Like postmodern forefathers Andy Kaufman, Albert Brooks, and Steve Martin, cult comedy trio Stella performs a nightclub act that doubles as a sly deconstruction/meta-commentary on the nightclub act. A three-headed hydra of pseudo-smarminess, Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain delight in bad puns, labored wordplay, hokey pop-culture references, banal sentiment, and the extravagant phoniness of show-business hacks. In their sharply tailored suits, they look the part of polished performers, but they behave like a cross between overgrown children and third-rate vaudevillians. Then again, what are most hack performers, if not big kids?
On the newly released Stella: Live In Boston DVD, the trio often begins with wholesome subjects that lead into ridiculous places: They open one routine by discussing different kinds of Christmas trees, then segue into discussing The Psychedelic Furs, nose jobs, Tootsie, and Black’s regrettable stint hosting the Candid Camera-style prank show Spy TV. Stella’s free-associative rambling and absurdism often lead it in sexual and scatological directions, like when Wain and Black bring out a lost love of Showalter’s, then Wain proceeds to pantomime having aggressive sex with the woman, while Showalter and Black fight over her.
It’s all profoundly silly stuff handled in a deceptively smart fashion. The tagline for Stella’s short-lived, much-loved Comedy Central sitcom promised “dumb comedy dressed up in a suit,” but it takes brains to create foolishness this inspired. In Boston or on basic cable, Stella specializes in making sly, cerebral comedy look juvenile, and giving juvenile foolishness a classy, collegiate air. Stella can be a little self-indulgent and sloppy, but Live In Boston finds them at their tightest and most polished. Besides, the disc’s 55-minute running time doesn’t give them time to wear out their welcome.
Key features: Stella: Live In Boston augments the live performance with a smattering of ephemera from its members, including three episodes of Wain’s brilliant web series Wainy Days, three episodes of Showalter’s clever mock-talk show Michael Showalter’s Showalter (featuring, appropriately enough, Black and Wain), and snatches of other live Stella shows. The Wainy Days and Showalter’s Showalter episodes offer an intriguing sampler of Stella side projects; hopefully both web series will receive a more complete DVD release sometime soon.