TubaTV remembers: ‘Stella’

TubaTV remembers... 'Stella'

Defenders of offbeat comedy often resort to the claim that “you either get it or you don’t.”  If you don’t immediately and unreservedly appreciate the comedic gifts of someone like Andy Kaufman, for instance, well, you just don’t get it.  And you never will.  “Getting it” serves as an unassailable shorthand for some mysterious act of communication: some immediate and transparent acquisition of meaning, or the absolute proximity of comedian and audience.  Given that the vast majority of comedy with any kind of commercial appeal is premised on there being an “it” to “get,” it came as no surprise, back in 2005, when Comedy Central canceled Stella after David Wain and the Michaels Ian Black and Showalter had squeaked through their paltry episode order.  Stella (as well as the appallingly low-budget Stella shorts that preceded the cable series) defied the usual structure of comedic gratification, refusing that anyone should ever “get it” as such.  The show was not organized around jokes, situations, one-liners or wacky non sequitur references available for the cognitive acquisition of the audience; I would almost say it wasn’t organized at all.

And although I’m not about to resort to the “either you get it or you don’t” defense, it’s a struggle to put into words why Stella should have been so consistently funny.  Most friends whom I’ve subjected to an episode or two complain that it’s just three guys in suits acting like idiots.  My disappointed friends certainly aren’t wrong, but neither are they entirely right: there’s something else going on, if not on the level of a sub-text “beneath” the level of discourse, maybe in a fragmented parallel text that moves in fits and starts alongside the show’s more apparent development.

It seems to me that the possibility of (what I’ll provisionally gloss as) acquisitive comedy is predicated on the maintenance of a certain diegetic or communicative coherence.  At one end of the comedy spectrum, conventional jokes — ie, those with punchlines — work because they are logically coherent.  John C. Reilly is so funny as Steve Brule (at the other end of the spectrum) because his character is more or less coherent — we “get” him insofar as we can cathect onto him.  But there’s no cathecting onto Michael, Michael or David.  Their personalities are as fickle as their accents, which tend to transform without rhyme or reason, as do their voices (in both literal and figurative senses of the term).  I’m no performance studies scholar, but I wonder whether certain linguistic elements of Stella‘s comedy aren’t congruent or at least compatible with Artaud’s movement away from speech.

Take the post-title scene in “Meeting girls.”  Looking to enliven their Fri-day niiiiight, the trio has wandered into a Southern bar — replete with Confederate flag — presumably somewhere in Brooklyn.  Their entrance (“This place is jommin’, mon.”) inexplicably aggravates the bar’s customary patrons, until the trio performs a synchronized, Coyote Ugly-inspired bartop dance to the eventual delight of the crowd.  The Michaels immediately find themselves lady companions (Tamara: “You’re a really good dancer.”  Black: “I know.  I was a dance major at Oberlin.”) while David, being Jewish, strikes out.

After a lovely picnic in Greenpoint’s McGorlick Park (“This melba toast is like nectar.”) the Michaels move out of the apartment they’ve been sharing with David.  Black moves in with Tamara and her bratty kids (Black: “So you have kids.”  Tamara: “Yeah, two boys and a girl.  I really think you’d love them.”  Black: “I already do.  I want you inside me.”) and Showalter shacks up with alcoholic Jemma (Showalter: “I like your tatt[oo].”  Jemma: “Thanks.  I did it myself.”  Showalter: “Really?”  Jemma: “I like pain.”  Showalter: “I like cookies.”).

But their common law marital bliss is shortlived, and by that night both Black and Showalter are ready to abadon their new families.  The Michaels’ run-in outside the liquor store is a rapid-fire frustration of narrative clichés: Black reveals his new, fatherly moustache to be fake; Showalter disguises a black eye behind sunglasses, insisting that he “fell down the stairs, that’s all,” then conceding with a hiss, “She’ll kill me.”  (The outtakes from this scene, available on the Stella DVD, are nothing short of hilarious.)

At this point we’re still only two-thirds of the way through the episode.  In total disregard for the structure of comedic acquisition, Stella (as well as other absurdist programs like Aqua Teen Hunger Force and the The mighty Boosh) is resolutely unconcerned about continuity or narrative conclusions.  Each episode meanders from one bizarre interaction to another, until the standard twenty-two minutes are up, and Stella concludes with a song, or everyone’s favorite, tentative-but-slowly-contagious applause.

