Comedians Michael Showalter and David Wain are lounging in the creepy Technicolor bowels of Toad’s nightclub, solemnly engaged in a game of poker. Swathed in dress shirts and farcical demeanors, they bask below fluorescent lighting in a room populated with tattered couches and silent bodyguards. Waiting to take the stage for their Sunday night show, Showalter and Wain — two members of the humor group Stella — offer insights into their comedy.
After first gaining notice in the early ’90s for its MTV series titled “The State,” Stella truly attained stardom with 2001’s “Wet Hot American Summer,” a film that met with tremendous popularity and critical praise. Now, for those with an insatiable appetite for Stella madness, the three members of the group have garnered a new outlet for their humor courtesy of Comedy Central.
Starting June 29, they will be featured in “STELLA,” a scripted half-hour series starring the trio engaging in “modern-day Marx Brothers” antics. The pilot centers around Wain, Showalter and third member Michael Ian Black (of cult-like VHI “I Love the ’80s” fame) as they are evicted from their apartment and consequently try to win over a co-op board with a “Flashdance”-esque dance while wearing massive skunk tails. Needless to say, despite a noticeable deficit of profanity, their series simply offers a more television-friendly version of their usual absurd offerings.
The trio met in 1988 at New York University and have collaborated on numerous comedic forays since, ultimately creating Stella in 1997. For the daft-at-heart who aren’t privy to the Stella phenomenon, Wain can provide an explanation for the name.
“I think it was originally out of Germany or Sweden,” Wain speculated.
“Actually, it was named after the Stella Dora breadstick,” Showalter responded with giddy irony. “We like anything that is sweet and hard … but must be a breadstick. Make sure you write breadstick.”
Such banter typifies the Stella wit. Its signature formula is starting with a mundane plot, which is then rapidly abstracted into unthinkable absurdity.
“We take a very banal problem setting — raking leaves or yoga for example — and then put our stamp on it,” Wain explained.
“The stamp is of an owl … perched on a lamp,” Showalter quipped.
“We even use a special red ink,” Wain concluded.
Get the idea?
Yet quite possibly the defining characteristic of their fictitious stamp is not only its calamity, but also its unabashed crassness. In an online short titled “Searching for Santa,” the trio delightfully adulterates the childhood fantasy of meeting Santa as the plot careens down shockingly obscene avenues. By the end of the brief video, their North Pole tour guide falls victim to cannibalism, Santa prematurely ejaculates, and Mrs. Clause reveals that she has a penis.
“Pretty much everything is game,” Wain admitted while guarding a colony of coffee beans (the currency of their poker match). He darted a surreptitious glance to his hand of cards.
“When we perform, we are working out our demons,” Showalter explained. “Comedy is our outlet for pain. We are to sketch comedy what Leonard Cohen is to poetry.”
Perhaps their mass appeal among college students owes much of its success to their audacity. Leaving no subject taboo — including the Holocaust (“I went to a summer camp for Jews,” Showalter said. “Auschwitz … I suppose it was more of a concentration camp”) — the boldness of Stella’s humor is refreshingly daring in a society that suffers a meltdown at the sight of Janet Jackson’s breast.
“Watching a Stella show is unlike any other kind of comedy,” audience member Alexandra Charrow ’07 explained. “It’s like sitting in the living room with best friends who are all professional comedians. They are literally just making fun of everything. It’s great!”
After a hilarious opener by fellow comedian Eugene Merman, the holy trinity of random comedy takes the stage. Dressed conservatively in a pallid palette of suits, Wain, Showalter and Black look like young corporate prodigies on open mic night. That is, until they start talking.
“Nothing beats a live Stella show. When they perform, they’re just so energetic and random. I loved the part when they each describe their ideal winter day,” Robin Swartout ’07 said before breaking out in laughter at one of Stella’s jokes. “Other than Michael Showalter, what other grown man would fantasize about snow man group sex?”
Three months from now, the whole country will be able to enjoy jokes about snow man group sex. But until their comedic art reaches the pop culture stratosphere, Stella is happy to provide two hours of ceaseless hilarity in the cavern of Toad’s.
It’s all in a days work for the men of Stella.
“Do you have any idea how hard our job is?” David Wain complains. “We have to show up every day at 10:30.”