I like taking credit for it. It didn’t start with Stella (2005), the 10-episode TV series on Comedy Central. It did start with Comedy Central, though, when I first saw the movie Wet Hot American Summer on the channel. This was my freshman or sophomore year of college, I want to say 2004 or 2005. I turned on the TV, and randomly landed on Comedy Central showing the movie. In one sense, Wet Hot American Summer is a bizarre parody of summer camp movies. Yet it’s also a loving homage to them. This subgenre of film mostly began with Meatballs (1979), which also happens to be Bill Murray’s feature film debut.
I fell in love with Wet Hot American Summer pretty quickly. I introduced the movie to some of my new friends at the time. These guys would become some of the best friends I’ve ever had. I think one of them, Robbie, had seen the movie before, but hadn’t paid much attention to it. Yet a small group of us would now embrace it.
Shortly after this, we started seeing ads for a new TV series coming to Comedy Central in the summer of 2005 called Stella. The show featured three of the creative forces from Wet Hot American Summer: co-writer/director David Wain (Wanderlust, Role Models), co-writer/actor Michael Showalter (The Baxter, They Came Together), and actor Michael Ian Black (Ed, Take Me Home Tonight). Already being big fans of Wet Hot American Summer by this point prepared and excited my friends and I for Stella.
Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black, and David Wain met each other at New York University. They became members of a college sketch comedy group. This would later become an MTV series in the mid-’90s called The State. Some members of The State went on from there to other comedic shows such as Viva Variety and Reno 911!
Michael, Michael and David eventually began a three-man comedy act at a jazz club. They named it Stella after the club owner’s unborn daughter. The three men all wore suits. Never before or since have you seen men in professional suits acting more childish. David Wain would be in-between the two Michael’s, and was often the butt of the joke.
During their second run of the comedy act, Michael Showalter came up with the idea of Stella Shorts. David Wain and Michael Ian Black were initially against the idea, but they ultimately relented. These would be roughly 5-minute shorts of the three men (still in suits) in different scenarios. You can find some of these on YouTube. My favorite might be “Saturday”, their own music video of the band Chicago’s song, “Saturday in the Park.”
Both the Stella comedy act and the Stella Shorts would be the basis for the Comedy Central series. The show reigned in the humor from the Stella Shorts, which may have had too much dry humping and dildos. Some executives at Comedy Central even directly commented on this. In Stella, the guys would occasionally break the 4th wall. Whether it be with a pose, smile, or nod directed to the audience. Or in even asking for the audience’s opinion, such as in the “Pilot” episode.
Michael Ian Black was the guy I was already most familiar with. He was one of the best commentators on VH1’s I Love the 80’s series. Well, the series on the 1970s, 1990s, and so on as well. In the “Meeting Girls” episode of Stella, Black even introduces himself to someone at a bar as Michael Ian Black from I Love the 80’s. I think he’s the funniest of the three guys, both within Stella and outside of it.
The show had several guest stars, including Edward Norton (American History X, Fight Club), Sam Rockwell (Moon, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Alan Ruck (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Speed), Topher Grace (That ’70s Show, BlacKkKlansman), and Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs).
There were also people who popped up that the guys worked with before and/or since. Some started on The State with them. Some were in David Wain’s movies. A few were also generally stars. These include Zak Orth, A.D. Miles, Paul Rudd, Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino, Matt Ballard, Elizabeth Banks, Nina Hellman, Josh Charles, Zandy Hartig, Janeane Garofalo, and Kevin Allison.
Michael, Michael, and David also have three female neighbors they’re often in opposition with. Rashida Jones (The Office, Parks and Recreation) was one of these women in the pilot, Karen. This website originally covered Twin Peaks, so I’m required to mention that Jones is the daughter of the late Peggy Lipton, who played Norma Jennings on the TV show.
Rashida Jones had other commitments that caused her to be unable to continue on Stella past the pilot. Samantha Buck (Private Life, Summertime) as Amy was her replacement. The other two women were Andrea Rosen (The Ten, Michael & Michael Have Issues) as Jennifer, and Heidi Neurauter (The Ten, Wainy Days) as Stacy.
