Of all the projects involving graduates of MTV’s rowdy sketch show The State, ranging from Wet Hot American Summer to Reno 911!, perhaps none is odder than Stella, a Dadaist sitcom/sketch hybrid that ran for two wild and crazy months on Comedy Central back in the summer of 2005. Created by and starring the formidable trio of David Wain, Michael Showalter, and Michael Ian Black, Stella revolved around three infantile, suit-wearing men—“three guys who act on every impulse,” according to Black—who managed to get themselves into surreal and improbable predicaments each week but lacked the self-awareness and perspective to even realize what they were doing most of the time. To commemorate “the show’s 10-year cancelversary,” Co.Create’s Joe Berkowitz has assembled “An Oral History Of Stella,” which looks at the short-lived, one-of-a-kind series through the eyes of its three principals, all of whom seem to view the project with a remote sense of pride and vague regret over what could have been.
Before Stella was a one-season wonder at Comedy Central, it was a stage show that evolved from The State veterans’ performances on the New York comedy scene in the late 1990s. Wain, Showalter, and Black wanted to do something dressier and more formal than what the other comics of the day were doing. Wain called it “alternative comedy in the spirit of the Rat Pack.” From its inception, Stella was a combination of newfangled anti-humor and the old-fashioned antics of such classic comedy teams as the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers. The trio’s well-received live shows, in turn, led to a series of short, often raunchy videos, which were spottily distributed in the pre-You Tube days of the internet. “There was no easy way to watch online when we first started,” says Black. Still, a DVD of Stella shorts reached the suits at Comedy Central, which in turn led to the show being briefly picked up as a series. Did the channel have any particular notes? According to Wain: “I will always remember one of the top executives at Comedy Central sending down a directive, ‘Make sure these guys are not too gay.’” All in all, though, the Stella guys had a pretty free hand when it came to the content of their show, including a potentially-tasteless scene in which the guys wore blackface, which was meant to be a comment on the cluelessness of the characters. “They don’t understand how horrible they are,” observed Showalter.
What doomed Stella? A combination of lower-than-hoped-for ratings (Black puts it bluntly: “The ratings were not good.”) and higher-than-average production costs made it difficult for Comedy Central to justify the cult series’ continued existence. The guys had barely planned for a second season, which ended up not happening anyway. Still in all, Showalter, Wain, and Black have periodically performed as Stella over the years, including appearances at San Francisco SketchFest, and none would be averse to bringing the show back in some form. “My dream,” says Black “would be to totally reboot the franchise so that we get a Stella origin story and change some of the rules for the guys. No network has expressed any interest.”