STELLA mines gold from the refuse heap of ’80s television
For individuals of a certain age range and demographic who grew up in the 1970s and 80s, it is nearly impossible to overstate how comprehensively our minds were fucked by sitcoms. These two authors, for instance, operated for countless years on the premise that male/female relationships were essentially the functional equivalent of that which occurred on the swinging era holdover Three's Company: by turns chummy and lascivious, loaded constantly with slapstick and innuendo, and punctuated at all the wrong times by the appearance of a wacky neighbor. “Family comedies,” as they were then known, were even more warping. Weaned on the borderline absurdist madness which passed for problem resolution on programs like Growing Pains and Diff'rent Strokes, it is fairly remarkable to these two authors that they have conducted even one successful family or professional relationship in their entire lifetimes
Take the specific case of Diff'rent Strokes, the popular NBC half hour sitcom which we absorbed faithfully and in great volume between the ages of 5 and 8. It is a program which begins from a premise which is as logically improbable as it is racially uncomfortable—a wealthy, white Park Avenue tycoon named Mr. Drummond "inherits" Arnold and Willis, two young, jive-talking, Harlem-bred African American children from his deceased housekeeper. Left with little choice but to adapt to this life-changing development, kindly Mr. Drummond embraces his new role and resolves to teach them how to exist in the “real world.” Seemingly every episode of Diff’rent Strokes follows the same basic structure:
1) Arnold and Willis, fish out of water in their new world of privilege, are confronted with some arbitrary instance of cultural conflict, say, busing Arnold from whatever progressive Park Avenue elementary school he attended to a less integrated one. The Drummonds proceed to receive several threatening phone calls from angry parents.
2) The children, though resourceful, are constrained by their backgrounds and can apparently only work their way out of a given dilemma by speaking plaintively in a strange slang argot seemingly lifted from a white television producer's conception of what might have passed for lyrics to a Kool and the Gang song.
3) As the conflict reaches its peak, Arnold, the younger of the two children and also a genetic dwarf, busts out with his patented utterance: “What you talkin’ ‘bout Willis?!” to the explosive delight of the program's laugh track.
4) Mr. Drummond—the kindly tycoon—intervenes with his fatherly wisdom, ranging from patient counsel to strident discipline, resolving the issue promptly and ensuring that all of us—the boys and the audience—learn an “important lesson.”
At a certain point, besotted with this idiocy, it is only natural that one’s mind begins to conform to the kind of expectations implied. As the teenage years approached, it was nothing less than a metabolic certainty that any problem encountered with parents, friends, or teachers could be resolved within a scant 22 minutes of contrived dialogue, rushed compromise, and an oft-repeated catch phrase. When this failed to happen—ever, even one time—we were absolutely stunned.
Marcel Duchamp famously altered the landscape of modern art when he submitted a urinal to the Society of Independent Artists exhibit in 1917. Ever since, the ambitious re-purposing of the most prosaic, ill-regarded, or even out and out disreputable aspects of culture has proved a persistently tantalizing proposition for serious artists of every stripe. From Warhol’s uncondescending mimicry of Madison Avenue to Bob Dylan’s unironic embrace of mainstream Nashville in the early 70s, vanguard artists have enjoyed projecting their own idiosyncratic visions into highly formalized commercial idioms. In this tradition, STELLA proves one of the great, under-appreciated comedies of contemporary times—a creation of the writers and performers Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black, and David Wain which attempts to imagine the flagrantly mad form of the ’70s and ’80s era sitcom played out to its logical and often disturbing extremes.
Black, Showalter, and Wain met at NYU and were founding members of the sketch comedy troupe The State, which had a not entirely unsuccessful run on MTV in the ’90s. Following that, the trio started performing regular weekly live gigs as STELLA at the NYC nightclub Fez. The live show was critically-acclaimed, drew guest appearances from the likes of Janeane Garafalo and Ben Stiller and ultimately ran for seven years. In 2005, Comedy Central approached the group about turning the act into a TV show.
What transpired from there was failure of a kind, but in its grandest form. STELLA was cancelled after one 10 episode season and departed largely unlamented by critics. But setting aside the landmark cultural achievements of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and its twinned handmaiden The Colbert Report, it just might be the best thing Comedy Central has ever produced. That it failed to draw large audiences is unsurprising: while in no sense oppressively highbrow, the program veers far afield from the broad and scatological humor and of-the-moment parody which tends to characterize such ratings winners as South Park and The Chappelle Show. Neither does STELLA traffic in the kind of droll, documentary style manners comedy practiced in the The Office and Larry David’s hugely funny Curb Your Enthusiasm. Instead, STELLA operates on an entirely separate plane, proffering an individualized world with its own internal logic, one which resembles contemporary human reality but also departs from its dictums willfully, unquestioningly, and without need of explanation. In this respect, STELLA's closest antecedents are off the radar of the cultural mainstream. Its closest cousins are the Theater of the Absurd scenarios which Ionesco would have dreamed up and the Loony Tunes cartoons of the 1940s.
STELLA commences from a premise typical of the inexplicably strange scenarios of an early ’80s sitcom. Three grown men occupy a spacious and beautifully appointed New York City apartment. It is not clear and apparently not important how they pay for this—the men don’t work and whenever money is required, they don’t seem to have any. All of this is glossed over with a sort of cheerful dismissiveness. On STELLA, real world anxieties are a distant, prosaic rumor. That is not to say that the three main characters don’t have difficulties. A far from comprehensive list of the endless fraught challenges foisted upon them during the ten 25-minute episodes includes a maliciously bullying paperboy, a murderous tenant board president, a stalking, phantom woodsman, an urgent need to author a great novel, runaway crop growth on the floor of their apartment, and the threat of involuntary lobotomy. These aren’t the sorts of troubles that you really can throw money at anyway.
