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."

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