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Stella

Cast: Michael Showalter, David Wain, Michael Ian Black
Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 10:30pm ET

(Comedy Central)

Tableau

You have to have a strong sense of the absurd to appreciate Stella. It’s like watching three fruit flies buzzing around inside a jar that’s too small to house them. Starring Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain, the comedic masterminds behind Wet Hot American Summer and MTV’s The State, the show offers a series of scenes that gesture toward a story, but not very convincingly.


For one scene, the boys argue over whether they should listen to “Funk,” “Funk Rock” or “Funk Rock” before going to sleep. In another, they “clean” their apartment for the landlord’s arrival by fluffing every pillow (including one in the kitchen cupboard) in the already pristine living space. When Mr. Mueller, the landlord, arrives, instead of opening the door for him, the trio gathers an umbrella, a book, and a mandolin and poses in the foyer. “We can’t move,” Showalter calls through the door. “We’re in a tableau.” And that’s only the first five minutes.


The series premiere involves the boy getting evicted from their apartment and attempting to impress a co-op board at another building with the magic of choreographed dance. The threesome, whose live shows and comedic shorts are notoriously borderline offensive, have softened their edges for cable. This doesn’t mean, however, that they aren’t spewing some lines that may have conservative viewers (if there are any) calling foul. When their downstairs neighbors bring in Mr. Mueller over a noise violation, Black calls him a Nazi. “Michael, not all Germans are Nazis,” Showalter admonishes him. “That’s not my understanding,” Black retorts.


At the end of the episode, after Black and crew accidentally kill Mueller by attempting to perform open heart surgery on him (with butter knife, a turkey baster, and yarn), they are informed by the head of a Jewish foundation that he actually was a “famous Nazi war criminal who escaped into hiding after the war.” After the man bestows them with a laundry basket (“from Pier One, in case you need to return it”) and some fleece pullovers as thanks, Black, Showalter, and Wain look at the dead landlord and chuckle, “That is too funny.”


In the context of the episode, where each action and statement is completely ridiculous, it is kind of funny and clearly not meant to offend. As anyone who watches standup knows, comedy can defuse vulgarity or meanness. Yet it is curious that Comedy Central has censored Stella’s sexual humor, yet allowed them to keep this politically incorrect humor, as sexual content is, presumably, less harmful than blatant ethnocentricity.


Anyone who has seen the trio perform a standup show will be less inclined to laugh at the small screen version. Sure, the surreal nature of the show leaves the door wide open for sight gags and the boys never miss an opportunity to make weird faces or speak in funny voices, but compared to the live show and short films, Stella feels dumbed down. The sex jokes of the shorts are M.I.A. here (though Wain does inexplicably begin making out with a real estate agent who turns out to be Edward Norton’s wife) and profanity has been removed from their vocabulary.


The short films, which are currently not readily available, feature the comedy team at their unrestrained best, generally partaking in more humping than a pack of horny dogs; they include group blowjobs and Santa Claus, lots of masturbation, gay and incestuous sex, and a rather large dildo. Even the live shows incorporate generous helpings of “adult content”; their last tour featured a skit where Wain pretended to sleep with a female guest performer onstage while Showalter and Black obliviously argued across the stage.


Still, despite the differences between Stella’s previous work and their new incarnation, Stella is amusing because the three actors prancing around here are hilarious comedians. Black would be funny standing immobile and mute in an empty room. As well, the trio rewards their fans with throwbacks to the short films, reciting lines they will remember and love. But mostly, the pleasure of Stella results from the usual question: what will they do next?


Stella is certainly a more “family-friendly” (depending on your family) version of a cult comedy trio that has been adored under the radar for a long time. Like when a well-loved independent band signs to a major label, Stella has elected to make some creative sacrifices to gain wider exposure. And, ultimately, even for the most diehard fans, would you rather forgo a few dry humps to get to see Black, Wain, and Showalter on national TV every week? If it’s still a sellout for you, think of it this way: your bootlegged Stella shorts are make you a nice mint on eBay in a few months.

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2 Oct 2006
Stella -- not a sketch comedy, not a sitcom, and certainly not the Marx Brothers -- forges a brand of television comedy all its own.
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