Although Stella may have passed, the Michaels, at least, forge onward.  Their new show, Michael and Michael have issues, premieres tonight on Comedy Central.  Here’s hoping it survives for longer than ten episodes.

— J.C. Freñán

TV pet peeve #5: The Meaningful Montage

While all of TubaTV’s pet peeves make our collective blood boil, #5 is doubly peevey: firstly, The Meaningful Montage constitutes some seriously vile pop culture demagogy.  It’s like the aural equivalent of the soap opera close-up: in the event that some half-dead member of the audience isn’t certain how to feel about a given story line, the Meaningful Montage packages the appropriate sentiment into an easy-to-digest caplet of radio friendly, unit shifting sound and vision.  Worse still than its status as a marketing ploy, the Meaningful Montage is essentially a less ambitious/more plebeian cousin to The Magnolia Moment, finally amounting to a spiritless gesture entirely bereft of rhetorical force.

Rupert Murdoch’s army of simpletons over at Fox/FX have honed the device to its most utilitarian: Don Draper must have convinced them that the final minutes of any given serial drama can be made both poignant and relevant for the “coveted 18-49 demographic” by the simple inclusion of a slow-motion montage set to some “edgy” New(ish) (White) Music.  Got a character moving to another state and/or resigning himself to a life of working class baby daddery?  Oh, Jeff Buckley’s oft-abused cover of “Hallelujah” should do the trick:

Rescuing someone from a burning building?  (Or drinking yourself into a stupor?  Or slowly ruining every relationship you’ve ever had?)  “Indie” rock is most definitely in order:

The Meaningful Montage is so trite, so ridiculously facile that this fan vid of The shield is practically indistinguishable from an actual episode:

In honor of all you anonymous Tuba lovers out there, I’ve gone ahead and edited the following choice editorializing out of the Wikipedia entry for The shield: “To enhance its realism, the show makes very little use of background music until the end of each episode.”  Back loading music at the end of an episode “enhances” its “realism,” huh?

[Edit: Some devoted Shield fan has undone my edits.  I had changed “realism” to read “market appeal.”  Any Wikipedia editors out there, please join the discussion page and weigh in on the proposed change.]

— J.C. Freñán

AMC ups the correctional ante

Significantly more justifiable than my premature ejaculation last week over vague reports of Christopher McQuarrie’s new series for Fox, is my still more recent curiosity about a forthcoming AMC project, which (coincidentally?) touches on a similar theme.  My capricious refractory period notwithstanding, it will be a struggle to contain myself until the November premiere of The prisoner, a remake of a 17-episode British series from the 1960s.

Viral marketing, ca. 1960s
Viral marketing, ca. 1960s

Here’s what Reuters had to say about Persons unknown: “The project revolves around seven strangers who wake up in a deserted town with no recollection of how they got there, and then realize that they are watched by omnipresent security cameras and that there is no escape. To survive, they must come together to solve the puzzle of their lives.”

And here’s how AMC describes The prisoner: “A man, known as “Six,” finds himself inexplicably trapped in “The Village” with no memory of how he arrived. As he explores his environment, he discovers that his fellow inhabitants are identified by number instead of name, have no memory of any prior existence, and are under constant surveillance. Not knowing whom to trust, Six is driven by the need to discover the truth behind The Village, the reason for his being there, and most importantly — how he can escape.”

Since AMC is generally pretty awesome and Fox is nigh unilaterally awful, I’ll go ahead and flip my own script: McQuarrie’ll need more than just an Ajusco Mountain backdrop and a deal with Televisa if he’s going to compete with AMC’s stellar production values.

Anyone else wanna chime in with early guesses as to Six’s identity?  I’m going with none other than Dick Whitman/Don Draper.

— J.C. Freñán

Music on Television: Grizzly Bear

Heads up: Tomorrow night’s guest on Jimmy Fallon is none other than Brooklyn’s Grizzly Bear, whose latest record Veckatimest is so good, even the hip hop heads are all about it. Let’s hope they don’t get bumped the way they were on Letterman.

