This weekend marked the release of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, and it couldn’t have arrived sooner. As the episode-formatted, Netflix-distributed prequel to 2001 cult classic Wet Hot American Summer, First Day will hopefully regenerate interest in the unique absurdist humor associated with The State, the eleven-person, NYU-hatched comedy troupe that broke into the mainstream in the early 90s with an MTV sketch show that resembled little else on television. Theirs is a sensibility largely missing from the American comedic landscape: unapologetic anarchy.
With sketches like “Porcupine Racetrack” and “The Bearded Men of Space Station 11,” The State’s TV series should have revolutionized American comedy, but instead settled for a profound influence on the stranger undercurrents of the last twenty years of screen humor, from Mr. Show to the entire Adult Swim lineup. Meanwhile, as their ripples grew into waves, The State‘s cast branched off into various post-MTV factions to create even more terrific material: Viva Variety, Reno 911, and, of course, Wet Hot. But perhaps the purest form of State-esque humor exists in Stella, the comedy group comprised of Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain. Initially existing on screen in a series of raunchy and unhinged web shorts, Stella courted the spotlight with their own eponymous Comedy Central show, which premiered a decade ago this summer, and lasted all of ten episodes.
A clear reason exists for the show’s short life. Stella mixes the theater of the absurd with the theater of cruelty—anything goes, and often in the direction of the socially destructive or, at best, socially useless. The Marx Brothers are Stella’s most obvious predecessors, but so are Monty Python and Zucker-Abraham-Zucker, the team behind spoofs such as Airplane! and Police Squad. What distinguishes these giants is not their aptitude for poking fun at social niceties and conventions—the baseline of all humor—as much as their genius for creating worlds that defy rationality. Their jokes work beyond “the punchline” by reordering logic itself.
Recently re-watching Stella in anticipation for Wet Hot (which was created by Showalter and Wain), I tried to better understand what made the show’s approach so resistant to mainstream acceptance. In so doing I was struck by how strongly the show’s excessive tendencies emulate those of—stay with me here—David Lynch. Of course, Lynch is associated with the nightmarish rather than the silly, but one can make the case that his work mirrors darkly the properties of absurdist humor by fashioning scenarios beyond the reach of immediate sense. Gravitating toward the bizarre, Lynch hits upon what Slavoj Zizek calls “the ridiculous sublime”—the same could be said of Stella, though its disorientation generates laughter rather than dread. Todd McGowan provides a key to understanding this affinity in his book-length study The Impossible David Lynch:
There is something fundamentally liberatory in the structure of fantasy. Because fantasy stages a scene rather than providing an answer on the level of thought alone, it is able to show us what necessarily remains invisible within the symbolic structure. Fantasy takes the subject beyond the rules that govern possible experience—beyond the limits of the understanding—and thereby envisions the impossible. […] On the one hand, this image of the beyond deceives the subject into thinking that it has access to an object that it doesn’t in actuality have; but on the other hand, the fantasmatic scenario allows the subject to enter a place where the ordinary rules no longer apply. By immersing ourselves in this beyond and remaining faithful to fantasy’s logic, we inject, as it were, a different order of causality into the phenomenal world. It is in this sense that complete identification with the fantasy’s detour has the status of an ethical act, an act in which we disregard the entire field of representation and the dictates of symbolic law.”
McGowan suggests that rather than providing too much fantasy, most entertainment fails to provide enough fantasy, consistently pulling back from the disturbing areas into which total fantasies necessarily enter—the breach of social order, or “what necessarily remains invisible within the symbolic structure.” If I understand McGowan correctly, Hollywood usually qualifies fantasy by making it socially useful, employing it to reconcile conflicts that in actuality never possess easy or complete resolutions. The average sitcom encourages us to excuse its half-hearted and ideologically questionable flights of fancy—e.g., the Friends’ unaffordable apartments in a nearly all-white Manhattan—simply because these flights create comfortable vacuums in which our heroes Learn to Put Their Selfishness Aside for the Greater Good, or Realize That Money’s Not Everything, or Come To Understand That One Must Always Follow Her Dreams. Full immersion into mayhem becomes sacrificed for wishy-washy daydreams.
