Monday, July 18, 2011

Ingenious: Stella

As with many things in a twentysomething's life, my introduction to Stella began with a hangover.

You know those nights when you and your friend decide to get drunk because he's fighting with his boyfriend and you're not speaking to your friend-with-benefits? Those nights when you start out at a bar on Halsted Street, end up at your pal's apartment doing shots of Sambuca and then decide to break out the keyboard and sing the entire score of The Last Five Years? Those nights when you both stagger to Jewel in your pajamas for brownies and margarita mix you will not consume, before passing out on the hide-a-bed to a VHS of Saturday Night Live: The Best of Adam Sandler?

What? I've never had those nights. This is hypothetical, y'all.

Um, if the above had happened, when I was 25 and my friend 21, let's pretend we woke up with the mother of all hangovers. Let's pretend we went for iced coffee and later Baci's pizza, before once again collapsing on the hide-a-bed with still-pounding heads. I had my arm over my eyes when my friend reached for a DVD. "Did you see Stella when it was on Comedy Central?" I muttered something and shook my head. "It's those guys you like from Wet Hot American Summer, basically doing long-form improv. You'll love it."

Even before I started blogging, my tastes were always pretty obvious, and despite his hangover my friend was spot-on.

It's tough to describe Stella, which is probably why I warmed up with a drinking story. "Long form improv on crack" is an apt phrase, as is "wacky theatre crossed with the low production value of student film, with random celebrity guests." The Stella trio consists of State alums Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter and David Wain (the latter is surprisingly adorable with glasses), who have been performing together as a group since 1998. The moniker comes from a pregnant club owner who informed the guys of the name she planned on giving her unborn daughter.

Basically, the boys live in a parallel universe where they run around in suits and do things like have mustache-growing contests, crash yoga classes, and travel back hundreds of years via cardboard time machine. Nothing's unrealistic, untouchable, or sacred. The Comedy Central series is slightly cleaner, but the shorts made between 1998 and 2002 are absolutely filthy (at least 75% of them contain a very realistic-looking dildo). And not to sound like a hipster, but Stella resembles Kids in the Hall in terms of humor: either you're really into it, or you're really not.

I'm the former, obviously.

There are a few things I really love about Stella.

One: it appeals to my IMDb-memorizing nerdiness. Like I said, random celebs show up in the early shorts and later on the series, and I love dorkily figuring out how they know the Stella guys. For example, "omigod, it's Bradley Cooper, who played Michael Ian Black's lover in Wet Hot American Summer, which also starred Michael Showalter and was directed by David Wain!," "Oh look, it's Julie Bowen, now on Modern Family, but this is when she was co-starring on the NBC dramedy Ed with Michael Ian Black!," and "I swear to God, Santa Claus is played by Zack Galifinakis, because I'd know that voice anywhere!" (Told you: I'm a DORK.)
Second: the always-and-forever theatre geek in me revels in the trio's balls-to-the-wall openness. Stella isn't pure improv, but you can tell the boys are well-versed in the form's golden rule: "yes, and..." "Yes, and..." boils down to taking your improv partner's idea and running with it (sometimes it's a good life philosophy as well). Though The State was more tightly scripted, you can see "yes, and..." in many of their sketches, for example the "copy shop" in an early season. (Also, one of my favorite State sketches ever clearly began with the idea: "what if someone went a house?" I like to think after someone brought it up, the group was "yes, and"-ing all over the place.)

Third: remember how in your twenties, you knew a lot of people who did really bad improv and really bad short films? Picture what would happen if they were, well, really good. That's Stella in a nutshell.

For your viewing pleasure, here's one of my favorite shorts, "Pizza" (caution: it's pretty dirty):

And a bonus video: The State's impromptu sing-along at an MTV Christmas party, in the days before they had their own show. It's like a comedic Muppet Babies--if you'll notice, the future members of Stella are standing together--plus...Ben Garant at the halfway point. As my friend tinypants wood Tweeted, "Oh my hotness."

Monday, July 11, 2011

Idiocy: Top 5 Best Moments of Reno 911!

Continuing State Month on the blog, here's a little something about Reno 911! 

