Stella: Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter & David Wain
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The careers of Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain (who collectively make up the comedy group Stella and three-elevenths of The State) have been marked by unproduced pilots, a comedy album wasting away in Warner Bros.' vaults, and other work that never quite made it to completion. But their projects that have reached audiences–most notably, the MTV sketch-comedy show The State and the hilarious camp comedy Wet Hot American Summer–have won them a devoted cult following. After a successful run on MTV, the trio, along with the rest of The State, made the jump to CBS, but only long enough to produce an ill-fated special. In 1996, Black, along with fellow State alumni Thomas Lennon and Kerri Kenney, co-starred in Viva Variety, a State spin-off that appeared on Comedy Central. In 1997, Black, Wain, and Showalter formed Stella, which has hosted a nightclub variety show showcasing the likes of The Upright Citizens Brigade, David Cross, and Janeane Garofalo. Stella also specializes in video shorts, which have been collected on a DVD sold at shows and online. In 2001, the pitch-perfect, '80s-themed summer-camp comedy Wet Hot American Summer was released to wildly mixed reviews and anemic box-office; Wain and Showalter co-wrote the film, Wain directed, and Showalter and Black were featured actors. (Wain's role was left on the cutting-room floor.) In addition to working with Stella, Black is a cast member on TV's Ed, Showalter appeared in Signs and Kissing Jessica Stein, and Wain co-wrote a play called Sex: a.k.a. Wieners And Boobs, alongside Showalter and Joe Lo Truglio. MTV plans to release a State DVD sometime in the near future; in the meantime, The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with the members of Stella about their many minor projects, The State, and Black's career as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.
The Onion: How did the Stella tour go?
David Wain: Good. We just did sort of a test tour. We played some East Coast cities, medium-to-large cities, and the audience response, attendance, and feedback was better than we could have expected.
O: There were a lot of screaming women at the show. Do you usually get a lot of that?
DW: Usually, it's twentysomething bearded men. It seems like we have a pretty diverse following, which is nice.
Michael Ian Black: Usually, young white people like us.
O: What made you want to work together?
Michael Showalter: When we were in college, Michael Black and I were in a group at NYU called The New Group. What made us want to work together as a threesome? The three of us were sort of the Jewish people on The State. In fact, we weren't "sort of" the Jewish people–we were the Jewish people on The State, which was sort of an unspoken connection that the three of us always had. And we were discriminated against. During lunch, the three of us were always banished to one table together.
MIB: We were always seated at the kosher table.
DW: And we had to sit in the back of the van on the way to shoots.
MIB: The rest of the guys at The State founded a golf club, and we founded a knish store.
DW: One of the real answers is that when The State was in its final years, we started hanging out and going to see the alternative-comedy scene, which was just sort of being born in New York at Rebar. And the three of us were the only guys in The State who took an interest in that, and started performing in that scene. It sort of organically grew from there.
O: So it wasn't all attributable to anti-Semitism?
DW: Eighty percent.
O: Why do you think there are so many Jews in comedy?
MIB: Because big noses are funny.
DW: Also, a lot of Jews have sort of thin, spindly fingers they use to take money out of cash registers. That's very funny.
MS: If you prick them, do they not bleed?
MIB: The answer is no, they don't. They ooze. They ooze dirt.
DW: I'll tell you one guy who's not Jewish who did pretty well in comedy. A guy by the name of Johnny Carson.
O: How did you go about putting together the Stella show? How much of it was improvised? How much was written?
MIB: I would say it's about 95 percent scripted, but on any given night, we might go off-book a little bit.
MS: The stuff that has worked with us has been scripted to sound improvised.
MIB: This interview, for example, is completely scripted.
MS: It was the members of Kids In The Hall that wrote the script.
MIB: So if it's not funny, blame them.
O: You've described your onstage personas as gayer versions of yourselves. Why do you think gay is generally funnier than straight?
MS: Part of our show is that we're friends, and the strange rituals of male bonding. And there's such a fine line between male bonding and gay sex.
O: How do you guys feel about the '80s?
MIB: I'm lukewarm about them.
DW: Mike Showalter and I made a movie about the '80s. And Mike was on [VH1's] I Love The '80s.
MW: Mike and I were alive during the '80s.
O: How did you get involved with I Love The '80s?
MIB: It's a really funny story. They, I remember, called and said, "Do you want to do this?" I was like, "All right."
MS: The way I got involved was even weirder.
MIB: Why? How did you get involved?
MS: It was similar. But my manager called me.
MIB: Well, I was kind of condensing the story for the humor of it.
O: How does that show work? Do they just say, "The two Coreys: Riff!"
MIB: Yeah. That's exactly how it works.
