I pity those that have yet to discover the comedic genius of the late, lamented Strangers with Candy. Created by Paul Dinello, Amy Sedaris, and Stephen Colbert, Strangers was a gloriously bent skewering of the afterschool specials that browbeat my entire generation with poorly acted morality plays and treacly lessons learned. The series revolved around the “loser and abuser” Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris), a middle-aged high school student just trying to make it through life.
Jerri Blank and the twisted world of Flatpoint High makes its big screen debut this week, and we got a chance to hook up an impromptu phone line to a vacationing Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello.
Unfortunately, Stephen Colbert was simply far too important to talk to us, instead sending a small fruit basket and a note marked “Please watch the Colbert Report on Comedy Central. Love, Steven”. The fact that his name was misspelled on the card leads me to believe that it was an intern who sent the basket, completely ruining the sentiment and making the pineapple taste oh so bitter.
Still, Amy and Paul were kind enough to give us their time, even if it meant taking away from their restful holiday - which may or may not have been a lie meant to make an interviewer believe they weren’t in fact sitting in a room doing a slew of press interviews.
QUICK STOP: Hello, can you hear me fine?
PAUL DINELLO: Yeah. Hold on a second, I’m gonna sit closer to Amy’s head.
DINELLO: Okay, go ahead.
AMY SEDARIS: Hello?
SEDARIS: Sorry if it’s a little choppy.
QS: Not a problem. Can you hear me fine?
DINELLO: We’re on a fishing excursion.
QS: Well that’s good. I hope that the fishing’s good.
DINELLO: Yeah. We’re fishing for mackerel.
QS: Is this the time of year for that?
DINELLO: Probably not, since we haven’t caught anything.
QS: I’m sorry to interrupt such a good fishing trip and what I’m sure is a nice beautiful day.
SEDARIS: Actually, it’s gorgeous here.
QS: I should hurry up and get this out of the way so you can get back to hopefully a productive day.
QS: If I were to have one question… and first of all it’s a pleasure speaking with you both finally… what was the biggest difficulty you had in adapting a TV show that was tailor made to parody the conventions of the very much TV-based Afterschool Specials, into a feature film?
SEDARIS: Seeing Jerri’s ugly face going from a small to a big screen. That’s gonna be kinda scary, tonin’ her down. Um… what was the biggest challenge? What would you say, Paul? The writing structure?
DINELLO: Finding more of a story. You can get away with a lot more in 22 minutes. You need less of an arc, and you need less character development, because you get out so quickly that they don’t know what hit ‘em. With a film, you know, you have to pay more attention to story. Not that we did, but supposedly you should pay more attention to story, and the peaks and valleys of (laughing)… you know, of the tone of the movie.
QS: Going back about 2-1/2 years when I spoke with Stephen (Colbert), you were just starting to write the film. He mentioned that it was not a challenge that he was particularly looking forward to, that it would be a difficult thing. Did it prove to be a difficult thing?
SEDARIS: It’s all about having his three kids, too.
DINELLO: Yeah, he says that on everything. He’s a coward.
QS: Yeah, well that explains a lot. That’s why he isn’t doing press today.
DINELLO: That’s right. He’s afraid.
SEDARIS: It’s family day.
QS: Isn’t every day family day at the Colbert home?
SEDARIS: Yeah. Except on Monday, I think.
QS: That’s just his day.
QS: Did it prove to be a difficult thing to try and find that structure that would carry through 90 minutes?
DINELLO: I mean it, it wasn’t a difficult script to write. We had, I think, at one point 300 pages. We had plenty of ideas. Most of it’s just fear. I guess the biggest challenge was to stay truthful. You like to stay true to the television show, because there’s a lot of core fans. And we liked what we did on the television. Just stay true to that, and then find something new and cinematic to do.
QS: How soon did the idea of making it a prequel to the series happen?
DINELLO: Well, you know, we really just started from the beginning almost. Like we had scenes where Jerri was being born and all the way through her old age, so we covered her whole life, and then I just sorta chopped out what I thought would work. It occurred to us that Jerri seems better with a sort of shady past, and not getting too much information about it. I mean like what she references… you know, that party she has…
SEDARIS: Like the donkey with Ramon - rather than see the actual donkey scene, sometimes it’s better just to be like, well, what does it mean when she’s like, “I hate Florida. I hate Florida.” What happened in Florida? Sometimes it’s just better to hear about it than see it.
QS: Although I must admit it was quite fun, in an extremely disturbing way, to finally see her in prison.
DINELLO: Oh good! Well, we actually had a whole… well, it still exists, but there was a whole shot with her living in prison, but then…
SEDARIS: Tell him why it’s not in the movie…
DINELLO: No, I mean, the real reason we decided to do a montage with sort of a… a short montage with a nicer introduction than…
QS: You just wanted to increase screen time for your role, is what you’re saying.
SEDARIS: Ha ha ha!
DINELLO: Right. More Jellineck - less Blank.
QS: I mean it’s really what the entire show came down to after a while, it was just you and Noblet became the predominant characters.
SEDARIS: Yes, they did.
DINELLO: You gotta go with the show’s strengths, and you gotta go with what the people want. People were screaming for more Jellineck and Noblet, and we felt obligated to deliver.
QS: Speaking of strengths, it’s amazing the kind of epic performance you can wring out of Greg Hollimon…
DINELLO: (laughing) Well, it’s a battle, I’ll say.
QS: Well, anyone watching the behind-the-scenes materials and outtakes on the DVD set will see that it’s not exactly a character that is closest to his normal personality…
SEDARIS: That’s interesting.
