ARTS

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November 16, 2004

Do you Love the '90s? Check out the stellar Stella.

David Wain knows how to ask the important questions in life: "What could be better than sitting in a Jacuzzi and cracking farts all day?"

It's supposed to be a rhetorical question, but Michael Showalter isn't going to give Wain the last word. "Who actually refers to it as ‘cracking' a fart?" A more important question, perhaps, but we'll never be sure. Stella Comedy, a traveling comedy show created by Wain, Showalter, and Michael Ian Black, is full of quasi-juvenile questions and wiseass replies like this, and it works, in a strange yet endearing way.

Stella was hatched in 1997 to the proud trio of papas, who used to be castmates on MTV's seminal sketch comedy show The State. Those heavily immersed in the summertime VH1-brand of pop culture will also recall Black's straight-faced insolence on those goofy I Love the... series, and hardcore fans will recognize Black and Showalter from the 2001 camp spoof Wet Hot American Summer (Wain directed the critically ignored film).

But those can be considered side projects, considering that the three are comedians first and social commentators, well, last. Halfway through their 50-minute set at the Metro last Wednesday night, they slipped in a brain tease, a mini-rant about improv versus scripted comedy. Indeed, their entire show was scripted, but it managed to resemble the awkward and often surreal conversations of teenage boys.

Petulant, horny boys. Boys who realize they're crossing the line but can't resist all that ribaldry because they're convinced there's pornography on the other side.

Over-sexed? Yes, but considering the weakest point of their act was when they tried to "talk all Shakespearean and stuff," they're better off being immature. If Black, Showalter, and Wain can make the idea of David Bowie being beaten to death by a hobo a laugh riot, then I guess we can forgive them for acting dumber than they surely are.

At first, it seems that their comedy is aimless—a blob of random conversation and mundane activity. I'm not sure when it becomes clear that their target is adolescence itself -- —that explains all the mutual insults and naughty sniggering -- —but there is definitely a dynamic of high school dramatics involved. There are subtle characterizations involved in each of the men's stage personae: Black is the snobby self-aggrandizer, Showalter the self-effacing nerd, and Wain...well, he's the kid everyone picked on in elementary school who still managed to score some cool points.

When discussing favorite party jams, Wain is the one rocking out to a depressing folk song. When they try to not-tell-but-vaguely-hint-at each other's Christmas presents, it is revealed that Wain's present is Rogaine. Wain's griddle cakes ("they're not even griddle cakes; they're waffles!" Black interjects) are rejected by Showalter every year. Still, he is the one who supposedly hooked up with a chick from Northwestern the night before, the one who has a quickie in the corner with Showalter's high school crush as Showalter and Black are fighting over her.

It's this irony that lends that touch of realism to the otherwise senseless scope of their jokes. When they squabble, we're reminded of our own petty high school bickerings. When they flail, we see a reflection of our own impotent rage. When Black complains that his vagina is freezing ...well, I guess some of us will have to use our imaginations on that one.

Comedy shows don't get much wackier than this. Where else would the answer to "who let the dogs out?" be "Patrick Swayze?" Who else but Black, Showalter, and Wain would know their audience so well that they are able to elicit shudders as well as laughs as the audience members recollect all the embarrassing and titillating moments of their own sad youths? Only Stella has that unique blend of affected haughtiness and genuine chagrin, kind of like the peanut butter-and-pickle sandwiches our mothers made for us in sixth grade; the ones we were afraid to admit we really, really liked.