Stella didn’t give a damn about any of that: Black, Showalter, and Wain made a fierce commitment to living out their comedic fantasies, however anti-social. In an episode titled “Camping,” for instance, the guys try to rough it but immediately make a hash of things by wandering into the woods with only a big-screen TV. A mountain man (Tim Blake Nelson) attempts to leads them back to civilization, only to get shot when Showalter inexplicably mistakes him for wildlife (“I thought it was a turkey—I swear to God!”). Still alive, the guide is finally shot in the head by Black, who justifies his actions by claiming “it was either him or us.” After a nonsensical Mexican stand-off (“Why are you pointing the gun at me, David? I’m trying to help you!” “I know—it’s weird.”), the guys eat the mountain man and then transform into feral savages, unruly beards and all. Funny and troubling, but even more so is the “back to reality” solution to this madness. Once rescued, the guys learn that the mountain man was a hallucination of the great-grandfather of a friendly park ranger (also played by Nelson). The only consumed meat was, it turns out, hamburger, but when the guys ask whom they actually shot, the park ranger replies nonchalantly: “Nobody, a backpacker. His name was, uh… John Richards. He was a loser.” Everybody’s satisfied—complete fantasy necessitates a complete disengagement from ethical behavior and empathy, with no exceptions.
Even when Stella delivers a “positive message” it does so in an over-the-top manner that privileges the excessive expression of that message over the message itself—which is, after all, nothing but a hollow cliché. Since almost every episode tests the guys’ loyalty to one another, the show’s recurring theme becomes The Value of Friendship. But climactic reconciliations typically devolve into childlike displays of hand-holding, pogo-ing, and collective chants of “Yay!!! We did it!!! We did it together!!!” Here again Stella takes fantasy to its logical conclusion by demonstrating that a truly uninhibited celebration of camaraderie would take form as something typically perceived as immature and strange.
Other “happy” endings in Stella revel in a surfeit of good fortune that fulfills the most self-aggrandizing of fantasies. In the show’s pilot episode the guys induce a heart attack in Mr. Mueller, their stern German landlord (Peter McRobbie). They then botch his surgery (at one point removing an entire rib cage), killing him. The episode appears to end on a down note, but then a yalmulke’d man—Elliot Morgenthal (Zak Orth), from the Labenthal Foundation—suddenly appears in order to explain that Mr. Mueller was in actuality none other than Joseph Mengele, the infamous Auschwitz “doctor”—the guys receive three months free rent, a toaster, a wicker laundry basket, and some fleece Polos for their unintended service to humanity. The joke hinges on a complete, rather than partial, commitment to fantasy: Black, Showalter, and Wain—all Jewish—don’t just exact vengeance on the Nazis, but do so against one of the most notorious Nazis of them all (who happened to die in 1979). And though it may make up for the guys’ medical malpractice, the revelation of Mr. Mueller’s identity becomes worth celebrating primarily for occasioning material rewards. In this regard Stella hilariously foreground the inherent selfishness and uselessness of revenge fantasies, and in the process show up the likes of Quentin Tarantino, whose recent attempts to recuperate bloodlust through historical wish-fulfillment betray a craven, insipid hypocrisy.
Should all comedy so fervently transcend reality? Probably not—few know how to do it right, and an overload of absurdist humor would likely destroy the special enjoyment derived from its scarcity. Nonetheless, I would like to see more comics use visual media to go wild with imagination—however “pointless”—rather than feel a responsibility to address the concerns of “real life,” which is any case only one facet of existence. There’s nothing more pretentiously polite than “important” comedy, and most recent attempts to repackage that brand by adding curse words and explicit sex talk—especially re: the Apatow factory—reek of a desperation to stay relevant. Yet nothing remains more consistently relevant than the irreverent, which ceaselessly upends our lame attempts to inject sense and decorum into this mad, mad, mad, mad world. One hopes that not only will the Wet Hot TV series remind us of this, but also remind the world of Stella, comedic anarchy’s finest representatives.