After he parted from the funniest “show about nothing,” Seinfeld co-creator Larry David made his first feature film, 1998’s black comedy Sour Grapes. About a shoe sole designer who can blow himself and his cousin’s catastrophic misunderstanding over 50 cents, the movie’s humor highlighted Seinfeld’s more sinister side with uncomfortable gall, subsequently garnering Roger Ebert’s famous zero-star rating for movies that are deemed “immoral” (please take a seat next to Slackers and The Life of David Gale). Of course, David got his revenge on cable TV with Curb Your Enthusiasm, but it’s hard not to think of his misguided turn watching Stella, another awkward assembly of otherwise considerable talent.
In the new show, Michael Showalter, David Wain and Michael Ian Black—creators of MTV’s The State and the classic Wet Hot American Summer—play fictional versions of themselves, here anything the trio deems funny: unemployed schlubs, bestest buddies, rebellious spirits, synchronized dancers. We are meant to identify with the characters but they have no discernable personality traits or hobbies; instead, in the show’s most crippling move, the actors possess their characters with a shrill, childlike exuberance and overstatement that comes to define them and, sadly, overshadow whatever jokes or parodies the creators have on hand. In the first episode, the roommates march around (literally, and very unamusingly) debating the virtues of Funk Rock and Funk Rock. It’s a great concept muddled by the actors’ fixation on exaggerated idiosyncrasies (nasal whines, kitty calls, a synchronized CD insert) and an almost stunning ignorance to context.
You have to appreciate Showalter and company’s courage. The three try their hardest to be random, but the string of gags have neither the blindsiding elegance of Wet Hot American Summer, with its investment in character and narrative, nor the stream-of-consciousness abandon of The Andy Milonakis Show, also at least loosely connected by the host’s mischievous inner child attempting to break out. Stella is essentially sketch comedy presented as an incoherent sitcom, so while individual moments may be arresting (and there are consistently more every episode, most often from Black), everything in between is mostly stale filler—narrative attempts at odds with the absurdity and preposterousness of the characters themselves—or embarrassingly strained setups (this week, when the roommates become a barbershop singing group).
Still, I would be lying if I said the show isn’t growing on me. Showalter, Wain and Black are masters of deadpan, and there are many pleasures to be had while watching Stella. In this week’s episode, about the roommates creating rival coffee shops, hearing Black announce an “irony alert” and Wain rubbing suntan lotion on his jacket sleeves are just a couple showstopper gags. Ultimately, however, these comedians, so adept at smart dumb comedy in satires like Wet Hot American Summer, have crafted a series that is inescapably juvenile in its understanding of vaudeville-style performance, which must have fared much better in the troupe’s original stage acts. Comedy Central describes the show’s brand of humor as being “dressed up in a suit,” but as one of my friends might say, it’s just plain stupid.