Since the unexpected disappearance of Chappelle’s Show from Comedy Central’s Tuesday night lineup, the programming meetings at that network must be as frantic and cutthroat as a scene from Boiler Room. You can’t just pull another Dave Chappelle out of thin air on a month’s notice, and while the network has found niche followings for its standup contests and ubiquitous South Park reruns, there’s no question it was Dave and Jon Stewart who were the channel’s critical and popular polestars.
You can’t help but wonder whether the viral marketing campaign promoting the new half-hour comedy series Stella isn’t the network’s way of making lemons into lemonade, trying to market a property that was acquired as a quirky, risky one-off in the hopes it will turn into a surefire ratings machine. When it premieres next week, Stella will take over a golden time slot—Tuesday at 10:30—that’s been left vacant after the shakeup that took place when Chappelle left on indefinite hiatus last month. Snugly nestled in between Reno 911! and The Daily Show, Stella has had ads blanketing every trendy blog in sight for the past month and an entire episode available for webcast on Comedy Central’s Web site since June 14. The network is banking on the assumption that, by the time the premiere rolls around, it’ll seem like more work to turn off the television than just to watch the damn thing.
But can a show like Stella—abstract, high-concept and defiantly weird—attract a wide enough base of viewers to deliver on the network’s expectations? Comedy Central’s press releases on Stella have emphasized that, to quote one tagline, “It’s not a sitcom, not a sketch show and definitely not stand-up comedy.” This set of purely negative definitions would seem to be a less-than-stellar marketing tool: Hey, watch this show, wouldja? It’s vaguely funny in some way that’s impervious to description! In fact, though its genre does feel difficult to place on a first viewing, Stella is a recognizable amalgam of two of these forms, the sitcom and the comedy sketch show. The titular trio’s members, Michael Showalter, David Wain, and Michael Ian Black, have been performing together as Stella in New York comedy clubs since 1997. They also worked together in the comedy troupe the State (which had a sketch show by the same name on MTV in the ‘90s) and the teen-movie parody Wet Hot American Summer.
Stella’s first episode consists of 22 minutes of loosely connected plot points (three penniless roommates are kicked out by their dour German landlord, only to be called on later to save his life in ad hoc open-heart surgery: “Get me a butter knife and a straw!”). But the story is mainly a pretext for the central threesome to engage in all manner of absurdist hijinks. Part of the fun of Stella is following the series’s wild shifts in tone. One minute the laws of physics are subverted Roadrunner-style: A truck hurtles over a 50-foot cliff, but the three protagonists climb back into view unscathed. Then, just as quickly, the gags become language-based, riffing on the sound of a word (“Perfect” morphs inexplicably into “purr-fect,” and suddenly they’re all three lounging on the floor, meowing and licking their imaginary paws. It sounds lame on the page, but onscreen, this transformation has a certain anarchic charm.) The best bits, though, are when pure, unalloyed goofiness reigns. In the pilot’s funniest scene, the boys decide that the best way to win over a snooty co-op board is to bust into a Flashdance-style dance routine with skunk tails attached to their pants. Better yet: it works, and the board president is soon joining them in their leaps and twirls.
Stella is no knee-slapping crowd-pleaser. It has a couple of solid laugh-out-loud moments—after several viewings, the choreography of the skunk-tail dance sequence still gets me every time—but basically, this is a show for people who want their expectations of comedy yanked out from under their feet. It’s avant-garde, but only lightly: a kind of jaunty Dadaist artifact, like Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined cup and saucer.
Chappelle’s show was subversive (hilariously so) in its take on entertainment and racial politics, but formally, its structure was traditional: There was a standup monologue at the top of the show, followed by sketches, impersonations, musical guests, etc., and, of course, there were takeaway punchlines like the ubiquitous “I’m Rick James, bitch!” (Let’s hope Dave’s got bigger things in store for the future, so that line doesn’t go down in history as his, “Whatchu talkin’ bout, Willis?”) The best laughs in Stella come from the shock you feel when you realize how dumb the stuff you usually laugh at really is. The question is: How many people are there in Comedy Central’s viewing public who want to make that kind of meta-laughter a part of their regular Tuesday night lineup?