The three women often like taking bad cheap shots at the guys. They laugh together at each other’s jokes, affectionately holding hands while walking away. They get a few good moments. My favorite line by one of them is in “Campaign,” when Jennifer mentions, “You guys smell like chicken nuggets. Let’s go, these guys are ruining my buzz!” Turns out, the guys really do have chicken nuggets in their suit pockets.
While “Vegetables” is probably my least favorite episode, it does feature a good opening. The guys are responsible for a leak in the girls’ apartment. When the girls confront Michael, Michael and David with it, the guys confront them with what they believe is sexual tension. Showalter mentions, “I mean yeah, I could stick my bear paw in your honey pot…but it would get sticky.” The guys eventually get the girls to agree to having a sleepover party with them. The guys present a platter of tampons as one would present appetizers. Michael Showalter gets violent during a pillow fight.
Justin Lord appears in four of the episodes as different characters. He’s a co-op board president (“Pilot”), the mayor (“Office Party”), a music producer (“Paper Route”), and the CEO of an amusement company (“Amusement Park”). Though that last episode reveals they’re all one-in-the-same person. “Amusement Park” is probably the best episode. It’s also the one heaviest on improvisation, according to the DVD commentary.
The commentary with the three guys is pretty funny in its own right. There’s a moment when Black condescendingly compliments Showalter on his two lines in M. Night Shyamalan’s film Signs (2002). Black draws attention in almost every episode to his name appearing on-screen. In more than one episode, the guys try to say “fuck” as many times as they can during the credits before the end of the episode cuts off their voices.
John Hamburg (Along Came Polly, I Love You, Man), Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan), Charles Herman-Wurmfeld (Kissing Jessica Stein, Legally Blonde 2), and David Wain himself directed the episodes of the TV series. While Stella never saw a second season, my friends and I became obsessed. We re-watched the episodes repeatedly and quoted it constantly. It felt like we had our own little exclusive club. When we introduced Stella to other friends, it was like a cool test. You would only pass if you also liked the show and quoted it with us.
Certain jokes and lines, recurring or otherwise, were re-enacted by us in our daily lives. We left social gatherings saying lines like “Have a good party, bye!” in the same whimsical way the guys said it. We reacted to special speeches exclaiming, “Hear hear, har har!”, while alternating fist pumps in the air.
Things we were supportive of would get a “Yay!” while throwing our hands enthusiastically in the air. If we didn’t like something, we’d put our thumbs down, going, “Boo!” Or we’d take a moment from the “Office Party” episode. We’d first start a slow clap, then eventually saying, “I hated that so much!” When we were down about something, we repeatedly said, “Muh!”, while slumping our shoulders and dropping our heads.
From the episode “Meeting Girls,” we greeted ever Friday with exclamations of, “It’s Friday night!” Though responding to a disappointing evening with, “I’m just gonna rub one out and call it a night” will get you weird looks. At least it did for me. We’d respond to romantic emotions with quotes like, “I am dripping placenta all over the place right now!” Or, “This melba toast is like nectar!”
My current WiFi network is “Ultimate Hang Zone,” as a reference to the “Coffee Shop” episode. Several times when going to a coffee shop, I will say the whole line. “Let’s go to a coffee shop! That’s the ultimate hang zone!”, and it’s always nice when a knowing friend is there to respond, “Alright, I’m stoked!”
Upon hearing about certain parties or gatherings, we’d sometimes remark, “Sounds like a real rowdy dow!” We’d remark on certain shared teamwork experiences with, “We did it! We did it together!” If we were broke, it was a perfect occasion to say, “We don’t have this money.” We’d jokingly tell people, “Get out of here, you stupid freaks!” (“Meeting Girls”) or tell them they looked like “dumb ass dodo birds” (“Amusement Park”).
