Judge Chris Claro thinks three's a crowd when it comes to stand-up comedy.
Our review of Stella: Season One, published October 4th, 2006, is also available.
Zots and Crambles
The inherent issue with comedy is the subjectivity with which it's viewed. One man's hilarious is his neighbor's horrendous. Few issues are more polarizing than whether The Three Stooges were funny. Monty Python aficionados can go twelve rounds with non-fans in defense of the British troupe's absurdism. There are those who think Larry the Cable Guy is a total hoot and those, like David Cross, who think he's a crime against humanity (we'll table, for the moment, the discussion of those who see David Cross as a crime against humanity). With those chasms of comedy comprehension in mind, we turn our attention to Stella.
A trio comprised of three members of The State, the troupe that came to prominence in the early '90s on MTV, Stella is the brainchild of Michael Ian Black (Viva Variety), Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer), and David Wain (Role Models). In 2005, the three brought Stella to Comedy Central as a kind of meta-sitcom. In it, the three comics, in their ever-present dark suits, functioned as a postmodern Moe, Larry, and Curly, whether they were turning their apartment into an amusement park, or a group therapy session into the scene of a martial arts brawl.
Stella: Live in Boston finds the intrepid absurdists on the stage of Beantown's Wilbur Theatre. Still youthful enough to look like they're attending their cousin's bar mitzvah in their grownup suits, Black, Showalter, and Wain play to a crowd of adoring college-age hipsters, who appear inclined to laugh at whatever the boys throw at them. The question is, does it play to those of us outside the theater?
The answer, sadly, is not exactly. Though the audience laps up what the Stella guys dish out, it's feels like the comics are preaching to the choir. For those of us watching on DVD, the half-baked concepts—often dependent for their laughs on ol' reliable, profanity—and the self-satisfied smugness of Black, Showalter, and Wain are distancing and don't generate more than the occasional chuckle.
What could be the saving grace of the disc—segments of the web series Wainy Days and The Michael Showalter Showalter—turns out to be more of the same. The former, created by David Wain, is a web series wherein Wain—along with friends like Rashida Jones (I Love You, Man) and Kerri Kenney-Silver (Reno 911!)—sacrifices comedy for concept, with "jokes" substituting for jokes. Showalter's web show is even less focused and the segments included on the disc, in which he conducts and awkward and unfunny interview with Black, mistake irony for comedy.
Technically, Stella: Live in Boston is uneven. Though one wouldn't expect eye-popping videography in such a production, it's extremely disconcerting that the one camera focused on Showalter throughout the performance shows far more grain than the other two cameras. The visual imbalance is glaring and mucks up what is otherwise a sharp production. The video is compensated for somewhat by a sharp Dolby 5.1 mix that balances the crowd nicely with the performers.
The truly disappointing thing about Stella: Live in Boston is that it feels like a wasted opportunity Imaginative, well-written comedy is a valuable commodity in a time when every yahoo with a webcam thinks he's the second coming of Ricky Gervais. It's too bad the guys in Stella feel that deigning to entertain is beneath them. They seem like they could be pretty funny guys.
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