Stephen Colbert is on top of the comedy world right now — he’s even being investigated by the government like all great comedians! His first taste of fame was as a Daily Show correspondent, but it wasn’t until the cult comedy TV series Strangers with Candy that Colbert really broke out.
The show was co-created by Colbert, Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello and Mitch Rouse. It stars Sedaris as Jerri Blank, an amoral 46-year-old junkie who returns to high school. Colbert and Dinello co-star as two of her teachers, Chuck Noblet and Geoffrey Jellineck.
A Nightmarish Take on After-School Specials
The show is a dark, absurdist parody of after school specials — short TV dramas aired in the afternoon or early evening, intended to teach lessons to kids. One of the famous ones is Desperate Lives starring Helen Hunt as a teenage girl who jumps from a window after trying angel dust.
Though after-school specials like Desperate Lives could be pretty over-the-top, Strangers with Candy always went farther. A lesson was always learned at the end — but it was always the wrong one. Jerri realizes how good it is to snitch on your friends if staying silent keeps you from getting laid. Or after joining a cult, her takeaway is, “If someone tells you that you’re beautiful and that they love you, chances are they’re just trying to brainwash you into being happy. Don’t let them.”
As goofy and bizarre as Strangers with Candy is, surprisingly, Jerri Blank was based on a real person.
The Real Jerri Blank
The half-hour short film The Trip Back was made in 1970. It was a very simple film — just a recording of motivational speaker Florrie Fisher addressing an auditorium of bored teenagers. And yet — the film is far from boring. (Unfortunately, it’s far from motivational, too.)
The film is based on Fisher’s book, The Lonely Trip Back, where she describes her life as a junkie prostitute. While her story is lurid, it feels like it had utter bullshit snuck in. Like how she claims she was given a laminectomy “by the same doctor who operated on the late Jayne Mansfield’s son Zoltan when he was mauled by the lion.” (We can’t confirm or deny this story, but it’s worth noting Fisher said her operation happened in San Francisco, while the lion attack was in Los Angeles.)
Like Jerri Blank, who famously stated she “likes the pole and the hole,” Fisher also had dalliances with men and women. Fisher had a memorable phrase about it, too: “It was in jail that I learned to be a lesbian, both sides of it. How to be a mommy and how to be a daddy.”
Some of her word choice is hilariously strange: For example, she encourages the audience to “drop a dime” on any of her friends she knew were smoking marijuana. A common slang term at the time, “drop a dime” meant making a call from a pay phone — which then cost 10 cents. However, in Fisher’s world:
…If I had a friend who was smoking marijuana, and I knew it, I wouldn’t say, ‘Hey Jake, I’m gonna tell on you.’ I would take his name, take his address, say he’s smoking pot and to use the expression of the streets, I’d drop a dime on him. I’d put a 10-cent stamp in an envelope, put his name and address on it and drop it in the mailbox.
You know, the traditional way of ratting someone out — by post.
“One Stick of Pot!”
One of the best parts of The Trip Back is when she takes questions from the audience. Kids are often good at spotting bullshit, and a few of the teens call her on it. When a teen asks about why Fisher accuses the (pretty square) audience of being hippies, Fisher says the teen’s merely being devil’s advocate, and continues to harangue her.
But it’s when the teen has another question for Fisher. When she asks Fisher about her story given that marijuana isn’t nearly as dangerous as she claims it is, Fisher goes nuts:
You know, I have been generalizing all along, but I guess in your case I guess I have to individualize. There are some people that I know that only smoked marijuana, never graduated to heroin. This is what you’re saying, right? I mean, you say some of them smoke and don’t need psychiatric help.
Well I have six people that I counted friends [Fisher holds up four fingers] who used marijuana, and true, they never did graduate to heroin. You know why?! Because on marijuana, they committed crimes of passion and were electrocuted before they got a chance to get hooked on horse!
Anything I tell you is factual! They were electrocuted in the electric chair at Raiford and at Sing Sing for murder that they committed while using marijuana! Now, I repeat, you wanna individualize, yes, I’m sure I can find people who’ve tried — nor does he know until he is tried — one stick of pot and didn’t get anything in it and he stopped!
I also know kids in Florida who smoked oregano! And anybody who cooks knows it’s just a herb! And they got a little dizzy, or they got a little bit of taste and man, this is the end! I don’t know what the hell you’re doing! Somebody gives you anything! Catnip, thyme and rolls it up in a cigarette and you think you got high on it! [Audience laughs] That’s how psychological it is!
And I repeat! If you smoke marijuana — if you think about smoking marijuana there’s something wrong upstairs and you do need a little psychiatric help! Now how much you need might be contingent on whether you continue! There are some people who take one stick and don’t do it again! But there are very, very few and I wouldn’t count on being one of the lucky ones!
As angry as Fisher got, it didn’t seem to convince the teen:
Florrie Fisher’s Legacy
Fisher encouraged people having trouble with drugs to join the drug rehabilitation program Synanon. However, Synanon was a frequently criticized program often compared to a cult. In fact, in the 1970s, Synanon even changed its name to the Church of Synanon. This cult-like nature was parodied in the Philip K. Dick novel A Scanner Darkly as “New-Path,” a sinister rehab group that also provided the deadly drug characters got hooked on in the first place.
Synanon collapsed after the 1978 arrest of founder Charles Dederich for the attempted murder of an attorney who had sued the organization and won. The organization limped along, but finally closed in 1991. Fisher didn’t live to see Synanon’s collapse — she died in 1972 from liver cancer, kidney failure and cardiac arrest.
Fisher lived on as a cult figure as copies of The Trip Back were widely bootlegged during the 1970s and 1980s. It was one of these bootlegs that led to the creation of Jerri Blank. Colbert and Dinello found a copy and showed it to Sedaris. She impressed her friends with a dead-on impression of Fisher, and the team decided to do a show — then titled The Way After School Special — about what would happen if Florrie Fisher went back to high school.
Comedy Central liked the idea and ordered a pilot, which even featured lines taken directly from the short. The pilot led to a three-season series broadcast over a year and a half. While low-rated, the show had a cult following and, in 2005, became a theatrical film. While there hasn’t been anything more on Jerri Blank’s story since the film, Sedaris once said about the character: “She’s like a rash; you never know when she’s going to pop up.”