comedy week

Remembering Stella, New York’s All-Star Alt-Comedy Showcase of the Nineties

Photo: Courtesy of Jason Spiro

In the mid-nineties, Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain — whose sketch group the State had scattered after their unsuccessful 1995 CBS special — frequented New York City’s alternative-comedy haunts Rebar and Luna Lounge to perform and watch scene staples like Louis C.K., Janeane Garofalo, Todd Barry, Marc Maron, and Jon Benjamin. Evenings there “were long, meandering shows because it was experimental,” recalls Wain, “and we thought this was a genre of comedy that needs its own not-first-draft-type night.” And so he, Black, and Showalter launched a weekly show where these comics and sketch groups could present spit-shined pieces, while the three hosts could perform the goofy, high-concept bits they’d wanted to perfect. They found a venue for a weekly variety show at Fez, a dark club under the now-defunct Time Café, and dubbed their showcase “Stella” after Fez’s very pregnant booker told them that was what she was going to name her baby.

On January 15, 1997, the three men dressed in suits (this was the Swingers era, after all) and began two years of weekly Wednesday shows for which they served as bickering emcees. Backed up by their house band, led by Mr. Blue, they introduced acts like the original UCB, Garofalo, Maron, Zach Galifianakis, and Patton Oswalt, along with staples of the traditional clubs like Jon Stewart, Caroline Rhea, and Dave Attell. Stella helped cement New York’s alternative scene as less of a ramshackle assembly of comics, and paved the way for shows like Eugene Mirman’s Pretty Good Friends and Max Silvestri’s Big Terrific. After discovering some old pictures from this memorable ongoing show, we called up Black, Showalter, and Wain and asked them to reminisce.

The evening had a set structure, but considering the trio’s “not-first-draft night” mantra, the details were pretty haphazard. The first act began with the Stella trio bantering for ten minutes, playfully mocking one another or riffing on a topic that the guys had fleshed out just an hour or less before showtime. Three comedians given ten minutes apiece followed them, though Black admits that while Stella’s set would often stretch into 25 minutes, “we’d get mad if the other comics did more than ten, ‘cause we were assholes like that.” More Stella banter, comedians, and, in the later shows, a “Stella Shorts” film would be played. Sometimes a magician or juggler might get a booking, just because. “There was no post mortem on the show, no thought given to what the next show was going to be like,” Black says. “It was like, ‘Let’s survive this one, and next week we’ll hopefully be more prepared than we were this week.’ Which was never the case.”
All three members of Stella say that while their own bits often failed, they were saved by their commitment and welcoming attitude. “The stakes were lower,” Black says. In one sketch, Black and Wain surprised Showalter by bringing out his (fake) high-school crush from the audience; by the end of the bit, she was making out with Black and dry-humping Wain. Another time, with great fanfare, they announced that their very special guest was Brad Pitt … but he was very shy. So Stella stood facing the curtain, “coaxing” Brad Pitt from backstage. The payoff: No one ever came out. Which is not to say they were never able to land cameos: Another evening they spent the entire opening segment trying to remember Bruno Kirby’s funny lines from This Is Spinal Tap, butchering them badly. Finally, as they were wrapping up, a voice from the audience corrected them. Bruno Kirby.
Because the alternative comedy scene was so small and the members of Stella already had a small following, their first show received a full-page photo in the Village Voice. Marc Maron and Janeane Garofalo were on the first bill, so they jumped in for the shot with Stella and Mr. Blue. This chummy group shot seems odd considering how often Maron has discussed on his “WTF” podcast that, back in the day, he resented the success of The State and was passive-aggressively hostile toward Stella. “He thought we were cute college kids who lucked into a show on MTV. And he wasn’t wrong,” Black says. “But the level of resentment was probably outside the offense to him.” Still, the members of Stella loved Maron’s comedy and kept inviting him back. “I think Marc had a chip on his shoulder,” Wain says, “[and] he wasn’t afraid to say so onstage too. We kept having him back week after week anyway. We would be like, ‘Is he serious? Oh, who cares.’”
“You could easily make the case that Janeane [Garofalo] was the fourth member of Stella,” Black says. “She was in almost every show. I think she liked the room, the vibe, the people that hung out there. She usually closed the shows.” Here, she hangs out in the Fez kitchen with Sam Seder and Louis C.K. Back then, C.K. was almost just as revered by other comedians as he is today. “He was already special, already the Wizard of Oz,” Showalter says. Despite knowing him for upward of twenty years, Black doesn’t recall a single conversation he’s ever had with C.K. “I remember several years in, he got done performing and goes, ‘Let’s give a hand for [pause] these guys!’ ” he adds. “And it occurred to me that it was a joke, but it might not have been a joke.”
Behold Cracked Out, a rap duo featuring UCB regulars Jon Daly and Brett Gelman. They were favorites of the Stella guys because not only were they excellent rappers who crafted pretty compelling musical hooks, they also had the most incredibly disgusting X-rated lyrics the Stella guys had ever heard. In this photo, they are performing their timeless classic, “Fuckin’ Yo Momz in Da Ass.”
One night, Stephen Colbert and his Strangers With Candy co-star and co-creator Paul Dinello rented bassoons for a duet of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Every time there was an instrumental break, they’d dramatically lean into the mouthpieces, lick their lips, and make other grand “about to play” gestures. But they never did, always pulling away from their instruments at the absolute last second, for almost ten minutes of this song. Finally, near the end, they blew into them with full force, having no idea how to play them. “It sounded like elephants dying,” says Showalter who, like Black, remembers this as one of the funniest things to ever happen at Stella. Wain doesn’t remember it, but concedes that his own recollection of bits is hazy because between Stella’s material, “I would go around the room in the audience and just flirt with girls.”
Demetri Martin was largely unknown when he first appeared on the show. Wain heard of him because they shared a manager, and Martin immediately became a crowd favorite. “From the very beginning, he was doing what he’s still doing: really hilarious one-liners and trying to figure out a way to make that concept into a full show,” Black says. “That’s why he had the harmonica, beatbox — he wanted to develop that into an evening so the audience wouldn’t just feel assaulted by one-liners.”
As previously noted, the Stella trio weren’t big on planning. For the most part, there was no formal booking process, so they’d often call up friends at the last minute to do bits, like old State friends Todd Holoubek, Ken Marino, and Joe Lo Truglio, pictured here with Mather Zickel (at left, and now anchoring the Wain-produced Newsreaders). Lo Truglio regularly played geriatric New York Post joke columnist Joey Adams, an old Borscht Belt–style comic whose archaic punch lines Lo Truglio would punctuate with a karate chop.
Occasionally, serious dramatic actors would join in, as in one night when Wain was absent and Liev Schreiber took his place, never breaking character and calling himself David Wain the entire time.
In spring of 1998, the group slowed down, taking a break until a string of shows between Thanksgiving and Christmas (this poster is from their last regularly scheduled performance in 1998). They sporadically reprised the show every year around the holidays, or for special events, but the show finally ended for good in early 2005, the year their short-lived Stella TV show aired on Comedy Central. It was just getting to be too much work, they say, and there were other things they wanted to try. But the occasional reunion continues to this day. “Those characters are very much alive,” says Showalter. “In a weird way, it seems like we’re just on an extended break.” So what was the Stella legacy? It helped hone Showalter, Black, and Wain’s chemistry, provided a platform to other burgeoning New York comics, and helped expand the audience of New York’s alternative-comedy scene. And then there were the personal benefits. Says Wain, “I invited, as my date for that very last show, this new girl that I was starting to date, [Zandy Hartig], who then became my wife.”
Remembering Stella, NYC’s Early Alt-Comedy Show