The Michael Ian Black/Michael Showalter/David Wain nontraditional sitcom only got one season. But maybe it was too absurd to last.
This article is part of 2005 Week on Noisey, where we revist all the best and worst pop culture relics from a decade ago.
“Can you be funny without dryhumping each other and sucking on dildos?” This is what David Wain remembers a Comedy Central executive asking him when he pitched the network the idea to turn Stella, the three-man comedy troupe he started eight years prior with Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black, into a sitcom. It was a valid question. “And it turned out, the answer was no,” deadpans Black.
That interaction came from the bonus features on the DVD for Stella’s one and only ten-episode season that aired in the summer of 2005. Yes, Comedy Central took a brief, fleeting chance on these dryhumping dildo-suckers. And while the network likely doesn’t have many framed Stella posters lining their office walls among the South Park and Daily Show ones, for ten glorious weeks, the world had a summer fling with the trio’s finely-tuned brand of absurdist humor.
Stella’s big network shot had been a long time in the making. In 1997, in a swanky downstairs nightclub in Manhattan’s NoHo neighborhood, Black, Wain, and Showalter, who had met nine years prior around the block while students at NYU, stood up in front a crowd to debut their comedy variety stage show. It was a hip, upscale place, though—red velvet backdrop on the stage, dimly lit tables, and what not. So to class it up a bit, the three donned suits. The club was called Fez, and it was a big step up from the last venue they’d performed at together, where their opening act was a magician.
The show caught on as a weekly event at Fez. In between their own three-man standup bits, the Stella guys would act as emcees, handing the mics over for ten minutes at a time to other comedians—many of whom were New York club regulars and up-and-comers. On any given night, it wouldn’t be uncommon to catch Janeane Garofalo, Stephen Colbert, Louis C.K., David Cross, or a pre-Hangover fame Zach Galifianakis. Most of the people who attended were comedy scene geeks and knew of Black, Showalter, and Wain from their influential sketch comedy show, The State, which aired on MTV for two years in the early 90s.
One week, the three tried something different. In the middle of their routine, they premiered a short film they’d shot, which Showalter was very clear about having thought of and written. It was five and a half minutes of amateur video—poorly lit, atrocious sound, and shaky camerawork. It was hastily made, too—Wain and Black agreed to do it only if they could film the whole thing, soup to nuts, in under 90 minutes. But it was funny.
Shot in a backyard, it depicted the three—still in full suits, mind you—going turkey hunting. “Guys, look, I’m sucking a dick!” Black exclaimed as he started fellating his hunting rifle. “Suck mine! Suck mine! Suck mine!” Wain added while putting the tip of his shotgun to Black’s mouth. “Suck my dick!” Showalter piled on, shoving his handgun into the mix. “And the cum will be bullets!” said Wain.
"Turkey Hunting," the first Stella short
It was usually a contest to see who could ham it up most for the camera, with Black most often in the lead. They played exaggerated caricatures of themselves, their more effeminate alter-egos. “People think we’re acting gay, but we’re not gay, we’re just women,” Black once noted of their characters. One of their favorite gags was derailing a conversation to harmonize their vocal pitches. Another was their mockery of the the “do you believe in God?” conversation everyone thinks is super deep at 3 AM in college. “I believe that there’s something out there, I don’t know if it’s a guy with a long white beard. Like, God could be this leaf!” Towards the end, they accidentally shot and killed their hunting instructor, Dan, played by Zak Orth, and for the last 30 seconds of the skit, Wain stripped down to his boxers and dryhumped Dan’s fresh, camo-clad corpse, biting his own thumb the whole time. Cut to Black and Showalter who were both watching on while furiously rubbing one out. Not-so-stifled laughter could be heard from off camera.
“Turkey Hunting” was the first of the Stella shorts, and it laid much of the groundwork for the other 26 which were to follow. Every week, the guys would get on stage at Fez and project a new video they’d shot, and usually had finished editing just minutes before showtime.
Many soon-to-be A-list stars appeared, and subsequently demeaned themselves, in the shorts. Bradley Cooper starred in one as the devil, who ended up buttfucking Wain, perhaps a promotion from his Wet Hot role where he was being buttfucked by Black. Meanwhile, Modern Family’s Julie Bowen, who co-starred with Black in the NBC show Ed at the time, watched on while furiously fingerblasting herself.
It was all funny and needlessly sexual, but the biggest crowdpleaser always seemed to be the dildos. Dildo humor was a common theme in the shorts, enough to maybe be considered the fourth member of Stella. White ones, black ones, ones for men, ones for women—Stella were equal opportunity penile humorists. Sometimes the dildos would get sucked on, other times jacked off. Sometimes they would be nuzzled, other times used as weapons. And once, a dildo was sewn to a fish to make it look like it had a really big dick. (Episode title: “Dickfish”)
Sometimes, you’d miss huge stretches of jokes because the crowd was laughing so raucously. So, once they’d amassed a catalog of shorts, Stella uploaded them all and made them available online. This being a few years before the launch of YouTube, it was a revolutionary idea of sorts. The three became unintentional pioneers of viral comedy, releasing regular, streamable skits years before SNL made The Lonely Island’s digital shorts famous. “We were like The Beatles,” Wain jokes on the Stella DVD. This, combined with the three touring together, helped Stella develop a national cult following, and the release of their 2001 indie darling Wet Hot American Summer didn’t hurt either.