Critics of STELLA frequently cite as a major failing the fact that each of the three main players are essentially interchangeable: they dress and largely behave identically, and each acts seemingly as an extension of the other. But it is this very factor which gives STELLA its vital psychological underpinnings and also the subtle air of melancholy which occasionally permeates the antics. The triad is rarely apart for long, and each seems to accept the outcome of their lives as collective on some fundamental, molecular level. Boilerplate platitudes about “friendship” and “sharing” are trotted out endlessly between the parties, but this does not prevent them from bickering and plotting against one another ceaselessly. As with the isolated characters of Uncle Vanya, there is a simmering undercurrent of black toxicity lurking here. More often than not, they are restless, bored, or simply irate with one another. It is not uncommon for Showalter, Black, and Wain to inflict physical harm upon on each other or fantasize about doing so. That they are at once the same and also constantly straining against the inextricable destiny of their co-habitation suggests a deeper intent in the show’s conception then the typical ensemble comedy driven by diverse characters with disparate motivations. This sort of self-loathing in triplicate is the sort of scenario Beckett or Kafka might have dreamed up. Taken to its bleakest end, it could be interpreted as a kind of commentary on schizophrenia or psychosis.
Any one of the ten existing episodes of STELLA is a veritable trove of delights, but perhaps none better exemplifies the repurposing of ’70s and ’80s style entertainment in the best possible fashion than Episode 3, “Office Party,” where Black, Showalter, and Wain—in a classic instance of “this makes no sense” sitcom contrivance—secure an invitation to a party from their neighbor, Amy (Samantha Buck), after giving her some glue to fix her shoe. We do not know much about this woman, other than that she lives in the same building and that she exists to advance the plot. The Stellas arrive at the party and peculiarity ensues: all three —nerds and nebbishes by all definable standards and previous modes of comportment—proceed to drink, eat, hit on women they do not know, and act authoritatively around men they do not know. As they are beginning to feel as though they run this office, they are confronted by Amy’s bully coworkers (played by Paul Rudd and Joe Lo Truglio) who cut Black, Showalter, and Wain down to size in the manner of a frat hazing —the party was an employees only event. Humiliated and emasculated, the guys run home in tears and devise their master plan of retaliation: attend the company picnic in disguise, which in Stellaworld, means donning old-timey fake moustaches. Period. Naturally, the Stellas do not get their moustaches at a costume shop, but from Gary, who, to all intents and purposes, is the guy who is going to sell you weed, make book for you, or give you access to a cockfight. Once mustachioed, Black, Showalter, and Wain roll up to the company picnic in a vintage Model T, and in a slo-mo exhaust-fueled haze, make their approach in the manner of ZZ Top. Everyone at the picnic reacts accordingly: with absolute confusion but also titillation. They’re completely stymied as to who these dashing men are at this employees only event, and the Stellas smoothly tell everyone (in Canadian accents) that they’re “from the Houston office.” The ladies are intrigued, the guys are threatened, and the tension is resolved by getting into gear with a montage of office picnic competition —tug-o-war, sack races, etc.—overlaid with the peerless, inspirational ’80s parody “Show Me the Fever” by Craig Wedren: a song that captures the spirit of “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor multiplied by “You’re the Best… Around!” by Joe Esposito. Black, Showalter, and Wain win every competition and after being presented with a loving cup for “best all-around athletes” surprise everyone with the big reveal—they tear off their moustaches and proclaim to everyone that they are not losers. The office workers are SHOCKED and feel betrayed, but the president is so impressed by their moxie that he takes away the “big account” from the bullies and gives it to the Stellas. Everyone is dumbfounded but simultaneously accepting of this reality. The action kicks it over to the office where the Stellas, dressed in business casual tuxedos and knowing not a lick about office culture, or…anything, for that matter, act completely inappropriately: they sexually harass, take an eight-hour lunch to make a point, and a jar of applesauce ends up in Wain’s pants.
This is what is important about STELLA: these guys have no idea how to comport themselves in an office setting, so instead behave as someone on an old TV show or a movie set in an office might—they start throwing around argot and style from Glengarry Glenross and Mary Tyler Moore. All they essentially have to fall back on is behavior learned from popular culture derived from television and movies. The essential formula of and fidelity to the ’80s sitcom is always observed at the end of every STELLA: extraordinary means are used to redeem our protagonists: “Office Party” culminates in the “big boss” character doing an end-of-Lucas-esque slow handclap as he exclaims, “I…hated…that…so much…” The guys get fired, but before we can feel bad for this awful twist of fate, in swoops —in the manner of one deus ex machina after the next: the Chairman of the board, the D.A., the Mayor, then Showalter himself, who teaches us all a lesson about American democracy. This is followed by a chorus singing “America the Beautiful,” punctuated by a deeply moving message about the power of friendship.
STELLA represents what could have happened if our development was arrested during the heyday of Diff'rent Strokes and casts into bold relief what is disturbing, comedic, and ultimately salvageable in the refuse pile that was ’70s and ’80s televisual entertainment.