Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Had the great pleasure of checking out Stella--the comic trio of Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter and David Wain--live at the Nokia Theater tonight (they're there tomorrow too!). Have been a huge fan forever and this was definitely something I needed to cross off my must-see list. I had seen them live at Fez years ago, but it was sort of a variety show and they weren't the focus. Anyway, The State, Wet Hot American Summer and the early Stella internet shorts have been comic staples of mine for years and years. My band even named a song, "Stop Hectoring Me," after a line from one of those vids.
Anyway, it was a thrill to see this live. A very no-frills show. Some video and slides, a cameo from Paul Rudd (!), a bit of song. But overall: Three dudes on mikes, just--say it with me--riffing.
This is what Stella does best. They are masters of the art of running gags so far into the ground that they come out on the other side as newly hilarious. It's not just about hammering on stale humor and parodying crappy comedy, which they do quite well, but more the way they commit to something and just take off with it, leaving context way, way behind. (One of the funniest examples of these endless riffs comes in the classic Pizza sketch. Skip to 3:50 and you'll see what I mean.)
Tonight's set had loose themes--a list of ten increasingly ridiculous rules for the audience to follow during the show, a presumably made-up parlor game called "Zots and Cramples," a discussion of the pleasures of having sex to "Bad to the Bone," plenty of the trio's patented petty infighting--but what really stood out were the ultra-repetitive, sublimely annoying tangents. The best riff involved the members listing all these cliched wintertime activities like shoveling snow, drinking hot cider, singing Christmas carols.
It was very much like the incredible Woodstock riff Wain goes off on in Wainy Days #2, but it had this virtuoso, almost sound-art-ish quality to it. While one member would be blurting out another item in the list, the other two would keep up this weird murmuring in the background, creating a surreal word jumble that was totally disorienting. It was kind of like this no-tech special effect and it sort of clued you in to how much rehearsal must go into Stella's ensemble work. At the end of this section, they sort of broke into mock-harmony singing, and though it was a joke, the analogy was apt: These three really do interact with musical precision and never more so when they're heaping annoyance upon annoyance upon annoyance.
Stella has burrowed into the notion of annoyance and inhabited it. These riffs now seem familiar, but it's worth noting that to someone not accustomed to their brand of humor, this numbing repetition could come off as hugely maddening rather than endearing. It's a very fuck-you, self-indulgent sort of comedy--basically the opposite of comedy, but after you spend enough time with this crew, you get used to having your buttons pushed in these ways and you sort of lose patience with "regular," nonmeta comedy. For me, it's sort of a small price to pay: I can't think of anything funnier than these guys at the top of their game and tonight they were mostly there. Awesome.