And for the record, like the rest of us, Ed Droste feels the pain too.
Twitter mourns

The Big Coney Dog: HBO’s ‘Hung’

Goodbye, Lafayette.
Having made my way back to Michigan a few weeks ago, I can say, for certain, things are a whole lot worse than you might’ve imagined. The Lafayette building is about to eat some wrecking ball (like the old Tiger Stadium just did); a couple thousand just lost their jobs at Detroit Public Schools; GM, whose specter rises high above the city skyline, just went bankrupt; and last week, a report showed Michigan leading the nation in unemployment. Reading about it is one thing; seeing it, another. Driving home (to the burbs) for Father’s day, I noticed that even the big, mirrored corporate boxes that dot either side of I-75, Telegraph, Crooks were emptied out, rusting.

Amidst all the job losses, the destroyed buildings and destroyed economies the past few years, has been the surreal presence of Hollywood in our backyards, thanks to a tax break for filmmakers. First, Gran Turino was shot in Detroit, then Whip It! in Ann Arbor (a set I accidentally stumbled onto), and now, HBO’s latest series, Hung, shot in Commerce Township, near Southfield. Rumor has it DeNiro’s been chilling in Ypsi, too, being accosted by drunk women, and inviting locals to the titty bar.

Hung (which debuts this Sunday) is about your average down-and-out metro Detroiter with an above average kielbasa. (And by ‘kielbasa,’ I mean, weiner.) When his house burns down, and he’s strapped for cash, he decides to play the field. (And by ‘play the field,’ I mean become a gigolo.)

Here’s a trailer. More poorly-conceived dick jokes to come.

— Thumbu Sammy

Running for the border, in reverse

It’s the height of foolishness to get excited about a new Fox series, but can you really blame me this time?  Christopher McQuarrie — best known for writing The usual suspects — has co-created Persons unknown, and is currently executive producing a 13-episode run, which I expect to begin airing this fall. Truth be told, McQuarrie’s involvement alone would have been enough to get me to watch: if he can manage to give Ryan Philippe a certain dirty, macho appeal, I’m willing to give any McQuarrie project a fair shot, even if it’s going to be relegated to the network with the worst track history in TubaTV’s collective memory.

Sweetening the deal, though, is the curious fact that Persons unknown has been filming less than an hour away from TubaTV’s Latin American office, in the Ajusco Mountain region south of Mexico City.  I’m not thrilled that the show is being co-produced with Televisa — the Mexican analog of Fox, only ickier, if you can imagine — but in all honesty the partnership can only help the otherwise desolate Mexican airwaves.  [I recently spoke with the main stylist on Mexico’s other notable (read:failed) attempt at moving beyond the telenovela format, and she confirmed my suspicions: the second season of Capadocia is going to be much, much shoddier than the first.  Apparently — and understandably — the series’s budget has been slashed, and to make matters worse, its writers have abandoned the entire groundwork they laid in the first season, offering us instead a weak, watery prequel: the life and times of Bambi, prior to her incarceration.  Do they not realize that by the end of the first season, the show’s appeal was resting entirely on Dolores Paradis’s impressive underage décolletage?]

So, viva NAFTA?

In related news, burnout Fox alum Paul Sheuring might be competing with McQuarrie on the big screen, as both appear to be working on remakes of the German film Das experiment.  Personally, I’d favor a McQuarrie effort by a mile, since Sheuring spent a good two and a half seasons beating his own Prison break horse after it had expired.

— J.C. Freñán

Music on Television: I Got Two Tympanies and a Microphone

Week after dreadful week of bands on late night made me stop and reconsider the point of writing all those TubaTV “Music on Television” posts. But sure enough, as soon as I stopped, I missed not one but two brilliant performances by this year’s comeback kid – the (occasionally) Mighty Mos Def – who dropped his latest, The Ecstatic, earlier this week. On Fallon, Mos teamed up with The Roots on his Banda Black Rio-inspired closer, “Casa Bey.”

And on Letterman, Mos lugged out his two tympanies for a tight performance of “Quiet Dog Bite Hard” (with some blessings from Fela).

Gotdamn.

Oh, and in case the links above expire, try these: “Casa Bey” (on Fallon); “Quiet Dog” (on Letterman)

— Thumbu Sammy