|Stella: Season One (2005)
Starring: Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, David Wain, Andrea Rosen, Heidi Neurauter, Samantha Buck
If you’ve never seen an episode of “Stella,” but you’ve seen the critics offering up claims that the show is “like the Marx Brothers on acid” (The Hollywood Reporter) or suggestions that the trio of Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain are “a three-man Monty Python for the new millennium” (The Denver Post)…well, frankly, you’ve got every right to be skeptical; those are some pretty lofty claims. As it happens, though, they’re both surprisingly accurate.
Black, Showalter, and Wain aren’t household names, but fans of VH-1’s talking-head shows will almost certainly recognize Michael Ian Black from his myriad of appearances; the man has something to say about every decade, and he’s not ashamed to speak his mind! (As it happens, Showalter and Wain have popped up on occasion as well, but certainly not to the same extent as Black.) All three, however, made their first comedic mark as members of MTV’s sketch comedy show, “The State,” and the trio eventually started working together as a live troupe called Stella…and, yes, there’s a story about how their name came about, but you’ll have to watch the DVD to find out about it.
Comedy Central’s tag line for “Stella” – “Dumb comedy dressed up in a suit” – didn’t really do much to sell the show, mostly because it didn’t really tell you anything about it. Calling it an absurdist sitcom makes it sound way more pretentious than it actually is, but there’s no question as to its absurdity, given that, in the episode entitled “Camping,” the guys end up lost in the woods, grow unkempt beards, and resort to eating whatever they can find…but when they’re discovered by the authorities, we find that only a single day has passed. If you’re a fan of the classic BBC series “The Young Ones,” you’ll note some similarities: a bunch of guys live in an apartment together and have bizarre adventures that in no way resemble reality. Unlike the adventures of Rik, Neil, Mike and Vyvyan, however, there’s no laugh track to be found, so you’ve got to be looking for the laughs. Not that they’re hard to find, you understand; it’s just a matter of what you find funny.
The bulk of the episodes play out as parodies of various film genres, lazy plot devices, or hackneyed dialogue. “Campaign,” for instance, mercilessly mocks every political thriller ever (not to mention the concept of using robot doubles to fool people), while “Amusement Park” ends with a spot-on parody of the Michael Douglas/David Fincher flick, “The Game,” even though it spends most of the episode with the guys in therapy. In fact, at one point, they get drugged and end up in a sanitarium…but because the entire room is white, they think they’re in Heaven, which leads to this exchange:
David Wain: Guys, have you ever thought about the kind of jam sessions they must have in Heaven? I mean, on lead guitar, Jimi Hendrix…playing drums, Keith Moon…and on lead vocals, the guy from Blind Melon.
Michael Ian Black: What about Elvis?
David Wain: (Confidently) No, no…the guy from Blind Melon.
There are a lot of these bizarre but hilarious conversations, often including complete non-sequiturs. The jokes aren’t always highbrow – a point best exemplified during the aforementioned “Camping” episode, where the boys insist on having their mountain man tour guide repeat the phrase “Mike hunt” over and over – and they’re not afraid to have recurring gags, like having Showalter constantly do the most ridiculous things, then follow his actions by admitting, “I did it, and that was wrong of me.”
It’s a bit of a misnomer for the set to be labeled Season One, since there were no further seasons; Comedy Central unceremoniously dropped the show after a single year and did so sufficiently far in advance to change the name of the set to “The Complete Series.” But, hey, at least they released it on DVD; MTV could just barely be arsed to put “The State” on iTunes, and it still remains unavailable for proper home video purchase. In the long run, we should just be glad that “Stella” made it on the air at all. It’s the first truly uncompromised comedic vision we’ve seen on television since “Mr. Show” left HBO, and we were lucky to have it for even ten episodes.
The 45-minute documentary on the creation of the series is actually just the three guys sitting around talking about the origins of the group, interspersed with clips from the various incarnations of Stella, including otherwise-unavailable films made for their live performances and clips from their failed pop-culture talk-show pilot. Watching these guys talking amongst themselves shows their easy chemistry; it’s particularly interesting to see Black, who always seems to be stoic on camera for VH-1, constantly grinning at comments made by the other two. The trio also provides commentary for all ten episodes, which are often as funny as the shows themselves. Beyond that, there’s also a collection of deleted scenes (presumably cut for time rather than content), a blooper reel, and a live performance: “Comedy Central Presents: STELLA.” Oh, and there are a couple of Easter eggs as well, but far be it from me to reveal their secret location, except to say that if you watch all of the special features, you’ll find them.