O: Do you ever get to the point where you say, "I'm sorry. I've got nothing to say about Rick Springfield"?
MIB: Often. Although if you'd like, I can talk ad nauseam about Rick Springfield.
O: Tell me about Rick Springfield, then.
DW: What's the deal with that guy? Is it "Jessie's Girl" or "Carry Me Away"? Pick a song, Rick.
O: Michael Ian Black, you were the voice of the pets.com sock puppet. How did that happen?
MIB: A similarly very funny story. They called and said, "Do you want to audition for this?" I said, "All right."
DW: Michael Jann from The State was the director of those.
MIB: That's right. Michael Jann was the director, and I auditioned for him. Then the company went bankrupt.
DW: Now they have new pets.com commercials that are done by a different performer. They couldn't afford Michael Ian Black.
O: Did you participate in much dot.com excess?
MIB: No, not really.
O: There weren't any lavish pets.com parties or anything?
MIB: There may have been, but I wasn't invited to them. They gave me utterly worthless stock options.
O: What was it like working for MTV?
DW: We were in our early 20s. MTV was young, and we were the first show they had done narrative shooting with. So everyone was kind of figuring out what was going on. It was a great opportunity for us to kind of learn how to do everything. They let us do our show by ourselves.
O: Did they give you total autonomy?
MS: They had a pretty strict censorship department.
DW: In my opinion, we probably had more autonomy than we thought we did. We had a lot of autonomy for people who'd never done anything before.
MS: And we had all the pastrami we could eat. They gave us an unlimited amount. We had not that much autonomy, but tons of pastrami.
O: What kind of things couldn't you do?
DW: Nothing involving guns, drugs, or anything that might offend anyone that was watching. Early on, we had a mandate that everything had to be kind of pop-culture or music-related. As we developed, we were able to shed that a little.
MS: The saddest example is that we weren't able to do a sketch about an albino, because we might offend the albinos watching the show.
DW: Just mentioning albinos was a problem.
MIB: We weren't allowed to mention Bob Dylan, either. They were afraid he might get offended.
MS: No, no, no. It was because they were afraid nobody had ever heard of Bob Dylan.
O: Do you think he would have been offended if he were watching the show?
MS: Probably, because the sketch was called "Bob Dylan Is A Fat Motherfucker."
DW: If you watch the first season of The State, though, we slipped references to Bob Dylan in every single sketch.
MS: But it's like, "Why would Bob Dylan get offended by a sketch called 'Bob Dylan Is A Fat Motherfucker'?" Which is what we said to MTV at the time. But they said no.
MS: It was obviously satire, but the way we did it was with extreme realism.
MIB: Oh, yeah, it was very artful.
DW: And we did it postmodern gothic.
O: Did they encourage you to spoof MTV shows? There's something very self-referential about MTV.
MIB: They did encourage us to spoof other MTV shows.
MS: Which we tried.
MIB: And missed. We weren't very good at it.
DW: MTV is definitely MTV's favorite subject.
O: What was the culture like at MTV during that time?
DW: Very young. There were more interns than paid staff. Everyone was freelance. No one knew what they were doing.
MS: No one wore shoes.
MIB: It was nice. They had casual Fridays, so one day a week I could just wear Dockers and maybe an Izod.
MS: I didn't even wear my Dockers on Friday. Michael Ian Black was notorious for writing on his jeans with magic marker.
DW: I got very disillusioned when I found out that all the rock stars aren't there all day in the hallways.
MIB: A lot of them are. But not all of them.
O: Did you fraternize a lot with other MTV employees?
MIB: Yeah, especially the cafeteria workers.
DW: There was a VJ there named Kennedy that we fraternized with, and Tabitha Soren, or Crabitha Soreass, as we liked to call her.
MS: Kennedy was cool, but Tabitha Soren was a big snob.
O: Who was the oldest person at MTV when you were there?
DW: Our producer and manager, Jon Bendis, was 40 at the time, so he was excommunicated from the building. 'Cause he's a wild child.
MIB: MTV is a lot like being in Menudo.
O: You get kicked out after a certain age? Like in Logan's Run?
MIB: It's a lot like Logan's Run, but my reference was funnier.
MS: It's like Menudo in that you get kicked out at a certain age, but also in that you're forced to perform songs in Latin in five-part harmony. It's so weird. You think you're going there to work in television, but for the first three months, you're singing songs in Latin.
MIB: And the dance training is intense. Really intense, but really rewarding. I was in the best shape of my life when I was working there. My abs were so rock-hard.
MS: Your abs were so hard, and you were glistening with sweat. And those headbands were just awesome.
MIB: But you can't keep the headbands. They recycle them.
