For three seasons running from 1999-2000, one of the great unsung American sitcoms aired on Comedy Central: Strangers with Candy, a sick-minded surrealist affair concerning the travails of Jerri Blank, a 46-year-old ex-junkie/prostitute who returned to high school as a freshman to get her life back in order. Played explicitly as a parody of the '70s and '80s after-school specials, the series followed Jerri through typical teenage struggles with a twist: rather than experiencing an uplifting life lesson, Jerri would come away having learned the most hedonistic and venal "moral" possible.

Flash to 2006: the movie version of the series has premiered, largely intact: Amy Sedaris still plays Jerri; Stephen Colbert is still the very angry and gay science teacher Chuck Noblet; director Paul Dinello is art teacher Geoffrey Jellineck, who is just gay; and Greg Hollimon is still the corrupt Principal Blackman. And the story is one that could have come straight from the series: Jerri thinks that winning the science fair will snap her father out of his coma, so she engages in all manner of lowbrow behavior to ensure that victory.

Like so many TV-to-feature projects, Strangers with Candy shows its seams. Dinello has never directed a feature before, and it's pretty obvious: from the static camera to the frequent close-ups, the thing just plain looks like a TV show. And the script is much the same: an idea that would have been tight and perfect at 22 minutes gets pretty flabby at 97. The writers (Colbert, Dinello & Sedaris) sidestep this a bit by making the film a prequel, and give us nearly an episode's worth of exposition that is by and large quite good. But once the film starts to begin in earnest, it's hard to ignore all of the needless padding is in there, how many of the gags are retreads - or blatant ripoffs - of the original series, and the number of anemic sequences used solely to boost the running time. The end picks up considerably; but it's a lot of work for what amounts to a TV-sized payoff.

That said, it works on the most basic level, which is that the first 40 minutes and the last 20 are extremely funny. The four leads have had plenty of time to perfect their characters, and it's quite thrilling to watch top-shelf comedians playing off of each other. It is not a comedy for the ages, but it is certainly an agreeable time-filler, especially in an era when most American cinema humor comes to us from the grating Frat Pack group. Having a film in which most of the jokes are at the expense of a filthy racist child-woman is actually a relief - the film isn't as smart as the show, but it's still smarter than most other things in the cineplex.

I am not entirely sure, even so, if it's worth recommending. It's probably best suited to the fans of the show, who don't need to be told to see it; I wonder if it might be a bit alienating to everyone else. Best, I suppose, to not even adopt that as a concern. I laughed at it, heartily, and that is something I have not done recently and do not anticipate doing in the near future. It is a crude thing; but it is cleverly crude, and that counts for a lot.