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Jerri Blank: Summer’s oddest character

Sedaris’ 46-year-old high school freshman is like no one you’ve ever met
/ Source: The Associated Press

In a summer of movies that has included a Lucha Libre wrestler and a mutton-chopped mutant, the weirdest character to hit the big screen is a little, 46-year-old woman with a slight overbite.

Jerri Blank, an ex-junkie and ex-con who returns to high school as a freshman, is the main character in “Strangers with Candy,” a prequel to the cult Comedy Central show canceled six years ago.

Blank is the absurd brainchild of Amy Sedaris (who plays her), Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello — the three of whom wrote and star in the film. In it, we see why Blank — “a boozer, a user and a loser” — returns home and seeks rehabilitation in the halls of Flatpoint High School.

“After a while, that stopped sounding weird to us,” says Colbert, who now hosts “The Colbert Report,” on Comedy Central. “You don’t think about it for a while, and you come back and you go, ‘This is deeply weird. This is very strange.”’

Sedaris plays Blank with a fat-suit for her lower half, a ski-jump-sized blond curl, and a manic, unrelenting selfishness. She is an oddball mix of adolescent insecurity and street-wise depravity.

She’s also not the sharpest No. 2 pencil in the book bag. In the movie, the principal (Greg Hollimon) asks her what her IQ is. “Pisces,” she answers.

Talking at her Greenwich Village apartment, Sedaris, 45, still occasionally lapses into Blank, her mouth suddenly sloping downward.

“Paul says she’s like a rash — you just never know when she’s going to reappear,” Sedaris says.

Blank was created years ago by the comedic trio, who were all hired by the Chicago improv troupe Second City on the same day in 1987. Sedaris and Dinello hit it off immediately, but, as Dinello says, they had to “work Stephen into the fold.”

But the three became close friends and frequent collaborators. In 1995, they created and starred in a sketch comedy show, “Exit 57,” which also aired on Comedy Central.

The inspiration for “Strangers with Candy” came when Colbert, 42, and Dinello, 43, saw a PSA that featured a tough-taking motivational speaker named Florrie Fisher who lectured students about her days as an addict and prostitute.

The show ran for three seasons before being canceled in 2000. The trio say they never were actually told “Strangers with Candy” was pulled, but Colbert says they got the message when the snack drawer wasn’t being refilled.

So, in the final episode, they blew up the school.

Finding a fan in LettermanBut Blank wouldn’t die. While the three wrote the book “Wigfield” together, they kept thinking of jokes for her, and eventually, they had 60 pages of material down on paper. Their film script was later picked up by David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants Inc. It’s the first feature from Letterman’s production company.

“Amy Sedaris is one of a handful of folks who actually make me laugh,” Letterman told The Associated Press in a statement. “The film is as appealingly peculiar and funny as she is.”

The movie, made for just $3 million, features many of the same characters and actors from the TV show, though some of Blank’s classmates have been replaced by younger actors. Several big names also make cameos, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick.

Flatpoint is not your average school. The grief counselor (Parker) has a tip jar; Chuck Noblet (Colbert) teaches science with a Bible; and the predominant sports team is the Squat Thrusting Squad.

The world of “Strangers with Candy” is altogether its own — there are no references to pop culture, and, strangely, no one ever questions a 46-year-old woman going to high school. She’s an outcast for other reasons.

“It’s odd that [the students] are so accepting of [her age], but so unaccepting of her,” says Dinello, who plays the requisite wacky art teacher. He also directed the movie, a first for him.

Of course, a movie based on a little-seen TV show six years after its demise is not a typical thing. With a six-disc DVD set of the entire series out Tuesday, the cult of “Strangers” is reaching its apogee.

“I like the audience for ‘Strangers’ because they are misfits,” Sedaris says. “I like people that discover things like that, and I like that we have a movie for that audience, because movies aren’t made for people like that. Everything seems to be for pretty people.”

Blank’s somewhat hideous appearance could be one reason the show remained on the fringe, suggests Sedaris, who, youthful and bright, looks nothing like her character. “I think a lot of people don’t want to see an unattractive woman,” she says.

(Sedaris, whose brother is writer and NPR star David Sedaris, will release a whimsical cook book, “I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence,” come October.)

Dinello wonders how people unfamiliar with the show will react. Though he thinks the film stands alone, he says: “There are going to be people that don’t get it, I’m sure.

“Jerri’s a bit of an acquired taste.”