week while simultaneously writing the next episode." After they were feeling burned out they finally "convinced our producer to let us go away. We went away for two months to Charleston, NC. In that environment by ourselves we wrote 8 scripts so we were really far ahead.”
In the original pilot for the show, Paul's lovably self-centered gentle art teacher character, Geoffrey Jellineck, didn't even exist. He played Sears, the sympathetic librarian. He was similar to Geoffrey (but had a lovely pompadour) but they quickly realized that Jerri's character wouldn't be spending much time in the library. He also played another character, Nurse Troy, in the retirement home Jerri was volunteering in, Fossilton Rehabilitation Center for the Ancient. Troy and Laughton (played by Stephen Colbert) were reprisals of a sketch from Exit 57 where the same characters were clerks in a grocery store (see the video here). Troy antagonizes Laughton, even stuffing him in a locker, to turn the tables on the goody-two shoes Laughton whose attempts to get Troy in trouble keep failing. But these characters couldn't last either, as volunteering didn't match up with Jerri's true spirit either.
In the first episode to air, viewers are introduced to Geoffrey Jellineck. Paul has said "Mr. Jellineck is an amalgam of various teachers I've had." Geoffrey's propensity for believing he was practically his student's age was based on "a teacher when I was in high school who used to dress like a student and go to parties and stuff. He used to think he was one of us, but we used to just laugh at him behind his back. It made us all really uncomfortable, but he thought it was the coolest thing in the world that a teacher would hang out with the kids and try to be like one of them."
"The name came from my art teacher in grade school. She
wrote the most
vile evaluation on my report card - ("never amount to
anything, disruptive, no positive attributes, a menace to the
classroom," etc.) so truly horrible
I saved the card for years. In retrospect, I think she was
justified, given that I taped a fire cracker to the bottom of her tea
kettle, among other acts of mischief."
The idea for Geoffrey to be carrying on a "secret" affair with the married history teacher, Chuck Noblet (played by Stephen Colbert), came from them wanting these adult characters to have a secret. The two characters are incredibly narcissistic and insecure, they feed off each other in their highly dysfunctional relationship. "They clothe all this action through self-interest in the trappings of caring and nurturing," says Colbert.
"There's hardly a word, a thought, an action that isn't somehow direct contravention of proper human behavior. And they're insanely selfish people...Somebody watching the show the other night said to me, 'Whoever were Stephen Colbert's authority figures have some answering to do,' and I think that goes for the people who like the show, too. Whoever were their authority figures have some answering to do, because they upset these people."
Geoffrey goes through many turbulent events during the series, including following his dream of being a painter (Yes You Can't!), getting run over and losing his face (Hit and Run), being held in a ladies' prison (The Trip Back), surviving a fake marriage (To Love Honor and Pretend) a homophobic bully (Bully), the loss of his job as an advice columnist (Ask Jerri) and finally the destruction of Flatpoint High (The Last Temptation of Blank)
True to its roots of mocking the self-righteous teachings of After School Specials, the characters come out of each episode with a "moral" that is off the mark. The characters never evolve, but continue to live their life exactly as it was before each traumatic event. The dance scenes at the end of each episode became a staple of the show. "One thing we liked about after school specials, no matter had bad things some things get, someone's mother has liver cancer, It's all solved in 22 minutes, then it's a big dance party."
"That happened by accident," said Colbert. "Amy was doing her final monologue, and there were so many students crowded around, and Paul said, 'Everybody dance,' and it worked."
A good summation of the type of humor contained on Strangers With Candy is this: "Uncomfortableness makes other people weep, but it makes us laugh," Paul explains. "If someone on a TV show said, 'I lost the baby,' we would probably start giggling."
"Well if we make each other laugh, we see that as a good sign and we consider it to be funny," says Paul.
"about 50 percent of the jokes were mistakes we kept"
Geoffrey's Big Episodes
Sometimes Geoffrey wasn't very frequently featured. These are the episodes where he really got to shine
Season 1, Episode 3: Dreams on the Rocks
Season 2, Episode 13: Yes You Can't
Season 2, Episode 17: To Love, Honor & Pretend
Season 3, Episode 22: Is Freedom Free?
Season 3, Episode 27: Ask Jerri
Season 3, Episode 29: Bully
Be sure to check out the screencaps of each episode in the images section!