But given that fingerblasting, balls-nuzzling, and necrophilic buttfucking had become tenants of their comedy over the years, how would Black, Showalter, and Wain translate their often raunchy act to network television now that Comedy Central was interested? It was like a magician being robbed of his best trick. Surely, Stella’s small but rabid fanbase would be disappointed with a toned down version of their act, and the vast majority of general TV viewers at best probably only recognized Black as a talking head on Vh1’s I Love the… series. It should also be mentioned that Vh1 had just filmed a pilot with the three serving as hosts for a talk show with a studio audience. It failed miserably.
The Stella short, "Raking Leaves," featuring a young Bradley Cooper as Bill Zebub
Maybe it was because Comedy Central was high off the success of the other The State alumni, Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant, and their COPS parody Reno 911!, or maybe it was because the network was left with a gaping hole in their schedule in 2005 after the third season of their mega-hit, Chappelle’s Show, was abruptly cancelled due to Dave Chappelle being in South Africa for… reasons. Whatever it was, the comedy gods smiled upon Stella and they caught a lucky break. Comedy Central got behind the show, picking it up for ten half-hour episodes, and issuing single-episode first look promo DVDs as buzz-builders in advance of the show’s premiere.
The first episode aired on June 28 and, somewhat miraculously, the show was cohesive, funny, and most importantly, it was still relatively absurd. Rolling Stone described them as an “off the cuff Marx Brothers-meets-Monty Python." Most episodes took place in or around the characters’ three-bedroom apartment and, although they had a small budget, it was still a step up from their previous budget of next to nothing. While Stella dropped some of their core elements, they picked up a few new ones.
The three developed a penchant for voices and accents. They combined meta humor with physical comedy. They’d also go off on meandering, nonsensical tangents. In just ten lines of dialogue, they’d jump from the topic of how the Irish Potato Famine was “such a great famine” to Madonna. And it just kept going from there.
Wain: “What about Madonna? I mean, is she ‘Like a Virgin’ or is she a ‘Material Girl?’ This girl's had more reinventions than Thomas Edison!”
Black: “I know. She's had more boyfriends than Madonna!”
Showalter: "I like English muffins.”
Wain: “Let's go to that board meeting!”
Plots centered around premises like the three writing a novel, meeting women, and running a vegetable plantation inside their living room. Like Scooby Doo cartoons, conflicts would get miraculously resolved in the last 60 seconds, the more nonsensically the better.
“As mayor of this town, I hereby put you in charge of the big account!”
Or “It wasn’t me you shot, you shot a robot that I built.”
Or “To show my gratitude, may I present to you the key to the city and this gift basket from The Body Shop… but I only have one so you’ll have to split it.”
Cue all three in unison: “Yaaaay!”
Theme song plays. Credits roll.
The show wasn’t completely scrubbed of its foundational shock humor, though. In one episode, in an attempt to go unrecognized by their downstairs neighbors, the three pulled out their makeup kit to disguise themselves. Cut to the guys all in blackface. Blackface! On a scale of comedic offensiveness, blackface hangs several inches below dildos.
Black, Showalter, and Wain also called in favors with their famous friends to appear in various roles and cameos, as they often do in their low-budget projects. Topher Grace made an appearance, as did Rashida Jones, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd, and Sam Rockwell, who played their shady, black market fake mustache dealer. And perhaps most unpredictably, the pilot featured a quick cameo from Edward Norton as himself.
Ultimately, though, neither the star power nor the caliber of the comedy could save Stella. In March of 2006, a message was posted on Stella’s website: “The network has officially decided not to renew it for a second season.” And, in a cruel twist of comedic fate, the show’s timeslot was filled with Mind of Mencia. While the three continued to work together in other contexts, and would very occasionally reprise their Stella characters, the Comedy Central cancellation largely took the gas out of the Stella engine. The three hung up the suits.
Ten years later, Netflix found critically acclaimed success with Wain, Showalter, and Black in their Wet Hot American Summer series adaptation, First Day of Camp. So you could chalk Stella’s failure up to bad timing. Perhaps the world was just not ready for it and, had the show been released a few years later, the guys could’ve discovered a market for their nontraditional sitcom in a nontraditional medium like Netflix or Hulu or Amazon or even HBO. After all, the show arguably paved the way for other unconventional sitcoms about never-working apartment-dwelling guys like Flight of the Conchords.
But that might be a bit too optimistic. To say they were ahead of their time is a cop out. More likely, Stella and their offbeat comedy were sadly never meant to find a mainstream audience, and were better left down in that dark but glamorous basement of Fez. Dildos and all.
Dan Ozzi will call Marcus. Follow him on Twitter - @danozzi