Of all the crazy ladies I've loved, including: Janice, Tyra, the cast of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Large Marge from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, my primary school bus driver Miss Dott (who, come to think of it, was more than a little bit reminiscent of Large Marge), my mother, Sister Souljah, my childhod dog (named Betty Boop), Coko of SWV, Jade of ANTM, Miss Piggy, Mariah Carey, WHITNEY, Heidi Klum, Shirley from What's Happening!, Helen Lawson, Susan Powter, Halle Berry's character in Losing Isaiah ("The ghetto jam is about to slam!"), Mrs. Garrett, that other Diff'rent Strokes maid with the white hair and the bun, Dixie Carter, Dianne from Fat Camp (if she counts as a lady, and I'm thinking she does)...out of all of these, Florrie Fisher could very well be the craziest. And, even more, she could be the one I love the most.
A 50-year-old Florrie made a name for herself in the early '70s by traveling to high schools and pretty much assaulting assembled students with her tales of 25 years of hard living on the street as a drug addict and whore. Basically, she ranted and raved (and chain smoked) at them, telling her serpentine and labrynthine hard-luck story using any old thing that popped into her head, with the goal of disuading them from ever trying "stuff" (or maybe her whole point was to rope teens into the cultish Synanon program she spoke so highly of -- the jury's still out on her true aim). Regardless, all of this was captured in the 1970 PSA/scare film The Trip Back, which nearly shared a title with her memoir The Lonely Trip Back. It was all so manic, nonsensical and hilarious that it formed the basis of Strangers With Candy -- central character Jerri Blank was also a (semi-) reformed drug addict and hooker who found herself back in high school (though not addressing the students, but as one). But I'd say that Florrie's 27-minute tour de force has provided at least as much entertainment as Strangers With Candy's 30-episode run. And since the pretty great Strangers With Candy movie hits select theaters this week, I figure it's time I gave Florrie her due.
In addition to the inherent reference to Florrie that the Jerri Blank character provides, the show teamed with direct references to The Trip Back. Perhaps the most prominent one occurred in the sixth episode of season one, "Jerri Is Only Skin Deep," in which a frenzied Jerri addresses the student body during a homecoming assembly.
Here's that speech with The Trip Back references plugged in:
"How many of you wanna wake up in a public bathroom, lying in a pool of what you hope is your own filth? Any takers? Well, hopefully what I gotta say will keep that from ever happening. The Jew in the back, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, 'Not me.' Well, I'm one tough cookie and I couldn't get away with it. [Student 1: Get away with what?] Whatever it is that you do that I did. What's your darkest secret? [Student 2: Maybe I study too much?] Obsessive just like me! If I bought a tan dress, I had to have it in every color. In bone, in beige, in tan. You with the hair, how do you cope with society's bull? [Student 3: I just do my best to fit in.] Exactly! I couldn't hit the street scene with the squares, so I'd shoot up a hot load right there just so I could cope. How do you get off? [Student 4: What are you talking about?] Right! Escapist, just like I used to be. Go ahead and do one snort of tic and you know where you're gonna end up? In the bus station, makin' junk money by turning tricks for Indonesian businessmen. Now, I know what I'm talkin' about because I was a pathological liar and everything I'm saying is the truth. Thank you."
This is pretty much Florrie in a nutshell -- the random racialism, the placing of words in her audience's mouth, the bizarre, outmoded and not-quite-right jive-y talk, the gleeful OCD, the putting people right on the spot. It's funny, for the "You, with the beads" example, I'd initially thought that this was more of that racialism (my first experiences with Florrie were audio-only -- I'd downloaded an MP3 via a link off fluxblog and listened to it obsessively for weeks before finding a bootleg of the actual movie online). Not having seen these students she gestures wildly toward, I'd figured she was referring to someone with beads in their hair a la...
...imagine my disappointment when I found out out that those beads were around a neck, not in hair...
And then, of course, there's the pathological lying, which is the foundation for Florrie's work (what Florrie is to Strangers With Candy, tall tales are to The Trip Back). You really have to experience it for yourself and so I suggest watching this, Florrie's story about a "straight-B student" (the genius is in the details!) who makes like Helen Hunt in Desperate Lives after taking a hit of acid. Of course, Florrie weaves herself into the tale, which begins, "I was thrown from a horse and I had a laminectomy and I ended up in the San Francisco General Hospital. I was operated on by the same doctor who operated on the late Jayne Mansfield's son Zoltan when he was mauled by the lion." Yeah, it's pretty fucking mind-blowing.
Note that in addition to getting racial once again ("She was part-Negro, part-Spanish, and part-Indian..."), Florrie also gets a little dykey ("...and believe me, she had the beauty of all three"). Her sapphic tendencies are but a leitmotif in The Trip Back (though no less influential on Jerri Blank who "like[s] the pole and the hole"), but they play a much greater role in her book, The Lonely Trip Back. My two favorite passages ("passages") are:
- 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.
Ah, the fine line between eating pussy and playing house!
- The difference between a lesbian, a "lezzie," and a dyke is that most lezzies are born; dykes are made. At least, that's how we figure it in jail.