O: What happened with the State comedy album?
MIB: It didn't work out that well.
DW: We went down to Jamaica for a couple of weeks. We kind of went down there and recorded a bunch of shtick.
MS: The funniest part is that we didn't actually go down to Jamaica.
DW: Yeah, it was the Bahamas.
MIB: It's funny: Sometimes you'll see a comedian and he'll go, "Hey, the network gave me a bunch of money to make this special, and I blew it, and now I guess I have to do a special!" That's kind of what we really did with our album. They gave us a bunch of money to make an album, and we kind of did.
MS: The fact of the matter is, by the time we made that record, we kind of didn't really like working together that much.
DW: I think the album is very funny, but I think I'm alone in that. There's some very funny things on there.
O: What's the album like?
MS: It'd be really funny if you were one brain cell shy of dead. If you had just almost entirely OD'd on something, you'd think it was really funny.
DW: It's a collection of various kinds of audio comedy and sketches and so forth. It's inconsistent, but I think there's a lot of funny things on there.
O: What was Warner Bros.' reason for not releasing it?
MIB: The fact that it was terrible.
MS: Well, the fact that it was terrible and that we weren't really an existing troupe by the time we finished making it.
DW: The idea for the album was that it would come out in conjunction with our CBS TV series and our Disney movie. None of those things happened.
O: The next question would be, what happened with the Disney movie and CBS series?
DW: The answer, though, is once we turned in the album, we literally never heard from Warner Bros. again.
MS: The weird part is that we think now that we were actually the last record Warner ever made.
DW: I think they're just waiting to release it in the right quarter.
MIB: When they need a huge sales upsurge, then they're going to release it.
DW: What happened to the CBS special?
MIB: If I remember correctly, it aired on a Friday and they fired us on the following Tuesday.
DW: There were a lot of problems around that.
MS: We were involved in a scandal.
O: What scandal was that?
MS: The late-night executive at CBS had some interesting opinions about black people. Somehow, his interesting opinions about black people made their way into an article about us in Details magazine. For about three days, we were like a major story, because he lost his job and we lost our careers. He had some very unflattering opinions, let's put it that way.
DW: That story got out, and then this executive eventually had to resign. When it all broke down, we were in the Bahamas recording the record, so we were unavailable for comment.
MS: As far as this interview is concerned, I was not present.
O: What happened to the Disney movie?
MS: The movie got made. It made a lot of money. It was called Lethal Weapon. It was made under one of Disney's children companies. Michael Black plays Lieutenant Murtaugh, an older black policeman.
DW: The Disney thing was a classic example of them telling us that they love us and want to do a State movie, and then every idea we gave them, they were like, "No, could you make it more of a regular Hollywood movie?"
O: Has that been the pattern for a lot of the projects you've been involved with?
MS: The projects we've done that have been meant to be seen have pretty much been seen. I'm not really sure that the movie was entirely where we were at that point anyway.
O: Of all the projects that didn't work out, what did you most regret not having seen through to completion?
MS: My first marriage.
MIB: My first orgasm. It got stifled halfway up my penis and it's still there. It's still hanging there. It's stuck.
DW: I wish we'd done one more season of The State.
MIB: I wish David had done one more season of The State, too.
O: Before The State, you did a show called You Wrote It, You Watch It. What was the premise of that show?
MS: It's all in the title.
DW: We'd go around and interview people on the street and get their funny stories, then intercut their interviews with our funny reenactments of what they said.
MIB: We ended up making up a lot of it.
DW: At the risk of being teased, I think it's some of the funniest stuff we've ever done.
MIB: My God, you're just not going to shut up, are you?
DW: I'm hoping that when MTV puts out The State on DVD, they're going to include some of the You Wrote It, You Watch It pieces.
O: What happened with Wet Hot American Summer? People seemed to really like it, but it didn't make a whole lot at the box office.
DW: It wasn't supported by the studio that released it. That's kind of the short version of it.
O: How has it been doing on DVD?
DW: It's unclear. According to the studio reports, nobody is buying it, but according to what we think, a lot of people have seen it.
MS: It's obviously reached a certain audience in a very big way. It's not making anybody any money, but that's okay.
MIB: Oh, really? 'Cause I've made a lot of money off it.
MS: It's a major cult film.
O: Has it opened doors for you?
DW: I've found it to be a huge doorway in, but it's also a double-edged sword, because it's not in the mold of what Hollywood wants to make, so you have to do a lot of convincing.
O: Was it a hard project to get off the ground?
DW: We spent three years trying to get it financed, so yes.
O: Early-'80s summer-camp movies are kind of an obscure target for satire. What made you want to go in that direction?