If you revisit The State--and I can't be the only one doing so, right?--you'll see alliances form within the group as the show progresses. For example, David Wain, Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black and Ken Marino are often together in sketches. Ditto Tom Lennon, Ben Garant and Kerri Kenney. ("The Inbred Brothers" sketch is not only pants-pissing funny, but also an example of how two minutes of tight comedy is way better than seven minutes of beating a dead horse. Saturday Night Live, are you listening?) Lennon, Garant and Kenney went on to create and star in the best largely-improvised cop show parody ever, and one of my favorite shows, period. If you haven't seen Reno 911!, get thee to Netflix. You can skip the final season, where two of the cast members were replaced and thus, the chemistry wasn't quite the same. However, if you need some help to get started--or you want to remember an old fave--here are my top 5 favorite episodes of Reno 911!

1. "And the Installation is Free" (s3 e7)
The title of this episode comes from the High Sierra Carpeting radio jingle that golden-voiced Deputy Jones (Cedric Yarbrough) is paid $200 to warble, with residuals (or so he thinks). Naturally the hypothetical money and adulation go to his head, and he sings this very line throughout the episode, much to the chagrin of his partner Deputy Garcia (Carlos Alazraqui, aka the voice of the Taco Bell dog). Hubris reigns supreme and because the Reno Sheriffs' Department is always down on its luck, comes back to haunt Jones--after he fails to pay a bar tab, of course. The B plot, which involves Lt. Dangle (Tom Lennon) and Deputies Travis Junior and Trudy Wiegel (Robert Ben Garant and Kerri Kenney-Silver, respectively) trying to solve a drug-related murder, has the most hilarious Arby's product placement this side of Fargo.

2. "Execution Tickets" (s1 e3)
What's a sheriffs' department to do when everyone wants to attend an execution, but only two tickets are available? "What we always do," proclaims the hot pants-sporting Lt. Dangle. "Scavenger hunt!" And so it goes, as the officers track down such specific perps as a crackhead with a wig ("easy!"), and someone with a tattoo (bonus points if they are also Jewish). It's a cutthroat fight to the finish, because as redneck Deputy Junior enthuses, "Getting two tickets to an execution is like getting two tickets to NASCAR, except you know Jeff Gordon's gonna die!"

3. "Whose Birthday Is It?" (Reno 911! Miami)
I saw Reno 911! Miami in theatres before I started watching the show, so I wasn't 100% into it at first. Even so, the movie's brilliantly dumb sequences started me on the path of conversion. Clemmie's boob tattoo! The dead beached whale! The self-pleasure-at-the-nasty-hotel montage! However, the absolute best scene has Dangle and Junior responding to a noise complaint at Suge Knight's birthday party. They have no idea who Suge Knight is. When Dangle fires his gun and ends up with a plethora of weapons pointed at him, courtesy of Knight's guests, Dangle and Junior improvise a striptease...well, Junior's improvising. You get the feeling Dangle's done those moves many times before, in front of his mirror. When I first saw Reno 911! Miami, I hadn't seen The State in years...and then I remembered why my 14-year-old self always got excited when Ben Garant went shirtless. Dayum.

4. "Mayor Hernandez" (s5 e4)
I've always been neutral about George Lopez. I wasn't into sitcoms when his was on the air, and I'm not that into stand-up comedy. So I was pleasantly surprised when his guest turn on Reno 911!, as the city's mayor who gets more paranoid and whacked out with each morning briefing he crashes, made me laugh out loud. Also, this episode features one of Reno 911's best recurring perps, Terry the roller-skating prostitute (Nick Swardson). I don't care how much of a dick Swardson reportedly is in real life, Terry's lisping interactions with the Reno S.D.--which usually involve badly-worded denials of his illegal activities--are always a highlight.

5. "Dangle's Wedding" (s4 e14)
Despite knowing very well it was a product of The State alums, I wasn't always into Reno 911! My ex-boyfriend and I had always bonded over The State (and later, Wet Hot American Summer) and I was afraid Reno 911! would bring back too many memories. (What can I say? The brokenhearted are not always rational.) Even after I saw the movie, I didn't immediately dive in. However, several months later, my new roommate was watching a rerun of "Dangle's Wedding" before the new season started. I vaguely remembered the characters, plus I was too tired to get my ass off the couch. Let's just say the combo platter of 1) male cops in kilts, 2) a gay wedding proposal in front of an audience of bored middle schoolers, 3) an awkward, naked pregnant Wiegel going into labor after popping out of a cake--and subsequently getting wheeled to the hospital in said cake by said male cops in kilts--and 4) Dave Holmes shrieking "until the last dance IN HEAVEN!" made me say, "My ex was a jackass, but The State has never let me down! Hey roommate, can we TiVo Season Pass this show?"