DINELLO: And he doesn’t have what we could call a uh…uh…
SEDARIS: Full head of hair.
DINELLO: A full head of hair, or much of a memory for dialogue.
SEDARIS: It’s hard to memorize the dialogue.
DINELLO: And it’s hard to write… but you’re right, it is.
QS: And yet you gave him no roller skating scenes.
SEDARIS: I know!
DINELLO: I know.. in hindsight…
QS: Which clearly was the one thing that he shone most brightly at during the series.
SEDARIS: I know…
DINELLO: Well he does get a little dance time over the credits, and he certainly shines there.
QS: He shines in ways that a viewer probably wishes he wouldn’t have shone.
QS: Amy, Jerri is such a big character to begin with on the small screen. Was there a line you had to find in regards to how big you would be in a feature version of that character?
SEDARIS: I’m a lot broader even than what you saw, and a lot of the time Paul was sort of pulling me back. You know, I forget sometimes that it’s a big screen. I just want to do the character and I forget sometimes, like, the smallest thing on screen is huge. So I was constantly reminded of that. And I think with the heat conditions it naturally slowed Jerri down a little bit. I had a lot working against me when I was doing the film, so I kinda liked the performance out of Jerri. I feel like I didn’t get a chance, in a way.
QS: I guess this would be a question for Paul - what was the most egregious breach of Amy acting within the film that you had to tone down?
DINELLO: Well, um….
QS: See, I’m putting you on the spot now!
DINELLO: That’s alright. The um… you know, I… it’s not so far over the top. Sometimes it’s a little… well, the scene with Brason in the bedroom was… um, there was some stuff there that couldn’t be used, for various reasons.
SEDARIS: Oh really?
QS: And what were those reasons?
SEDARIS: Yeah, what were those reasons?
DINELLO: Some didn’t fit totally, and others I was just offended.
QS: There was actually stuff that went so far as to offend you (laughing)?
DINELLO: No, I’m just kidding. It’s just, tonally, it didn’t seem to fit.
QS: When you talk about this bulk of deleted footage, how much would you say was deleted?
DINELLO: There’s probably an hour of stuff I edited that’s not in the movie.
QS: Which I’m assuming will eventually make it onto the DVD release…
DINELLO: If I have anything to do with it, it will.
SEDARIS: Will the falling down the stairs be on there?
SEDARIS: Thank you.
QS: The falling down stairs?
SEDARIS: Yeah I did a bit where I threw myself down a flight of stairs, and it was really fun to do, and it got cut out of the film because you could see me trip myself up for the fall. So they cut it.
DINELLO: But it sure was funny…
QS: But isn’t that half the fun? Half the fun of the Strangers with Candy world is to see that kind of thing.
SEDARIS: Yeah, just whatever in the moment, just do it.
QS: So really, it seems like the bulk of the stuff that Paul cut was the stuff that you had fun with.
SEDARIS: Yeah. Thank you very much. I agree.
DINELLO: Well, you’ll direct the next version.
QS: Speaking of the next step, is there anything else planned? You worked together writing Wigfield a few years back.
DINELLO: We usually try to find projects. One of us will come up with something as an excuse for the three of us to work together, so I’m sure that will happen again.
QS: Are we eventually going to see an Exit 57 DVD set?
SEDARIS: Hope not!
DINELLO: I don’t know who that would please.
QS: Well, you know, there’s one floating around on the internet right now.
SEDARIS: Yeah. I heard about it. I should buy a copy.
QS: Well, actually, it’s freely downloaded from multiple places.
QS: Which has, I guess, unaired material that would have been in the third season.
QS: There’s like 40 minutes of unaired sketches on it.
QS: Amy, I’ve wondered for years - what does one have to do to buy one of your baked goods?
SEDARIS: Go to Joe Coffee on Waverly and Washington, and hopefully I’ve delivered them that day. I also sell my cheese balls at Gourmet Garage, and I have a new item coming out in the fall, which is pecan logs.
QS: Are you selling any of these over the internet?
SEDARIS: No, I don’t - it’s all direct sales. I don’t deliver. Anything that involves going to the post office, I don’t want anything to do with it.
QS: So I just have to send our readers down to go pick them up in person.
SEDARIS: Yes. To the Gourmet Garage or to Joe Coffee. And you can get a cupcake or a cheese ball.
PUBLICIST: I think that’s all the time we have.
QS: See, I went too far.
SEDARIS: You went too far. He’s mad. He’s asking about pecan logs, man. Where do you live?
QS: I’m in North Carolina.
QS: I’m on the east coast just north of Wilmington.
SEDARIS: You know I’m from Raleigh.
QS: And you lost your accent.
SEDARIS: Yeah, I only get it back when it’s late and I’m talking to my little brother, who has a severe Southern accent. But how’s the weather there? Is it still raining?
QS: Actually it stopped raining yesterday, after Alberto passed through.
SEDARIS: Oh wow.
QS: So now, hopefully we don’t get anything more because it’s pretty saturated here.
QS: Hopefully you’ll come down to visit. Maybe you guys could actually do a live tour at some point.
SEDARIS: That would be fun. I’ll be there in August. I’m gonna be in North Carolina in August.
QS: Just visiting, or coming down for business?
SEDARIS: Seeing my family.
QS: Well, I hope you enjoy it. Hopefully the hurricane season will spare us this year.
SEDARIS: Yeah, hopefully, that’s right. Well, thank you so much.
QS: It was a real pleasure speaking with you both, and I hope you get that bootleg DVD set before it makes any money.
SEDARIS: Yeah (laughing), me too.
QS: I’ll talk to you soon. Thank you much.