To say that Stella was ahead of its time is at worst meaningless and at best disingenuous. Meaningless because of course it’s a product of its time, and disingenuous because its descendants aren’t exactly lighting up the Nielsens. Nevertheless, Stella occupies a particular calm between two waves of absurdism: the alternative sketch comedies of the 1990s and the alternative sitcoms of contemporary cable. Structurally, it’s an obvious bridge between the two. A couple years later, and Stella might be well known as a forerunner to the live-action cartoons that followed.
The show stars Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain as three suit-wearing men who live together and are always open to a new television plot. They campaign for office, they write a book, they go camping. Then the solid ground starts to get shaky. Episodes tend to revolve around a main story idea, often testing and ultimately renewing the guys’ friendship. At the end of each episode, there’s a disproportionate celebration where, say, the mayor will show up out of the blue and award the guys the key to the city. Michael, Michael, and David also have a funny way of answering the door. Beyond that, Stella is a rather malleable show, taking on new tropes with each episode, playing around with them for a while, and then spitting them out to cleanse the palate for the next week. It’s pure absurdism. But unlike oversized props or Daffy Duck erasing himself, it’s not an absurdism that means anything can happen on Stella. The show was more often marked by gags that stretch believability, surprising the audience with a certain illogical goofiness—peculiar line readings, pantomime physicality, or costume skunk tails.
Partly due to the rise of cable and broadcast upstarts like Fox, absurdist sketch comedy surged on U.S. TV in the ’90s. As NBC stalwart Saturday Night Live made the most of recurring characters and political parody, Fox’s In Living Color, HBO’s Mr. Show With Bob And David, and MTV’s The State played with the form to varying degrees. Mr. Show made an art out of seamlessly transitioning the sketches in each episode into one fluid stream like the later work of pioneering surrealist Luis Buñuel. Stella is even more seamless with its sketch-like structure, flowing from one scene to the next without any instantaneous changes in goals or stakes. The U.K. media spoof Brass Eye is a similar case, building fluid streams of absurdist sketches on episodic themes. In fact, British absurdism runs throughout the period with shows like The Day Today, Peep Show, and Look Around You. Stella was stranded not only by time but by place as well.
The story of Stella goes back directly to The State, the sketch-comedy troupe in which Black, Showalter, and Wain cut their teeth alongside eight other writer-performers from NYU. The group’s eponymous MTV series is remembered for its pop literacy, but it stands out more for its absurdism. One sketch sees grown men attend a child’s birthday party without betraying a single sign that they’re aware of the discord; another has the simple premise that the letter H has been replaced by the letter M. Several collapse the space between the high and the low, such as the sketch where an air traffic controller tries to talk a mime through his stakes-free, invisible airplane disaster or the one where Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz play buffoons. When the show ended, the cast fractured into smaller groups. Although there has been plenty of overlap in the members’ projects, The State generally went in two directions: One path led to genre parodies Viva Variety and Reno 911! The other led to Stella, with a brief stopover at Showalter and Wain’s 2001 cultishly adored theatrical effort, Wet Hot American Summer.
Stella began life as a stage show where three guys in suits would bounce off each other, then expanded into filmed sketches. From there, it was adapted into a pilot for Comedy Central. In 2004, the network’s highest-rated shows were its identity-defining hit South Park and the alt-sketch smash Chappelle’s Show. Chappelle’s Show fell behind schedule that winter, and in May 2005 the show was officially put on permanent hiatus. In its place Comedy Central programmed Stella, a vote of considerable confidence given how well Chappelle’s Show had done for the network. Moreover, Stella would air between two other tentpoles, Reno 911! and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. Comedy Central posted the pilot online for two weeks before its premiere to drum up interest; the Stella guys were billed as modern-day Marx brothers. The network had high hopes.
It’s hard to find a more representative episode of the show than its premiere. The plot has to do with the guys being kicked out of their apartment and seeking alternate housing, but that’s just a hanger on which Black, Wain, and Showalter could pile the jokes. Take the pre-inciting incident: Their landlord wants to talk to them, but they can’t open the door because they are arranged in a tableau. No act is so meaningless that it can’t become an overly elaborate gesture. Just look at the demonstrative way the guys walk. They tell the landlord to use the key under the doormat, but there isn’t a doormat, so they send him to pick it up from the dry cleaners, which entails Michael Ian Black breaking the tableau, opening the door, and delivering the dry-cleaning slip to the landlord. The trio becomes thoughtful and thoughtless all at once. When the landlord returns with the doormat, he sets it on the floor, he lifts up a corner, and there’s the key! Shades of Marx, shades of Looney Tunes, but not exactly like anything that’s come before or since.
The episode is packed with gags like that, starting with the opening discussion of whether the guys will listen to funk rock or funk rock, an argument they carry on before, during, and after a car wreck. Once they get kicked out of their place, they go from suit-clad goofs in a spacious apartment to cartoon hobos in less than a day. They split three ways their scavenged meal, a single bean. As for housing, one of them spots something. The camera follows them from where they were sitting around the corner to a flyer they couldn’t possibly have seen advertising an apartment for rent. They choreograph a dance to impress a co-op board, and the editing lingers on their poorly matched stunt doubles. Eventually they’re forced to perform surgery on their ex-landlord. By the end, they’re back in their apartment like nothing’s ever happened. Stella may be simply a collection of jokes, but that’s not the dismissal some critics think it is. Jokes aren’t just written and read. The performances, the camera angles, the editing, the props, the costumes—practically everything but the set is stylized. It barely takes a scene for Stella to build a universe.
The following week a political campaign turns Black into a vain egomaniac and Wain into an assassin. Stella aired 10 episodes in that vein, and it soared like an anvil. According to Wain, “It didn’t get very good ratings. Plus it was very expensive relative to Comedy Central’s other shows at the time.” The next spring it joined Chappelle’s Show on that Comedy Central lineup in the sky.
In 2007, The Sarah Silverman Program kicked off a three-year, two-channel run as Stella’s heir apparent, its heroine going from cheerful idiot to spotlight activist in a day. Nowadays that’s almost routine for a certain category of sitcom. Stella’s live-action absurdism fuels late-night creative powerhouse Adult Swim with shows like Childrens Hospital (which Wain helped bring to TV) and its spin-offs, NTSF:SD:SUV:: and Newsreaders. FX’s Louie regularly stretches its reality. Even HBO’s Flight Of The Conchords got two seasons out of low-rated, narrative-loose adult male roommates. And NBC’s 30 Rock and Community are tinged with such gags, like the paintball fight that turns Greendale Community College into a war zone.
Stella certainly didn’t pave the way for its descendents commercially. And creatively, it’s so sharp it practically obviates them. It was such an original that its legacy shouldn’t be measured in influence. Stella’s 10 episodes are legacy enough, a model of ’90s absurdism in a decade of experiments.
One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Wonder
Next time: Todd VanDerWerff heads into ‘90s teenage angst and My So-Called Life.