In the early aughts, comedians Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain toiled on a project that was unloved by many upon initial release, but gradually cultivated a feverish following. This trio was so ahead of its time, however, that the above description applies not only to the film, Wet Hot American Summer, recently revived by Netflix, but also the Comedy Central classic, Stella.
After the late-'90s dissolution of gonzo comedy collective, The State, which started a lot of careers, Black, Showalter, and Wain began performing live as Stella. Eventually, they had the opportunity to do so on television, and the medium opened up an entire universe of possibilities. Stella was a surreal series in which the titular crew shared an apartment, wore suits all the time, and constantly embarked on oddball adventures. It was a throwback to the black-and-white era tradition of teams like Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers, but suffused with Wet Hot-style genre parody and anti-humor—where the lack of a punchline is a punchline in itself. In short, it was like nothing else on TV—and it was swiftly discontinued, joining the ranks of other brilliant-but-cancelled one-season wonders like Freaks and Geeks.
On the occasion of the show’s 10-year cancelversary, Co.Create caught up with Black, Showalter, and Wain, to talk about how the show started, their experiences making it, and how they look back on it now.
David Wain: Michael and Michael and I were each individually performing a lot in the mid-'90s New York alternative comedy scene and it was so exciting to see comedians at that time like Louis CK, Janeane Garofalo, Marc Maron, and Todd Barry working out material that wasn't in the conventional standup idiom. As time went on, we thought there should be a more "dressed up," polished, weekly comedy night in New York.
Michael Showalter: There was a popular show in the East Village called Luna Lounge, which was a great alternative comedy show, but very down and dirty. We started doing our show as sort of a fun, upscale-feeling night of alternative comedy in the spirit of the Rat Pack or something.
DW: We approached the main booker at Fez under Time Cafe, which was a retro-style nightclub with velvet booths, chandelier, etc, and we thought, ‘Let's do a comedy night here where instead of in a noisy dive bar, people are having martinis and dressing up.’ So the three of us decided to wear suits.
Michael Ian Black: Our original live show was more of a stand-up cabaret than anything else. The three of us hosted the thing and we would have five or six acts perform.
DW: The woman who booked us was pregnant at the time and she asked us what the name of our show was. We asked her what the name of her baby was going to be. She said, ‘Stella,’ and we said, ‘Okay, that's the name of our show.’ Of course, that baby Stella is now in college.
MIB: Each show had a "halftime" intermission, where people could get a drink or take a pee or do whatever. As a fun thing to do coming out of halftime, Showalter had the idea to make short videos starring us three.
MS: Our rapport developed from doing those live shows every Wednesday, and so did our personas. We would do written material, a lot of improvisation. The schtick—for lack of a better word—developed from that: three guys wearing suits, who were outrageous and inappropriate. We developed our individual personas that way too.
DW: We started making quickie short videos every week, and we pretended they were adventures that happened to us earlier that day, so the joke was that we were already wearing our suits.
MIB: Initially, I was reluctant because of laziness, but that wasn’t a good enough excuse for Michael, so we started doing these insane videos that were really only meant to be shown one time, at our live shows. After a while, the videos began taking on their own personalities, which gradually informed what we were doing on stage.
DW: The shorts were pretty raunchy and crazy and unrestrained in just about every way.
MIB: The tone, the absurdity, the dildos—all of it just came pretty naturally. Whatever we thought was funny, we did. The stakes were so low. And the thing with the dildo was, once you buy one, you kind of have to amortize the cost. So we kept using it.
MS: Our video personas were exaggerated, and became more fictionalized. Performing live, our characters were much more extensions of our real selves, but in the videos they were invented characters. This was before making web videos was a thing. After doing The State, television was the natural next step for Stella, but that was never the goal.
MIB: There was no easy way to watch online when we first started. YouTube hadn’t been invented. If it had, we might've been more successful.
MIB: Eventually, we released the shorts as a DVD, which got passed around, found it’s way to Comedy Central, and we started discussing how to turn those dildo-heavy comedic masterpieces into a TV show.
DW: The characters of "Michael, Michael and David" in the shorts took on a slightly different variation of their own, separate from our personas onstage. Eventually, we felt the shorts would be a cool launching point for yet a new, third variation on our personas that would be designed as a half hour TV show for Comedy Central. But each iteration grew organically from the last, somewhat unintentionally.
MS: We never had like formal strategy meetings where we talked about what we were or weren’t, or what we could and couldn’t do. I think we agreed early on that the suits were kind of the costume, but we all understood what the equation of it was comedically. A lot of it is rooted in classic vaudeville, The Three Stooges, Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello—two-man and three-man comedy ensembles.
DW: I will always remember one of the top executives at Comedy Central sending down a directive, ‘Make sure these guys are not too gay.’
MIB: We conceived the characters to be big, stupid ids. Three guys who will act on every impulse, will do every bad idea, will always make the most extreme decision. They’re just idiots. They do what they do without thought of consequences because they have no regard for anybody or anything other than whatever suits their immediate needs.
