Because we live in a time of comedic plenty, it’s hard to remember what life was like before the comedy boom. YouTube was only invented in 2005 and, as recently as ten years ago, a person had to do some serious digging to find something funny on the Internet — outside of some lame joke that a friend or family member forced down your throat on a chain e-mail that was most likely sent from an AOL or Hotmail account.
Some would argue that current age of online comedy began with the advent of YouTube; while others would state that Funny or Die started the trend in 2007; still others would fervently make the case that The Lonely Island’s viral videos were the driving force behind forming the online comedic landscape as we currently know it. However, I firmly believe that this Golden Age of Comedy was started way back in 1998 when David Wain, Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black began producing their Stella Shorts.
In September of 2003, I entered my freshman year of college. While my first few weeks of school revolved around making friends, meeting girls and figuring out the best way to consistently buy beer, the most formative event happened one lazy Sunday afternoon in my dorm room. I was on my computer chatting with my high school girlfriend at the time, foolishly trying to maintain a long distance relationship. Next to me, my roommate was on his laptop watching some kind of movie. At one point, I glanced over and saw a guy dressed in a pilgrim costume jerking off a black dildo underneath a wobbly table.
“What the fuck are you watching?!” I asked.
“Stella,” my roommate said.
“What the hell is Stella?”
My roommate told me that Stella was the name of a comedy group who created “shorts” that were absurd, perverted, but hilarious. I pulled my chair up next to him, leaving my AIM window and girlfriend idle, and proceeded to go down a rabbit hole that consumed the rest of my freshman year and, in essence, the rest of my life as a zealous comedy fan.
Though many people my age first learned about the genius of Wain, Showalter and Black from Wet Hot American Summer or The State, my first glimpse into their world was through the Stella shorts.
Today, we’re used to big name actors and actresses interacting with our favorite comedians in podcasts and digital shorts such as Wainy Days among many others (I mean, Jon Hamm has become the king of this), but back in 2003, seeing Paul Rudd search for hot dogs in the woods while three funny guys I had never seen before made masturbation jokes was a bit of a shock. Wait, the guy from Clueless and all those Jennifer Aniston romantic comedies is making jokes about burning babies in this random home video that was shot in someone’s backyard?
Sam Rockwell was, and still is, a very serious character actor capable of playing extremely difficult parts (see Moon). In 2003, I knew him from Galaxy Quest, The Green Mile, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, but when he made an appearance in the Stella short “Bored” and put a cigarette out in his palm, ate pizza with denchers and screamed, “Do you think I’m some kind of sloppy wet pussy for you to fuck!” it was a revelation. Nothing I had ever watched completely tore down the barriers of celebrity or the seemingly distant idea of “show business.” Sure, there was Saturday Night Live, but that was on NBC where cursing and dildos were most certainly not allowed.
Bradley Cooper is one of the biggest stars in Hollywood now. He is a male lead capable of carrying one of the largest broad comedy franchises in recent memory as well as starring in Oscar worthy romantic comedies. Yet, before all that he was Bill Zebub (Beelzebub) in “Raking Leaves,” where he played straight to jokes about anal suppositories and genital crabs, dry humped David Wain, groped Mother Nature (played by Happy Gilmore and Modern Family star Julie Bowen), and was beaten up by the Stella guys — all before participating in a joyous group hug where everyone jumps and yells, “We did it!”
The Stella shorts celebrated a kind of irreverent and juvenile comedy that completely struck home with me for better for worse. In many ways, it was the perfect kind of humor for college; you stumble into constantly surreal scenarios where nothing matters and there are no consequences and you can act like an arrogant smart ass and (mostly) get away with it. There’s room for funny voices, slapstick, shtick, and prop comedy. Sure, it may alienate some people, but the people that really get it (and you) will really get the joke. In a way, it was a comedic test to find the people that were going to be my actual friends — and not just college acquaintances. I still talk to my freshman year roommate every day.
In a larger sense, the Stella shorts were on the ground floor of a comedy movement towards the surreal and the homemade. Most of the Stella shorts were filmed at Michael Ian Black’s house in Westchester or at the various homes of the group’s friends. Everything was down and dirty and rough around the edges. In a commentary on the DVD, David Wain explains that he convinced Michael Showalter to do one of the shorts by promising that the entire thing would be “done in less than an hour.”
From 2003 on, both the careers of the guys in Stella and the digital short movement took off. First there was YouTube, then The Lonely Island and their collaborations with Justin Timberlake on Saturday Night Live. David Wain started directing major studio comedies starring Paul Rudd, Jennifer Aniston, Alan Alda and Elizabeth Banks while producing the much beloved Wainy Days online, which featured a wide variety of celebrity cameos. The members of The State all gained a newfound level of fame through Reno 911 and the release of The State complete series DVD.
Now, you can’t go a day without finding a new web series or online sketch starring a comedian you love that features a cameo from a leading man or woman from TV or the movies. There is an overarching sense that all comedians and celebrities have a means to make the kind of content they want with the friends they want to make it with. The production values have constantly improved, but the spirit of pushing the boundaries of your identity as a celebrity and doing things that will just be fun, funny and irreverent exists in nearly all digital/online comedy. And that spirit really started with Stella.