Are you a fan of the Reno S.D.? Any favorite episodes I missed? Leave a comment!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Irreverence: The Ten

One of the best things about having my own blog is getting to write about whatever I want. If I'm obsessed with certain clip-show hosts turned NBC stars, I can pen three or four posts and those who don't want to read them, don't have to. The other day, a friend on Facebook said she hoped her writing didn't sound too fangirl. "Dude," I responded, "I started writing because I'm a fangirl."

With that in mind, I hereby declare July to be State Month here on the ol' Unpro. For the next few weeks, I will explore the subsequent work of my eleven favorite Tisch alums (well, Michael Ian Black dropped out and Michael Showalter ended up graduating from Brown...yeah, I'm the nerd who knows this). First up, David Wain's 2007 Biblical satire, The Ten.

Though he was hysterical as a performer on The State, David Wain also did a lot off camera. Who can forget the episode when he re-edited the opening credits? Not I.

Since The State ended, Wain's concentrated on directing. Between Wet Hot American Summer (read my friend Robin's hysterical love letter to the film here) and Role Models, there was The Ten.

I first saw The Ten when it was released in 2007. I believe it was supposed to coincide with the release of The State on DVD. However, the latter was put off for another two years because of yet another battle over music rights. I remember liking, not loving, the movie. Some scenes worked much better than others. It was decidedly okay.

Once I revisited it, I gained a new appreciation. Though some scenes still work way better than others.

It goes like this: each of the Ten Commandments is presented as a vignette. Some are slapstick, some dark, some just plain bizarre (in other words, vintage State). Hosting the vignettes, and starring in "Thou shalt not commit adultery" is Paul Rudd in his nicest of nice-guy modes. Except not really, because he's cheating on his wife (Famke Janssen) with a younger woman (Jessica Alba). Some characters appear in multiple vignettes, such as Ken Marino (who co-wrote the film with Wain) as a doctor who kills a patient "as a goof" and ends up the object of two rapists' affection in prison. And it's really, really funny.

Again, The Ten has its weak points. First, I know every comedy needs a straight man, but Rudd is just so much funnier when he gets to be goofy, which doesn't happen nearly often enough thanks to his conventional good looks. The commandment "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor" is almost entirely animated and it comes across like Wain is trying and failing to ape Monty Python. And I can't decide whether Winona Ryder's ventriloquist dummy-loving character is humorous or just whiny. Then again, I always was on the fence about Ryder when she wasn't playing Lydia Dietz or Jo March.

That said, The Ten is worth a rental, for the following awesome vignettes:
  • "Thou shalt have no other gods before me:" A regular Joe (Adam Brody) gets stuck in an awkward position following a skydiving accident, and experiences the ups and downs of sudden fame and the hubris that accompanies it. This represents the one and only time I have liked Adam Brody.
  • "Thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain:" On a Mexican getaway, a shy librarian (Gretchen Mol, who really should have a better career) has a love affair with a carpenter named Jesus (Justin Theroux, who needs to break up with Jennifer Aniston and marry me instead. No offense, Jen, but I'd be a better writing partner).
  • "Thou shalt not kill" and "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife:" The aforementioned vignettes featuring Marino's murderous doctor, who gets what's coming to him (ha) in prison. Rob Corddry is hysterical as a fellow prisoner with his eye on Marino, and his scenes are oddly romantic.
  • "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods:" Liev Schreiber takes a break from his uber-serious typecasting as a suburban dude competing with his neighbor (Joe Lo Truglio) over...CAT scan machines.
  • And finally, "Honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy:" A husband and father (A.D. Miles) finds a fulfilling alternative to church...involving a lot of nudity. And it ends with a musical number.
However, what may be the absolute best best best thing about The Ten: all of The State appears. Some have leading roles in the vignettes, others pop up in Rudd's segments (really, does anyone drop the F bomb better than Tom Lennon?), a few are blink-and-you'll-miss-it (though I never miss naked Ben Garant), and one shows up in a photograph (Michael Patrick Jann, who had a scheduling conflict the day he was supposed to film). For fangirls like me, it was so much fun to pick out everybody--and to marvel, "Oh cool!  They still get along!" in my little fangirl reptile brain.

So declareth The Unprofessional Critic:

Thou shalt Netflix The Ten.