One of the things I’ve noticed after getting into the swing of this column – look, let’s pretend that I have a ‘swing’ – is that I make constant comparisons to Alan Partridge.
It’s not surprising really. Coogan’s character pretty much remains the high watermark of British comedy in the last twenty-five years (the first six glorious episodes of I’m Alan Partridge in particular, which are so perfectly funny that they often inspire silent reverent awe rather than anything as ordinary as laughter). There’s no more significant touchstone.
Buuuuuuut … it’s a comparison that runs the risk of becoming – even more – overused. As such, I promise that this is the last Partridge call-out I’ll do for a while. A little while. Maybe.
Jerri Black is the female Alan Partridge. The woman behind Jerri Black – Amy Sedaris – sadly fares less well with a comparison to the man behind Alan Partridge. Whereas Steve Coogan shot to globetrotting fame and – despite a few early-film-career missteps – has stayed there, Amy Sedaris has remained squarely in the camp of cult icon.
Nothing explicitly wrong with that, per se – get a loyal audience and being a cult icon can be damn lucrative – but watching Sedaris play the twisted character of Black in Strangers With Candy (1999-2000, with a movie version in 2006) makes one wonder what could have been had she started landing mainstream Hollywood roles.
Sedaris hasn’t exactly vanished – she was great in Broad City, remains a mainstay in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and got a well-deserved titular project in last year’s At Home with Amy Sedaris – but she could have been a big-time contender. And she wasn’t. And that sucks.
It sucks because the creation of Jerri Black (and Strangers With Candy itself) feels like it should have been the starting point to monumental comedy stardom rather than a bafflingly overlooked high point in a bafflingly overlooked career.
Strangers… was created by and starred long-time friends and collaborators Sedaris, Paul Dinello, Greg Hollimon and future late-night talk-show colossus Stephen Colbert. It was intended as a spoof of ‘after-school specials’, that strange genre of 1970s-1980s US programming that fused bad teenage theatrics with educational messages.
It’s not a genre that is widely known outside the US – although Britain had similar stabs at patronising teen ‘messagetainment’ via the 80s ITV Schools strand – so, for the sake of reference, here’s a clip of the type of stuff Strangers aimed to lampoon:
It’s not, however, as though one needs to be familiar with after-school specials to appreciate Strangers With Candy. While the show is in spirit a satire on moralising, ‘educational’ drama, it also functions on a far more important level: as a phenomenal fucking sitcom.
What a sitcom scenario it is; one of the best ever. In short: Jerri Black is a fortysomething recovering alcoholic and drug addict (Sedaris wears unflattering, ageing makeup throughout) who heads back to high school to finally get her diploma. While there, she learns the ‘life lessons’ that most of us grappled with as teenagers. Or, at least, she tries to.
And … that’s it. Seriously. That’s all I’m going to tell you.
Just like it’s nearly always a mistake to read the overview introduction to a classic novel before you’ve enjoyed the actual story for the first time, it would be a mistake for me to initiate you any further into the foul-mouthed, sociopathic and scandalously hilarious world of Jerri and Strangers…. So I won’t do it. I just won’t.
If you want a taster, check out the compilation below:
And – for the sake of consistency – I’ll wrap things up by saying it one more time: Jerri Black is the female Alan Partridge.
Digging Up Funny is a regular column in which Christopher Davies sifts through comedy of the past – TV, film, radio, literature, everything else between – and pays tribute to the ones that got away.