This is a rather progressive stance for the late '60s, I think. I'm so impressed, then, that she still manages to be insensitive and offensive. More than that, this comparison of "lezzie" vs. dyke reveals yet another hallmark of Florriespeak -- the misspoken definition. See, when she isn't just making shit up, she's usually just wrong. One of the most glaring examples is:
"...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."
Great, except that's not what "drop a dime" means! It's to make a phone call, not send a post card (what snitch wants to be at the prey of the Postal Service, anyway?). I'm glad she went the extra mile and attempted to define it when she absolutely didn't need to, though. More laughs for me!
"And to use an old Jewish cliché: from this comes the worst diseases."
Right. So old that it never made its way onto the Internet. But really, it's the sort of thing you hear all the time sandwiched between kvetching about humidity and "starve a cold, feed a fever."
And, perhaps my favorite made-up definition of Florrie's involves her equation of "hippie" and "zoot suiter":
"I was in the country, in the Jewish Catskills, and I met a...what you call a 'hippie' now was a 'zoot suiter' then, you know the whole bit with the peg pants, long jacket and the swinging key chain, the mustache and the sideburns. And I thought he was just gorgeous."
Those jazz-club-frequenting, chain-swinging hippies! I understand how the mustache and sideburns might throw her off, though.
And, then, of course, there are the times when Florrie can't even manage to be coherent enough to lie or even come up with fake definitions. She just sort of moves her lips and words come out. But oh, the conviction! Oh, the passion!
- Example 1 - "You're young! Y'know, you're beautiful with young youth and along with young youth comes the curiosity of young youth." I dig the "curiosity" bit, but what of the redundancy of "young youth?" Of course, it bears repeating. Twice.
- Example 2 - "Don't think, well, education. You know, I'm a college graduate. It doesn't matter. It it it it uh..drug, drugs, marijuana, a rose by any other name, well drug is the most negative working thing that I have ever met." The second most negative thing had to be a sentence fragment, right?
- Example 3 - "I went to jail for four years. Well, in all that time my husband and I, the only love-making we ever did was our love letter once a week where we swore our undying love. You know, I haven't seen my husband. I came out, he met me and it kinda dissipated itself. It's not important!" Um, ok, bitch coming at us with "It's not important." You're the one who brought it up!
- Example 4 - "You go into a place like I went to, Raiford, Florida State Penitentiary, where you're thrown into a sardine can. Where you eat and you sleep and you mess on the floor and you lay naked for male and female guards to check up on you. And in the morning, because the smell is ridiculous, they hose you out with a power hose. You're told when to eat, what to eat, how to eat and whadda ya eat? Beans and, and cornbread." First of all, I crack up every time she says "male and female" guards, as she can't miss the opportunity to get all bi on us. Second of all, the repetition of "what to eat" and "and whadda ya eat" is poetic, to say the least. And finally, I love how she's riding this emotional crescendo that stops abruptly when she gets to "cornbread." Because, really, not even Florrie can refute cornbread's goodness.
The audience, all the while, looks on in horror...
...emotional engagement (which is actually sort of nice, as Florrie states that her aim in this lecture is to make a difference on "one, just one of you students")...
That's so fucked up. Florrie Fisher is several hundred thousand things, but boring isn't one of them.
Anyway, these two worlds collide during the concluding Q&A in which a plucky young student decides to take on Florrie's rhetoric. Watch the sparks fly!
There is so much I love about this clip that I can barely contain myself to put it all down. "What's your connotation for 'hippies?'" is among my favorite questions that have ever been asked. Ever. It's in Florriespeak, for god's sake! Clearly, this girl was paying attention to Florrie's erratic speech patterns and frequent but slight of misuse of words and decided that that would be the only way to get through to her. But what's really rich is that, "I don't think any of us are really hippies here," is observed by a girl wearing a poncho. A poncho with animals on it. The smell of patchouli lingers, 36 years later. And then there's Florrie's bravery in the face of adversity, as she attempts to spin the entire ordeal as a case of devil's advocacy ("I love that!" says Florrie before spewing some serious nonsense about false eyelashes and buzz words). Florrie isn't so gracious when fielding the follow-up question from the poncho-wearing non-hippie (she likes being challenged but only to a point!). But even better than Florrie's reaction to it is the second question itself. It is here that the origin of the PWNH's defensiveness is revealed:
"Uh, you made it seem obvious that anyone who takes drugs or let's say marijuana is seeking...is seeking some kind of, uh, mind satisfaction or that they have worries. And then you also stated that that they need psychiatric help. I don't think anybody who...I don't think it's necessarily true that anyone who tries pot needs psychiatric help because, uh, marijuana is very much like cigarettes. You have many kids right here in this audience who sit down and smoke or who drink occasionally and I think they need...if, if a pot smoker needs, uh, psychiatric help they need just as much psychiatric help as any other pot smoker."
Stonersayswhat? What the fuck is she talking about? Note how she gets lost in her words and trails off, how she trips over "psychiatric" after saying it a few times, how she uses the phrase "mind satisfaction." Homegirl took this shit personally because she came to watch Florrie blazed. Her reaction may be the most bizarre part of The Trip Back -- clearly being high should only make this shit more hilarious.
(And, for the first time ever The Trip Back is officially available, as part of the series box set of Strangers With Candy. Finally, Florrie's message can be heard by all!)