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