How the DIY Stella Shorts Somehow Introduced the Future of Mainstream Comedy
The Stella shorts, which were filmed as companion pieces to their NYC live show and later collected on the rare Stella Shorts 1998-2002 DVD, are legendarily funny. They’re constant bit factories, firing jokes like a minigun. The shorts will upend their own narratives at a moment’s notice for the sake of a single throwaway riff. Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain might adopt a new accent or sexuality for just a few seconds for no reason other than, sure, why not?
They’re also, objectively, not very good. The Stella shorts aren’t just amateurish — they hold laziness up as a comedic virtue. According to an interview Black, Showalter, and Wain did for the DVDs of the short-lived Stella TV show, by the end of making these shorts, they straight-up made it a policy to complete a sketch, from shooting to editing, in no more than an hour.
Flubbed takes are left in, the same jokes are recycled over and over, and the premises are half-baked at best. One of the shorts is literally just the Stella guys running around with a golden retriever in slow-mo set to the tune of “Walk on the Ocean” by Toad the Wet Sprocket, and even that reuses the same couple shots a dozen times. There’s none of the filmmaking competence that might signal the future directorial successes of Showalter (The Big Sick, Hello, My Name Is Doris) and Wain (Wet Hot American Summer, Role Models, They Came Together). Violently juvenile, when they can’t think of a decent punchline, they just throw a dildo in there. And, to be clear, the dildos still get laughs pretty much every time, but each frame shouts at you how little effort was put into it.
So it’s a little surprising, in retrospect, that the Stella guys managed to assemble in these sketches as many major players in the future of mainstream comedy as they did.
Whether Black, Showalter, and Wain possess Apatovian assessments of young talent or they just happened to be in the right place and time (New York City in the late ’90s and early aughts), I’m really not sure. But even more than Wet Hot American Summer, it’s stunning how many now-ubiquitous names show up in the Stella shorts. Here, in order of appearance, we’ll catalog each supporting cast member of these zero-budget sketches who somehow went from this to comedy royalty. Because, sure, why not?
(Warning that all of the clips below are pretty NSFW, mostly due to all the aforementioned, veiny dildos.)
Leo Allen: College Reunion
Probably the least recognizable face on this list, Leo Allen has still been a powerful force in comedy for over a decade. After writing for Saturday Night Live for a few years, he wrote and produced a few short-lived Comedy Central shows. (To be fair, until very recently, seemingly every Comedy Central show was pretty short-lived.) Now, after producer stints at the Comedy Bang Bang TV show and Review, Allen is an executive producer of one of the most original comedy shows of all time, Nathan for You.
In the above, early Stella short, Allen is mostly just a gangly guy who dances around and, at one point, gets fucked in the ass for a couple seconds. Points go to him, though, for the line reading (after vomiting into a cup) on, “That’s my sperm.” These sketches are weird.
A.D. Miles: Thanksgiving, Office Party, Christmas Caroling, Whiffleball, Dickfish
A.D. Miles has popped up in a bunch of Wain’s work (Wet Hot American Summer and its subsequent Netflix sequels, Role Models, Children’s Hospital), but like Leo Allen, his biggest contributions to mainstream comedy have been in the writer’s room. Namely, Miles was the head writer for the entire run of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and, until earlier this year, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. He’s funny as both a straight man and weirdo, and it’s due to that sort of versatility that he appeared in five of the Stella shorts.
I selected Christmas Caroling to highlight here because of his scary intensity while kicking the shit out of Michael Ian Black.
Joe Lo Truglio: Thanksgiving, Office Party, Audition, Whiffleball, Poker
Also appearing in five Stella shorts (the most of anyone besides Zak Orth, who, despite recent small roles in Veep and Casual, has never really become a household name in comedy), Joe Lo Truglio is the only The State alum to lend a hand in the Stella shorts. No intro to Truglio is really necessary; he seems to have signed the same contract as Matt Walsh and Jason Mantzoukas to be a pinch hitter in every other ensemble comedy Hollywood makes. He went from meeting his The State co-creators in college at NYU to Wet Hot to becoming an Apatow movie regular to, now, being best known as perhaps the single funniest member of the stacked Brooklyn Nine-Nine cast. He’s a treasure. Duh.
Like A.D. Miles, Truglio is primarily a utility player in these sketches, but I wouldn’t say he’s ever wasted — there are few better at filling that hole than Truglio.
Zach Galifianakis: Searching for Santa
Having moved to New York to do standup in 1992 with college buddy A.D. Miles, achieving any success in comedy was a long fucking hike for Zach Galifianakis. Outside of those who got a relatively early ride on the Galifianakis train with his Live at the Purple Onion special and single-season Comedy Central show Dog Bites Man (Christ, they’ve canceled so many shows), he was a virtual unknown for a long time. And then, suddenly, he was an overnight icon with The Hangover, forcing thousands of editors to memorize how to spell that disaster of a last name. Since then, Galifianakis has been trying to shove himself away from the mainstream with obtuse projects like Baskets. But The Hangover franchise made him a comedy icon, and he’ll probably never shake that status.
