Perhaps no one can pinpoint the exact moment vaudeville died, but there's a moment early in Strangers with Candy where you'd swear you had just witnessed the death of visual comedy. En route to her first day of high school, a tarty middle-aged jailbird—this is not a Disney Channel joint—tosses a half-eaten banana out her "mommy's" car window and takes a Neil Armstrong step outside. There lies the banana on the sidewalk. Banana? Sidewalk? You can practically hear the Jaws theme. Fifty years ago, she would've stepped on the peel and gone ass over teakettle, with a get-up slip for good measure.
But Jerri Blank, the scraggly 46-year-old heroine, makes it to the curb without incident—her very existence is joke enough. And the banana just lies there, a conspicuous lump of missed opportunity. Something about that dead banana—a classic sight-gag setup evoked just to be dismissed—typifies the brand of humor Strangers with Candy represents. Call it anti-comedy: a war zone of thwarted expectations that makes the audience's uncertainty whether to laugh part of the attack.
Here, jokes are just as likely to end not in punch lines, but in uncomfortable silence, impenetrable irony, or stomach flips. The movie's prototype might be the go-nowhere joke at the heart of the recent doc The Aristocrats—a kind of comic's revenge, in which the audience is made to eat shit (literally, in some tellings) in hopes of a payoff as elusive as Powerball. If the performer bombs, so what: The listener, for once, is the one made to feel the flop sweat trickling down his neck. The results can be as unsettling as the squirmiest moments of The Office, or as perplexing as the stoner's paradise of the Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim."
Or as appallingly funny as the best of Strangers with Candy, the movie version of a short-lived Comedy Central series that was itself a milestone in creep-out comedy. Granted, shows about the terrors and petty humiliations of high school are as common as acne. The Strangers with Candy series took a cliché of those old shows—actors who look as old as cafeteria workers—and made it laughably surreal by focusing on Jerri, a grizzled ex-coke whore who attempts a late-life makeover as the world's crustiest teen queen. If the memory of awkward crushes and tough assignments seems painful, just picture them all happening to Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Strangers with Candy is an origin story—the tender tale of how Jerri went from chasing cell-block bitches to joining the student body of Flatpoint High, with some help from dear old (comatose) Dad. Like the show, it's a love-it-or-hate-it affair because of its star, Amy Sedaris, whose Lucille Ball-on-crystal-meth persona is an anti-comedy litmus test. Screechy and clingy, possessed of utterly unwarranted sex-bomb bravado, Sedaris's Jerri is the square peg from which the movie hangs. Either you find her scrunched-up expressions, crack-baby attention span, and malignant libido a skin-crawling hoot (as when she sizes up a jock conquest-to-be with the gag-reflex double dare "I want your spermies"), or you recoil as from a prom corsage of poison ivy.
That's fine: In anti-comedy, either response—or both—is acceptable. The same goes for the racist brinkmanship involving Jerri's principal, a black man named Blackman (first name: Onyx) meant to provoke uneasy chuckles. In this universe of absurdist weightlessness, nothing has any meaning—not Jerri's friendship with an adoring nerd (Carlo Alban), nor the nominal plot about her attempts to win the school science fair and snap Dad out of his coma, all of which is played as facetious after-school-special parody. The biggest laughs come not because of situation or character logic, but because of their complete breakdown—and because the ace supporting players can deliver the sneak-attack line readings the spiky dialogue demands.
The funniest of them is series regular (and current anti-comedy It Boy) Stephen Colbert, who co-wrote the script with Sedaris and director Paul Dinello. As a shakily born-again science teacher with more than Bunsen burners in the closet, Colbert plumbs levels of ironic self-obsession that Garry Shandling couldn't find. ("I wasn't pushing you away," his Mr. Noblet tells the gay lover he just dumped but wants back. "I was pulling me toward myself.") The many star cameos range from iffy but game (Allison Janney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the school board) to seamless (the five finest minutes of Sarah Jessica Parker's career), with Ian Holm's deadpan doctor perhaps the brightest left-field surprise.
Strangers with Candy is the first film from the production company of David Letterman, who practically defined the quizzical I-suck-at-this school of laugh-getting; in that sense, it's almost the culmination of an art form. Will you care if Jerri wins the science fair? No. Will you laugh when she gets trampled by a bull, or dragged by her hair, despite direction that hasn't the first clue how to stage physical comedy? Yes, hard—even the ineptness seems to be part of the joke. Or not. Either way, no problem. Anti-comedy isn't pretty.