My friends Robbie and Dan re-enacted a specific joke from the “Office Party” episode at a wedding. I think I was at the same wedding, but I didn’t witness this happening. I only heard about it later. Robbie and Dan are in the food buffet line. Robbie asks Dan, “How’s the dip?” To which Dan promptly dips his hands into it, without hesitation. He responds as they do in the episode, “Room temperature.”
I once discussed my feelings about a book on social media. Soon enough, Robbie and I are re-enacting a conversation from the “Novel” episode. “Read it? I devoured it.” “I deflowered it.” “What’s that mean?” “I humped it.” “You humped a book?” “Well, not literally.” “Literally, what was your reaction?” “Literally, I porked it.”
My friends introduced it to other friends. Any time I heard them talking about it, I got a little selfish. Part of me would wanted to raise my hand and say, “That was me. I did that,” which in itself is a reference to the show (“Coffee Shop”). I guess you could say I felt that I was the creator of the group. After all, I brought Wet Hot American Summer to my friends. Stella may have not become our addiction if not for that, at least in my mind. Yes, I’m taking this too seriously. I digress.
From Stella, I went backwards and forwards, watching and following other things involving the three guys. Often my friends would do so as well. I went back to where it all began, the MTV sketch comedy show The State. There were other shows that followed Stella. Michael and Michael Have Issues (2009) featured Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black and was also on Comedy Central. It was cancelled even sooner, lasting only seven episodes. It’s also funny. As is Wainy Days, an online series that David Wain created.
Michael Showalter and David Wain also wrote and directed other films, and I would follow those as well. David Wain’s films were more often in line with the humor of Wet Hot American Summer and Stella. These films include The Ten (2007), Role Models (2008), Wanderlust (2012), and They Came Together (2014). A Futile and Stupid Gesture (2018) might be his biggest departure, about one of the creators of the National Lampoon, Doug Kenney. Yet it’s still a comedy-drama.
Michael Showalter’s films were good too. The Baxter (2005) was about the “other guy” in romantic comedies. The anonymous one that briefly takes the lead girl away from the lead guy. In Hello, My Name is Doris (2015), Sally Field (Smokey and the Bandit) falls in love with her younger boss. The Big Sick (2017) was my second favorite movie of 2017, after Call Me By Your Name (2017).
One of the big things that is funny about Stella is how it parodies cliche or generic conversations either in our every day lives, or in television and film. In “Campaign,” the guys have a conversation that goes all over the place in mocking philosophical conversations, oftentimes being incorrect or superficial. Michael Ian Black makes the astute observation that, “Tragedy is, like, so sad you guys. Like by definition, tragedy is sad.” Or when Michael Showalter incorrectly credits the “I Have a Dream” speech to Bob Dylan instead of Martin Luther King, Jr. David Wain pontificates, “And what about Madonna? Is she like a virgin, or is she a material girl?! She’s had more reinventions than Thomas Edison!” In response, Showalter acknowledges, “I like English muffins.”
In “Campaign,” we also see them making fun of political campaign videos. Michael Ian Black is running for residence board president against the current president, Bob Feldman (Robert LuPone). His campaign video is just like any other in the sense that it trashes Bob while making Black look good by comparison.
Yet it comments on the most inane things. Such as mentioning how Black wants to use building funds on a Hawaiian-themed party, while Bob wants to use it to fix the roof. The narrator repeats, in exaggerated fashion, “Wants to fix the roof?!” The video also comments on how Michael Ian Black likes motor scooters, but Bob Feldman has never stated his opinion on them. Once again, the narrator emphasizes, “Never stated his opinion about motor scooters?!”
This episode also makes a joke out of speeches meant to be important. In addressing the apartment residents, Black mentions how he holds a prepared speech in his hands. He thought about tossing it out, and start speaking from the heart. Then he changes his mind again, returning to his prepared statements. His speech is an acrostic of the word “building,” and when he gets to the letter “I” is my favorite. “I (is for) intelligence. Because I’m really, really intelligent.”
