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How the three besuited buffoons of Stella predicted the future of TV comedy · The A.V. Club


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To say that Stella was ahead of its time is at worst meaningless and at best disingenuous. Meaningless because of course it’s a product of its time, and disingenuous because its descendants aren’t exactly lighting up the Nielsens. Nevertheless, Stella occupies a particular calm between two waves of absurdism: the alternative sketch comedies of the 1990s and the alternative sitcoms of contemporary cable. Structurally, it’s an obvious bridge between the two. A couple years later, and Stella might be well known as a forerunner to the live-action cartoons that followed.

The show stars Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain as three suit-wearing men who live together and are always open to a new television plot. They campaign for office, they write a book, they go camping. Then the solid ground starts to get shaky. Episodes tend to revolve around a main story idea, often testing and ultimately renewing the guys’ friendship. At the end of each episode, there’s a disproportionate celebration where, say, the mayor will show up out of the blue and award the guys the key to the city. Michael, Michael, and David also have a funny way of answering the door. Beyond that, Stella is a rather malleable show, taking on new tropes with each episode, playing around with them for a while, and then spitting them out to cleanse the palate for the next week. It’s pure absurdism. But unlike oversized props or Daffy Duck erasing himself, it’s not an absurdism that means anything can happen on Stella. The show was more often marked by gags that stretch believability, surprising the audience with a certain illogical goofiness—peculiar line readings, pantomime physicality, or costume skunk tails.

Partly due to the rise of cable and broadcast upstarts like Fox, absurdist sketch comedy surged on U.S. TV in the ’90s. As NBC stalwart Saturday Night Live made the most of recurring characters and political parody, Fox’s In Living Color, HBO’sMr. Show With Bob And David, and MTV’s The State played with the form to varying degrees. Mr. Show made an art out of seamlessly transitioning the sketches in each episode into one fluid stream like the later work of pioneering surrealist Luis Buñuel. Stella is even more seamless with its sketch-like structure, flowing from one scene to the next without any instantaneous changes in goals or stakes. The U.K. media spoof Brass Eye is a similar case, building fluid streams of absurdist sketches on episodic themes. In fact, British absurdism runs throughout the period with shows like The Day TodayPeep Show, and Look Around YouStella was stranded not only by time but by place as well.

Timing is important. Especially in show business.

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