MS: There’s a childlike quality to these characters. They live within the extremes of human experience: between joy, happiness, anger, sadness, lust, depression, rage, insanity.
DW: [Anti-humor] was definitely part of the philosophy of the show, not in any particular written or spoken way, but just because that's what we found funny and has carried over into so many of the other things we've collaborated on.
MS: Someone once described Stella as Dadaist comedy. I take that as a huge compliment. I liked how whimsical and silly it was, the digressions were always very satisfying, and weirdly inevitable. I’m proud of a lot of the things we did on that show.
MIB: We were doing something new. Nobody else was doing anything like what we were doing at that time. The show had a unique voice, unique tone, tons of great cameos, so many funny twists and turns. All of it compacted into a breezy half hour.
DW: We were able to bring our very specific sensibility to national television, pretty much unfettered. I also think the series had a sense of style and attention to detail that wasn't common for comedy shows then.
MIB: It was one of those ‘should we or shouldn’t we’ jokes, one of those things that pushed the boundaries of taste so far that it sort of felt like we had to do it. I don’t even really remember the context for why they were doing it, but I know there was no racial component to it. I mean, obviously the joke was that there was a racial component, but the three of them were totally oblivious to it. They just thought of something and did it because they were, as I said, total idiots. We went back and forth on the make-up for it, but that was mostly about making it look historically accurate. And we shot it as fast as possible.
MS: We just thought it was a classic example of how the Stella guys think. They don’t understand how horrible they are. It seemed delightfully offensive and idiotic. I think we all sort of thought it was edgy, and funny and silly, and that it probably would never be allowed to be on the show.
MIB: It wasn’t a surprise. The ratings were not good and we had an expensive show so it would have been hard for them to justify keeping it on the air. That said, I believed in the show and thought, with time, it might have found an audience. Then again, I thought it was going to find an audience right away, so I obviously have no idea what I’m talking about.
MS: Everyone internally felt that it was a good show, but it felt like that didn’t matter. It was disappointing, but not surprising.
DW: Part of their decision not to renew the show—besides the obvious reason of low ratings—was that it was fairly expensive to produce in comparison to other shows at that time on Comedy Central. If cutting costs would’ve gotten us a second season, we would've gladly done so. I felt like we were just hitting our stride and figuring out what the show was as we were finishing that season and I wish we'd had a chance to keep going.
DW: We didn't get too deep into planning for the second season, possibly for fear of jinxing it. The production of the first season was so exhausting because we were all wearing so many hats, coupled with the fact that it was all shot and edited and aired during the very hot summer of 2005, and our sound stage had an air conditioning system that was broken for nearly the entire shoot and we were wearing heavy, cheap suits that did not breathe.
MS: The only thing I remember talking about was maybe going more toward a shorter form, maybe instead of doing 30-minute episodes, we would do three or four vignettes per episode, almost like The Three Stooges, rather than one long storyline.
MIB: We had talked about doing two short episodes per half hour instead of one long one, maybe getting rid of the suits, maybe not changing at all. We were open to anything, but the sensibility was the sensibility and that wouldn’t have changed. I definitely think we could have done much more given the opportunity. I would still love to revisit it at some point.
MIB: Some of my favorite moments: Josh Charles giving his big romantic comedy speech to David at the airport, us singing spirituals in the fields with a bunch of African-American field hands, the fact that our landlord turned out to be [Nazi officer of note] Josef Mengele, Showalter riding a horse in our apartment. There’s so many.
DW: We didn't think the show was nearly as left-of-center as I guess, in retrospect, it was. We thought we were doing the very mainstream, commercial version of what we do. But I suppose that it takes more than abstaining from sucking on dildos to make something truly mainstream.
MS: I think we did what was true to us. I don’t know if I would have done anything differently.
MIB: I haven’t watched in a few years, but the last time I did was already several years after the show came out and I remember laughing a lot. Way more than when we actually made the thing. Making the show was incredibly hard work; it’s a very ambitious show given the budget we were working with, and so we were always under the gun and over budget. We fought a fair amount, more because of stress than anything else. Plus, the weather always seemed to be exactly wrong for whatever we were shooting. When I watched later, I forgot about all the production problems and was able to enjoy it for what it was: a dizzyingly absurdist sitcom.
DW: It's often hard to tell if there’s been an increase in awareness about the show or just an increase in the ability for fans to reach us immediately and directly as social media continues to grow.
MIB: There’s a small number of people who love Stella and show it to their friends, but I have not noticed any huge groundswell for the show since it appeared. Which is a shame.
DW: We tend to perform as a group once or twice a year, doing some kind of live show. And we have talked, from time to time, about doing something more. I would love it if it were to happen. I do have an enduring fondness for the specific alchemy of the three of us.
MS: We talk about it all the time, and I have every expectation that it will happen. It’s just a matter of finding the right time and place.
MIB: We still sometimes perform as Stella during San Francisco SketchFest. We’ve done four or five old school Stella shows. My dream would be to totally reboot the franchise so that we get a Stella origin story and change some of the rules for the guys. No network has expressed any interest.