Comedy Central’s Stella may have only aired last summer to replace the MIA Chappelle’s Show, but its roots stretch way back to the mid-1990s. As explained in “The History of Stella,” the DVD’s oral history of the show told by its principal performers, comedians Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain met doing sketch comedy at NYU. They then went on to join the 10-member collective, the State, whose much-loved sketch-comedy show ran for three seasons on MTV. When the State dissolved, the performers went their separate ways to pursue other projects. Black, Showalter, and Wain teamed up for a three-man stand-up routine that toured local comedy clubs. Their routines evolved to include a few odd pre-recorded videos, a few of which are included in the DVD set (though not in their entirety), which ultimately became the basis for the Comedy Central show.
Because of its ties to the State and genesis in comedy-club-screened shorts, Stella is often labeled as a sketch comedy show. But it doesn’t have the impressions, political humor, and pop-cultural references of Saturday Night Live, and its performers don’t play ludicrous characters like in Kids in the Hall. In fact, the protagonists are not standard characters at all; they use their real names throughout, as if they’re appearing “as themselves.” Yet this is simultaneously a falsehood, unless Black is really condescending (which he might be), Showalter a crybaby, and Wain a sex addict, as they are often described on the show. As well, though the scenes may seem scattershot and disjointed, they are all in the service of a half-hour plot—not really sketches at all.
With Stella being so distinct from a typical sketch comedy show, it might appear that the format is closer to that of a sitcom. After all, it focuses on three guys who live in an apartment together, and their domestic squabbles often take center stage. Again, the label doesn’t quite fit. Stella abandons most forms of logic, narrative, emotional or physical. In the Stella world, a campaign for apartment building resident president can become so heated that it ends in apparent assassination, only to have the sniper find out that he shot a robot likeness of the candidate instead. I can’t imagine a similar situation in most sitcoms.
A final, similarly inaccurate comparison between Stella and known forms equates Black, Showalter, and Wain with the Marx Brothers. While both groups conjured fantastical situations for their “characters,” the Marxes were more prone to employ witty lines and clever turns of phrase to earn laughs. While Groucho may have given us gems like “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read,” all the Stella boys come up with is “David, do you still have that friend that makes fake moustaches?” or “Hiring you boys based on your performance in the potato sack race was the worst decision I ever made.” These lines are funny in the context of their episodes (I promise), but they’ll never be printed on a t-shirt.
Stella—not a sketch comedy, not a sitcom, and certainly not the Marx Brothers—forges a brand of television comedy all its own. The good news: it’s funny. These guys know the difference between offbeat humor (think: a man dressed in a full suit while sitting in a bubble bath and wearing a shower cap) and random stupidity (insert any of Family Guy‘s cutaway-to-an-‘80s-sitcom “jokes” here). In “Meeting Girls,” the writers don’t stop when the three suit-and-tie guys walk into a tough, Confederate-flag festooned dive bar and run into the predictable fish-out-of-water jokes. Instead, Black, Showalter, and Wain get up on the bar and break into a choreographed dance à la Coyote Ugly, somehow pulling bras out from beneath their shirts and throwing them into the crowd. The scene is silly, crazy, and a little juvenile, but hilarious. Even better: the guys become the most popular men in the bar. Except Wain.
The DVD includes some “explanatory” materials, though, truth is, there’s no way to explain why the humor works in Stella. No insight comes by way of the commentary tracks, which, for three comedians, are shocking unfunny. (Showalter checks his e-mails during the commentary in one episode, and Wain treats himself to a tuna sandwich in another—they’re that mundane.) As for an explanation about their inspirations or the source of their comedy,the best they can come up with is, “We pitched the pilot to Comedy Central because we had these shorts. We wrote the script and got their notes and so forth, and ended up shooting it in the fall. It was very hot and the apartment did not have adequate air conditioning.” (Boring? Yes. But still not one of the commentary tracks’ worst moments.) Yet, even though the principals themselves can’t explain why the show is funny, it is undeniable. Just take a look at the DVD’s blooper reel, where it seems that every extra and guest star is reduced to tears at some point.
The bad news is, with not even one foot close to anything resembling reality (the final episode offers a Martian weather report on television), Stella‘s unusual format and zany humor are not consistently appealing. Viewers have to be willing to accept a world where fake moustaches are sold like drugs (with Sam Rockwell as the dealer), or seeds planted on a hardwood apartment floor bear fruit. Apparently, not too many people were willing to make the commitment.