Writing about Strangers With Candy is fun, but it also presents something of an intellectual challenge. It’s such a peculiar show that it almost defies analysis: Either you get it, or you don’t. I feel this way about comedy more often than drama, which is easier to intellectualize, break down into component parts, and judge using discrete criteria. It sometimes feels like explaining why comedy works or doesn’t work is the most humorless thing someone can do. Strangers With Candy is even more of a challenge because the show takes place within a surreal universe where the usual conventions of the sitcom simply don’t apply; there’s no hugging and no learning. But maybe the trickiest thing about Strangers With Candy—aside from all the politically incorrect jokes, that is—is just how likeable a character Jerri is despite the fact that she is, more often than not, a selfish jerk.
In “Bogie Nights,” we get Jerri at her absolute worst: selfish, easily swayed by peer pressure, and yet also totally unconstrained by basic social mores (i.e. the proscription against incest). As the episode opens, it’s just a few days before the Sadie Hawkins dance and Jerri is dateless. Poor, sweet, misguided Orlando stops by her locker to give her a handmade friendship collage and to fish around for an invite to the dance, but Jerri refuses to bite. When Orlando boasts that he made the collage using “words and pictures from magazines,” Jerri is unimpressed: “What, you want a medal? I said thank you.” This is hardly the first time Jerri has been cruel to Orlando, the Ducky to her Andie. She has a well-established habit of being mean to the few people who are actually nice to her (See also: Kimberly Timbers).
This unfortunate tendency is once again on display when a new student named Ricky (played by Fred Koehler, who will always be “Chip from Kate & Allie” to me) rolls into Mr. Noblet’s history class. As we know by now, Flatpoint High might look like your average American secondary school, but it operates according to its own warped set of rules. One of the running gags on this show is how it takes the usual prejudices of high school and exaggerates and distorts them to absurd extremes. While nobody likes being the new kid in school, poor Ricky has it the worst. On his first day at Flatpoint, he is ridiculed by Mr. Noblet and then sent to the principal’s office for picking up Jerri’s notebook. Later that afternoon, she returns the favor by trashing his vintage car. It doesn’t seem to matter that she’s also developed a crush on him; in fact, Jerri’s feelings for Ricky only seem to make it easier for her to slash his tires.
That’s not to say Jerri isn’t conflicted. In the privacy of the violent students’ lounge the next day, she apologizes by giving Ricky the collage Orlando made for her. But their love is doomed—and not only because of anti-new-kid prejudice. There’s also the small matter that Jerri is also Ricky’s long-lost mother. Miserable from all the abuse he’s receiving at school, Ricky sneaks into Jerri’s room at night to tell her he’s thinking of running away. He also reveals that he is an orphan whose mother was “probably a short, squat women with thinning hair and a debilitating overbite.” (Jerri’s response: “She sounds pretty.”) Of course, we all know understand what this means, but Jerri doesn’t make the connection, even when Ricky accidentally calls her “Mommy.”
So maybe it’s a good thing that Jerri still isn’t able to buck peer pressure and ask Ricky to the dance. Instead, she asks Spike, one of Flatpoint’s famed violent students, to be her date—and, for good measure, rips up the book of sonnets Ricky gives her as a present. By the time the dance rolls around, Ricky has decided to leave Flatpoint for good. The theme of the dance is “Bogie Nights,” so everyone is in golf-themed attire, yet somehow Jerri manages to look significantly crazier than all of them. (Her spit-curled hair really takes the ensemble to the next level.) Ricky’s presence at the dance nearly sparks a riot, but Jerri intervenes and makes one of her moralizing speeches. “Is it so different to be new? And is it so strange to be different?” she asks, then invokes a long metaphor about saplings and wood and axes, the point of which (I think) is that everything new becomes old.
For once, the speechifying works: Jerri and Ricky are proclaimed master and mistress of Bogie Nights, and they drive off together in a golf cart. After a brief mother-son make-out session, Jerri discovers that Ricky’s tooth necklace fits perfectly in her mouth. He starts putting the pieces together before she does, reminding her pointedly that he’s an orphan. Jerri doesn’t catch on right away “Yeah, that’s too bad,” she mutters impatiently. (One of my favorite things about Jerri is how restless she gets anytime anyone talks about their own problems.)
Eventually, though, Jerri realizes that Ricky is her long-lost son. This beingStrangers With Candy, neither party seems particularly bothered by the fact they were just swapping spit. Ricky instead asks if Jerri “just gave me away.” “No, never,” she insists. “I traded you for a guitar. And all these years I’ve wondered: ‘What happened to that guitar?’” Jerri tells Ricky his father is “either an obese bail bondsman with a harelip or a Cuban,” but she isn’t sure which. When Ricky finally leaves, Jerri is saddened, but only because it means she won’t have anyone to make out with. Her bacon strip a-sizzlin’, she hurries off into the night in search of Spike.
This is an episode of Strangers With Candy that I recalled as one of my favorites, but revisiting it I’m not sure it holds up as well as I expected it to. The final scene between Ricky and Jerri is, of course, wonderfully gross and subversive, and her overall indifference to the reappearance of her long-lost (or should I say “forgotten”) son is especially hilarious. But, especially coming directly after “Who Wants Cake?”, which was all about prejudice against “the retarded,” the conceit that new students are treated like pariahs feels repetitive. In the end, it’s the incest jokes that save the day—but don't they always?
- Watch this episode here.
- Noblet doesn’t get enough screen time in this episode, but he does get to be really mean to Ricky, suggesting the new kid sit on a box of irregular jeans instead of a desk.
- Jerri: “It’s not a legal holiday, but neither are most of the Jew ones.”
- Derrick: “Your face looks like a mocassin.”
- While playing the xylophone, Jellineck delivers one of his greatest lines ever: “If wishes and buts were clusters and nuts we’d all have a bowl of granola.”
- Ricky also happens to be the name of Amy Sedaris’ imaginary boyfriend.
- Jerri’s lesson this week: “The violent make passionate lovers, and befriending new people can lead to having sex with your children.”
- Coach Wolf demonstrating bikini waxes in sex-ed class is, in theory, very funny. But for some reason the sight gag of those furry strips she removes from Jerri’s bikini line just isn’t as funny as it should be.