Comedy Tonite!

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Intern Aaron Sankin's take on the recent live SF appearance of Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter, two of the creators of the show Stella

The first time I saw Stella I was instantly enraptured. It was clever, it was funny, and, most of all, it was zany. Zany like the old Marx brothers movies (which, for my money, are the funniest things to have ever been committed to celluloid); zany like the Animaniacs cartoons that entertained me for many a Cheerio-filled Saturday morning. Zany in a way that modern comedy no longer is. Hip comedy now days is frantic and schizophrenic but zany it is not. Family Guy, the show that is currently pushing the televised comedic envelope these days, has all the elements of zaniness—the non-stop barrage of jokes, the relative minimum of importance put things like plot and character development, pratfalls—but lacks the childlike innocence that true zaniness requires.

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The moment that really sold me on Stella came about ¾ of the way through the first episode. The three heroes (Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain), are have an interview in front of a co-op board on their application to become members of the co-op. After a few minutes of interview, one of the interviewers politely asks why they are dressed as skunks. The camera pulls back to reveal that, in addition to their trademark suits, our heroes are wearing skunk tails. To which they reply, “we’re not skunks, we’re skunk people.” I laughed so hard that I think I may have thrown up in my mouth a little. At this point I realized two things. 1. This was my new favorite show and 2. It, in all likelihood, would not be around for very much longer. On both points I was soon proved correct. I loved it and it ran for nine more episodes after that initial one before it was cancelled like a Guns ‘N Roses concert. This was a complete fucking travesty. According to Jim has lasted God knows how many seasons, 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter wasn’t even cancelled after the insanely awesome John Ritter died, but Stella could only survive for one, measly season?

So when I saw that 2/3 of Stella were coming to the Independent on the 11th for a show you can bet your ass I was excited. But, at the same time, I had no idea what to expect. It wasn’t technically Stella because David Wain wasn’t there, nor was it billed as such. It was unclear if they were going to do sketches, stand-up, or what. It turned out to be stand-up, and damn good stand up at that. Showalter went on first and quickly turned on a projector and started mining his past for comic gold. He was recently cleaning out the attic in the Princeton, New Jersey house where he grew up and discovered a number of relics from his past. The most memorable was slide show of pictures from a summer camp he went to in the Berkshires. If you like middle-class white kids pretending to be thugged-out rappers inside log cabins (and who doesn’t?), you would have loved this part.

Black, on the other hand, was a bit more conventional in his approach. He act consisted mostly in a “did I just say that horribly offensive thing?’ back and forth with the audience. This did not get nearly as old nearly as fast as you might think and it produced a few absolutely classic lines:

“Nazi: sounds like “nacho”, rhymes with “Yahtzee”. If the Nazi party combined the zesty, flavor of nachos with the strategic fun Yahtzee, that’s a party I could get into.”

“I did not love the 80s. For me, the 80s were a total fucking disaster.”

All of this was clever and funny, but not zany. It was a little disappointing but only because my expectations were so damn high. It was still one of the best stand-up shows I’ve ever seen, and definitely the best I’ve ever seen live, but I was expecting skunk-people! But, then again, maybe there was a reason why Stella didn’t catch on. Maybe the market for zany is relatively small while the market for funny and clever is relatively high. But as long as these guys keep doing things that make me laugh, I'll keep eating it up with a spoon.

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