In “Office Party,” David Wain makes his own observations on very dated trends. He asks the other people at the party if they’ve seen those Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” ads, doing his best impersonation. Or commenting, “Don’t get me started on Tonya Harding! I’m sick and tired of Tonya Harding. It’s like, let her fry!” While these are references that might be more fitting in the 1980s or 1990s, David gets uproarious laughter and applause to these observations.
In “Coffee Shop”, the guys get involved with rival coffee companies, which threaten their friendship. They reconnect over a conversation that turns to religion. Showalter says, “Like, I believe in god. But I don’t know that god is this guy in the clouds. God could literally be this table.” Black responds by commenting that he’s spiritual but not religious. They’re the kind of tired statements we’ve heard time and time again. David, unable to go so deep, tries to impress the guys with funny faces and magic tricks. The way the guys humor him is hilarious.
They have another conversation that turns to religion in the “Amusement Park” episode. Black believes in heaven, but that it’s not someplace in the clouds. Heaven could be the sound of a child’s laughter. Showalter doesn’t believe that God is a guy with a long, white beard. While David wonders what kind of jam sessions they have in heaven. Eventually, all the guys are pitching in their ideas of which musicians would fill in the positions.
“Amusement Park” also pokes fun at therapy. At one point, Michael, Michael, and David are the only men in a group of women discussing their eating disorders. A therapist eventually makes them leave, telling them they don’t have eating disorders. As he turns to leave, Black tells the women, “Good luck with the whole…”, and imitates puking. Later, the therapist suggests hypnosis. David eventually remarks, “You dirty dog! You just hypnotized me into taking all my clothes off.” The therapist didn’t, but David is ready to do so all the same.
In “Paper Route,” the guys are interviewed (by Ken Marino) for paperboy positions. By now, I’m sure you realize that their answers are not original. One of them mentions how a strength is that he’s able to laugh at himself. Another mentions how his greatest weakness is that he sometimes cares too much.
There are other recurring jokes in Stella. One is how the guys try to disguise themselves so that people hopefully won’t recognize them. These disguises usually involve fake mustaches, sold to them by David’s friend, Gary Meadows. In “Office Party”, we finally meet Gary, played by Sam Rockwell.
The guys lose their apartment in the pilot episode of the show. In an effort to get it back, they disguise and introduce themselves as mustachioed business tycoons. At one point they and the landlord all laugh together. David remarks, “I haven’t laughed that hard since my last business transaction!” In “Office Party,” they go to a company picnic looking like old-timey race car drivers. They claim to work at the Houston office but speak with Canadian accents. The show has the most daring disguise in “Paper Route,” in which the guys hide their injuries from three pre-teen bullies from the girls by wearing blackface.
There’s a joke where two people, a man and a woman are talking. Suddenly, there’s some romantic spark. Their faces get close together, foreheads touching. One person says, “What are we doing?” The other responds, “I don’t know.” Then they’re passionately making out, as if they’ve fallen deeply in love within the course of a few seconds. Not only is this joke in a couple of episodes of Stella (“Pilot” and “Coffee Shop”). You can also spot it in several of David Wain’s movies and Wainy Days.
Similarly, there’s a line in “Meeting Girls” where Black tells Elizabeth Banks, “I want you inside me.” This joke, of a man saying this to a woman, is carried over from Wet Hot American Summer. There are mentions in more than one episode of some unknown man, Marcus. Most notably in “Novel,” when one of them suggests they make the inscription to Marcus. One of the others responds, “Who’s Marcus? Who the hell is Marcus?!”
Part of me would love to go through every funny moment in every episode of Stella. We would be here all day, and there would be nothing left for you to discover yourself. If you haven’t seen Stella, and want to pass the cool test and join the club, check it out. One final note. Netflix released two Wet Hot American Summer limited series, one a prequel, the other a sequel. This makes me wonder. If a streaming service could bring back the cult favorite Wet Hot American Summer, couldn’t they also bring back Stella? I admit, the chances are slim-to-none, but one can still hope.