Making fun of funny things to make something funnier

By Andy Berens
May 27, 2004

R.I.P. Observational Humor. We barely knew ye. Scratch that. We knew ye entirely too well, as our sense of humor has been confined to old “Seinfeld” repeats for almost a decade. And we mourn thy passing with little, if any, shock or disbelief because it’s been high time ever since “The Simpsons” went south and the New York quartet was on their way to the slammer for car theft.

But without four-minute monologues on toothbrushes and hotel service, where will mainstream humor find its home?

Enter Stella.

Comprised of Michael Ian Black, David Wain and Michael Showalter – all alums of MTV’s short-lived sketch comedy show “The State” – the trio has given humor a new face, a new style and a new purpose. Combating a medium largely comprised of observational witticisms for the better part of the past two decades, Stella has turned the guns on humor itself, as well as anything that happens to get in the way.

Much of Stella’s material is presented via live performances, but the group is most accessible through its video shorts, located at The shorts were screened from 1998-2002, when Stella performed regularly at The Fez, a New York jazz/comedy club.

Consciously poorly shot, the Stella videos track the adventures of suit-and-tie-clad Showalter, Wain and Black through a variety of locales, including a yoga class, the first Thanksgiving, the pizza parlor and the North Pole.

Stella’s style is impossible to explain. Each video is a parody of cliché and anti-cliché, of satire and farce, of convention and weirdness. Unlike observational humor, in which the observer is in a fixed position, be it arrogant nonchalance or self-deprecation, Stella is the Nietzschze of its medium: taking shots from any angle, ignoring its own internal contradictions, and often deliberately using bad taste. Nix that … deliberately making fun of bad taste.

Take, for example, the short titled “Poker,” which, in about four minutes, satirizes conventional “main character needs money badly” plots, card movies, after-school specials, postmodernism, Razor scooters and romantic side plots, to name only a few.

Much of the comedy in these skits revolves around the goofy nonchalance that the three antiheroes exude. Their faces are perpetually fixed in simpering grins, desperately trying not to show the audience that they’re in on the joke.

The 2001 movie “Wet Hot American Summer” is essentially a longer, funnier amalgam of the best bits of every Stella video short, as well as the closest thing to a “State” movie to come to fruition. It was written by Wain and Showalter, directed by Wain, and stars Black and Showalter.

Throw in “State” alums Joe LoTruglio and Ken Marino, “Frasier” star David Hyde Pierce, Janeane Garofalo and a slew of other cohorts, and you have the recipe for a cult hit.

Revolving around counselor antics on the last day of summer at Camp Firewood, the movie parodies ’80s teen camp movies, pinning the genre down to a tee. (Why did they choose teen camp movies? Perhaps it has something to do with parodying parody.)

The movie has enough lifeguards, counselors, bonfires, sex, broken hearts, training montages, falling pieces of Skylab, cover-ups and talking cans of mixed vegetables to mortify any serious fan of the genre. In the interest of authentic parody, the ’80s-esqe synth-heavy inspirational song “Higher and Higher” was recorded specifically for the movie.

Though the movie suffered mixed reviews and a dismal box office showing, it has recently found success in DVD sales and a “Rocky Horror Picture Show”-style regular weeknight screening at NYC’s Village East Theater, complete with “counselor”-led audience participation.

A refreshing answer to formula comedies and observational humor, Stella has rocked the comedy underground for the past decade and might cross into the mainstream before too long. A half-hour show May 14 on Comedy Central showcased the group’s live ability, and the network also plans to premiere “Wet Hot American Summer” soon.

Andy Berens just graduated from Marquette University High School in Milwaukee. An avid fan of movies, music and literature, Andy plans to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison next year and major in journalism.

Related link: The official "Wet Hot American Summer" site
Related link: "Wet Hot American Summer" listing @ IMDb
Related link: Stella's official site
Related link: The State's official site