Honestly, I didn’t realize for years it was Galifianakis in the Santa suit who cums in his pants in Searching for Santa. It’s a relatively small role, but Galifianakis makes even the most glib lines funny. He’s so totally himself here, and it’s a point in the column of Black, Showalter, and Wain knowing great talent when they see it.
Sam Rockwell: Bored
Goddamn, Sam Rockwell is a delight. Any movie can be made better by his presence, whether he’s uncovering a sci-fi mind-fuck in Moon or the most psychopathic guy in Seven Psychopaths. He plays unhinged better than just about anyone working today, and can portray the funniest guy in a serious movie or the most serious guy in a funny movie in equal measure. The shitty movies he’s in are always shitty despite his performances, never because of them.
By the time he was in a Stella short, Bored, Rockwell already had a long list of credits (including the role of the “regular or menthol” guy in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie!), having been acting since he was 10 years old. The short was made just around the time his two big breaks, Galaxy Quest and The Green Mile, were released in 1999. His starpower is obvious here as anywhere, with the line, “Do you think I’m some sloppy, wet pussy for you to fuck?” being maybe the funniest in the entire collection of Stella shorts.
Elizabeth Banks: Yoga
And here’s some evidence pointing toward the Stella boys not really knowing what level of talent they were dealing with. Elizabeth Banks, America’s sweetheart, is barely used in Yoga, only given a few screamed lines toward the end. Showalter and Wain would find better use for her in Wet Hot as Lindsay, who smells like hamburgers. But Yoga isn’t the best Stella short — just a boilerplate the-guys-make-trouble-and-David-gets-beat-up sketch full of dated riffs on new-agey tropes.
Banks had a few movie credits to her name when she shot this sketch, but would soon nab some small but high-profile roles in Spider-Man 2 and Seabiscuit. It wouldn’t be until 2005 that she would show the rest of the world how funny she could be in The 40-Year-Old-Virgin. Now, though, she’s one of the highest-grossing women in Hollywood, and the driving force behind the unstoppable Pitch Perfect movies. Making it all the more insane, in hindsight, that she’s relegated mostly to the background of Yoga.
Bradley Cooper: Yoga, Raking Leaves
Also pretty much wasted in Yoga, Bradley Cooper finds more to work with in the above Raking Leaves. Cooper has a career unlike anyone else in this list: With Galifianakis, he became an instant celebrity on the back of The Hangover and immediately parlayed that to leading-man status over the next few years. During that hot streak, he toplined everything from American Sniper to The A-Team to every movie David O. Russell’s made in the past five years. He’s been nominated for three Oscars, which, okay, seems insane when Sam Rockwell has none. His starpower has cooled a little in the past couple years thanks to a few very shitty movies in a row (aloha, Aloha), but for me, his involvement with Stella and Wet Hot gives him a lifetime pass. And he’ll always have Rocket Raccoon for nine more decades.
Raking Leaves taps into the persona that would make Cooper a comedy superstar in The Hangover — the smarter-than-thou douchebag. The hilarious sketch is one baffling reversal after another, and he handles himself well here as the chain-smoking Bill Zebub (“He’s satin!”), right before moving to LA for a recurring role on Alias.
Paul Rudd: The Woods
Paul Rudd began his ascent in becoming Our Favorite Young Man in 1995 with Clueless, so he had some weight to throw around prior to shooting The Woods. That resume included Cider House Rules and The Object of My Affection, clips from which are briefly seen in the sketch for some reason.
Obviously, Rudd was already a “get” for Black, Showalter, and Wain, both here and in Wet Hot. But he was definitely still an Anchorman, 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Knocked Up away from being comedy’s favorite charmer, and Wain’s go-to leading man.
Rudd is one of the few to steal focus away from the titular trio in the Stella shorts, and everything he does is funny here, whether it’s his delivery of “You can’t burn a baby!” or just wistfully resting his chin on a hot dog. These days, he’s a part of the colossal Marvel Cinematic Universe along with Cooper’s New-York-raccoon-man voice, and that sort of success was always in the cards for an effortlessly funny guy like Rudd. It’s unmistakable, even this early in his career.
Julie Bowen: Raking Leaves
Appearing with Cooper in Raking Leaves, Julie Bowen was similarly destined for great things — for Modern Family, two Emmy wins and five nominations. By the time she shot this sketch, she was already a principal cast member on Ed and in a handful of episodes of ER. She also played the love interest in Happy Gilmore — though, as with almost all female roles in Adam Sandler movies, her main job there was to be hot and patient. With Modern Family and Claire Dunphy, Bowen found gigantic piles of money and the role that would best play to her talents. Bowen elevates the tired trope of the long-suffering wife to a full, fleshed-out, funny character.