DW: We just wanted to do a camp movie, a movie about camp that would be relatively easy to shoot, so we could use a lot of our friends in the cast. It kind of organically developed that way. We weren't like, "Let's spoof all the camp movies." To shoot a movie that was all in one location and mostly outside, we thought would be easy. We didn't know there was going to be freezing cold and raining most of the shoot. It was fun, but it was hard, because of the horrible weather conditions and the very restricted budget and schedule.
O: Michael Ian Black, on the Internet Movie Database, your first film is listed as Cults: Saying No Under Pressure. What can you say about that?
MIB: Well, it was an industrial film telling teenagers not to join cults, and I was really, really good and acne-ridden in it.
MS: I'm in a movie currently that's only being shown in the Church Of Latter Day Saints.
O: What's it called?
MS: I don't know yet. It's being edited as we speak.
O: Is it an explicitly Mormon film?
MS: Yep. I did it for the money.
MIB: I saw it, and it really helped my relationship with my daughter.
MS: I hope so. I got paid $250,000 to do it, otherwise I wouldn't have done it. It's about God, and why you should believe in God, and specific ways you should believe in God. I completely don't subscribe to the message of the movie, but I got paid so much money for it.
MIB: He reprised his role in Signs in it.
MS: Yes. As Lionel Prichard. They had to promise me they'd only show the movie in the Church Of Latter Day Saints. They won't show it anywhere else, and they can't release it on video. Anyone out there who's in the Church Of Latter Day Saints, look out for it.
O: How was making Signs?
MS: It was fun. M. Night Shyamalan is, I think, a god, like a movie god.
O: Did you see that as being an overtly religious film?
MS: Oh, yeah, definitely. It's a movie with very strong spiritual undertones and overtones.
DW: And midtones.
MIB: And crop circles.
MS: And crop circles. And Mel Gibson, as well.
MIB: Ah, Mel Gibson. Hurt me!
O: Did you get to work with Mel Gibson a lot?
MS: If you consider the table reading I did as working with him a lot, then yes. I was only on set for about four hours, so there was only so much I could do.
O: Two of you were on Crank Yankers. Was it exciting being rendered in puppet form?
MS: I was asked to be on it, but I couldn't do it.
DW: That's right. He had to go to the dentist.
MIB: I didn't like doing it.
DW: I think it's some of the funniest stuff we've ever done.
MS: He does. That's what's so unbelievable. There's no critical eye. There's no critical anything. Everything you do, you love. It's like some weird form of autism. He likes everything he's ever done.
MIB: That's a good way to go through life.
MS: It's not a positive outlook, though. It's like mental retardation. It's like Chauncey Gardner in Being There. What did you think of that movie, David? Did you like it?
MIB: It's the best work Peter Sellers has ever done.
O: Was it exciting being a puppet?
MIB: It wasn't that. I just didn't like making crank calls. I felt very uncomfortable doing it.
DW: Did you like seeing that they made a puppet that was supposed to look like you?
MIB: Not really.
DW: I liked that.
MIB: My puppet had horrible chapped lips. It had horrible, like, herpes-chapped lips.
DW: I thought he looked like Robby Benson.
MIB: I did look like Robby Benson.
MS: Did you jerk off to that thought?
DW: No. I'm straight.
O: Michael Ian Black, you appeared in The Bogus Witch Project. How did that come about?
MIB: It's the best work I've ever done. It turned out really, really good. It was one of these funny things where the girl who was directing it said, "Do you want to do it?" And I said, "Yeah, all right." Artistically, it was really fulfilling.
MS: We've made some lapses in judgment,
MIB: It wasn't that. I was trying to do a friend a favor. It turned out to be The Bogus Witch Project.
O: Michael Ian Black, I've read that you toured America as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Is that true?
MIB: That's true. Michael [Showalter] was in How I Learned To Drive, which won a Pulitzer Prize. I was in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
DW: Which won a Tony.
O: What was it like touring America as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle?
MIB: In a word: smelly. My primary memory is that it was smelly, and that there was a lot of pizza involved.
DW: My understanding was that you were not actually in the show, but rather did the live appearances in malls and stuff before the show.
MIB: That's right. Me and Ben Garant from The State toured the country promoting the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the show. We were turtles promoting other turtles.
O: Was that a fulfilling experience?
MIB: It was, actually. It was a fulfilling experience financially for me at the time. I was 18 or 19.
O: Do you ever wish you could reprise that role?
MIB: I have. Many times.
MS: Mike's wearing a turtle costume right now.
MIB: I'm dressed as Donatello.
DW: I'm dressed as Benjamin Franklin.
MS: I'm dressed as Bluebeard the Pirate.