Again, the Stella crew seem a little more clued into Bowen’s potential than most (it helped, I’m sure, that Bowen was Black’s Ed co-star). As Mother Nature/Mother of God/Mother I’d Like to Fuck, Bowen is engaging and hysterical as the very horny angel sent to Earth to, I guess, encourage the guys to keep raking leaves? The lewd jokes in the sketch clash with her network sitcom persona, but suit her perfectly.
Jack McBrayer & Mather Zickel: Backstage
Counterpoint: Jack McBrayer and Mather Zickel are given nothing in this sketch — the former, not even a line — suggesting that maybe Stella really was just grabbing whoever was around for their shorts after all. McBrayer, to that point, had primarily only been active in the Chicago improv scene, and here, is only afforded a reaction shot, four years before his career-defining turn as Kenneth the Page on 30 Rock. Zickel, similarly, hadn’t appeared in much then. Since then, with his strong-jawed everyman look, he’s cropped up all over the place, most notably in the Childrens Hospital spin-off Newsreaders, Masters of Sex, Hail, Caesar! and, recently, as the white guy behind a desk in Sarah Silverman’s I Love You, America, which, great bit.
This is a dogshit sketch that doesn’t utilize these dynamic comedic actors at all.
H. Jon Benjamin: Bar
Finally, in a sketch only released as a hard-to-find Easter egg on the Stella TV show DVDs, H. Jon Benjamin fills the role of a bartender, and that’s about all there is to say about that. Although he acted here and there before filming this sketch, at this point Benjamin was really only known in certain alt circles for his voice acting. His unmistakable deadpan was featured in Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, Home Movies, and the can of vegetable in Wet Hot. While his face has shown up on camera since (like the yet-again-short-lived Jon Benjamin Has a Van Comedy Central show, co-starring and co-created by Leo Allen), his voice is now iconic — concurrently, he voices title characters Bob Belcher in Bob’s Burgers and Sterling Archer in Archer. His face may be still little-known, but his resume is fucking golden.
Again, this sketch is not great, and doesn’t let Benjamin flex his muscles even a little. It’s no surprise that they would make this short so difficult to find.
Between this, Backstage, and several more sketches toward the end not featured in this list, the signs of strain were really starting show on the Stella shorts and, presumably, live show at the Fez. The funny laziness had turned to regular laziness, and the Stella guys understandably started eyeing bigger opportunities than a semi-regular spot at a nightclub. Bigger things than three-minute sketches that — due to gratuitous dildos and constant, flagrant copyright violation of pop music — would never be able to find life in anything other than bootleg DVDs and, later, sites like CollegeHumor.
The Stella television show would only last a year. It was doomed from the jump, being too weird, too stupid and, as we’ve covered one million times here, Comedy Central canceled almost everything after one season during the mid-to-late-aughts. Bafflingly, Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain genuinely believed the show would be their long-awaited jump into the mainstream. While Wain pivoted to focusing on his directorial career, which led to his breakout Role Models in 2008, Showalter (after his directorial debut The Baxter, which no one watched) and Black made Michael and Michael Have Issues, which is the last time I’ll mention a Comedy Central show that was canceled after one season.
Skipping forward to 2017, the guys behind Stella have had careers as surprising as many of their sketches’ guest stars. While Black’s career burned more brightly than his colleagues in its earlier years, becoming a pop-culture fixture with Ed and VH1’s nostalgia-bait shows, I Love the ___s, he has kept a lower profile of late. He’s been busy releasing books and standup specials, in addition to the Wet Hot American Summer Netflix series and other revivals with the old crew — including an old-school Stella live show and filmed sketch for the San Francisco Sketchfest earlier this year.
Showalter has found his niche directing nuanced romantic comedies, his biggest success so far coming this year in The Big Sick; he also serves as executive producer on one of the funniest shows on TV right now, Search Party. Wain has established himself as a bit of a comedy tastemaker in the Apatow caste, with a bit of an alt-comedy empire spanning film, television, and web series. His next project seems to be a culmination of his ability to single out comedic talent: A Futile and Stupid Gesture, arriving next year, is a movie about comedy icons starring comedy icons, like Will Forte, Joel McHale, Matt Lucas, old pals Joe Lo Truglio, Tom Lennon, and Kerri Kenney — and a whole lot of other, younger voices on their way to becoming mainstays.
J. Michael Osborne is a writer and comedian in Chicago. He’s a producer of the live podcast We Still Like You, which has branches in Chicago, LA, Denver and Louisville.