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‘Stella’ aims for wacky, times three

Comedy Central turns New York sketches into a full show
/ Source: The Associated Press

To hear them talk, it’s no accident that two members of the comedy trio Stella share the same first name.

“It was by arrangement,” declares Michael Ian Black.

“We arranged it,” echoes Michael Showalter.

So why aren’t all three of them named Michael?

“We tried,” insists David Wain, who, with Michael and Michael, is occupied these days with a more pressing matter: bringing their screwball vision to TV in a series named “Stella.”

Premiering 10:30 p.m. EDT Tuesday on Comedy Central, “Stella” features the madcap misadventures of three men who wear business suits but behave like children held back a couple of grades.

Sharing an earth-toned, kitsch-filled apartment in what looks like outer-borough New York City, they are happy-go-lucky comrades. Think: not so manic Marx Brothers, not so fractious Three Stooges — or maybe Pee-wee Herman times three, minus the plaid.

Make no mistake, no one’s named Stella. But “Stella” is replete with sight gags, surreal twists and loopy dialogue as each tale unfolds.

On the first episode, our heroes get evicted from their apartment after the downstairs neighbors complain to the landlord about their loud music. Suddenly homeless, Michael, Michael and David are out on the street. Bums. In suits.

Then, looking to buy a 3,000-square-foot co-op, they seek approval from the building’s snobby co-op board. With a rousing dance number. In suits ... accessorized with skunk tails.

“They don’t know that anybody thinks of them as dopes,” says Wain, the Stella member who wears glasses.

“And they don’t know that they’re funny — that’s the farthest thing from their minds,” adds Showalter, the one who slightly resembles talk-show host Joe Scarborough.

“They’re total innocents,” says Black, the one who neither wears glasses nor resembles Joe Scarborough. “They have the best of intentions.”

“What they most want,” says Showalter, “is not to be bored. That’s the prime motivator for them at all times.”

Seriel sillinessMaybe that’s also the case with him, Black and Wain. Even when taking a break to chat with a reporter at the sprawling Brooklyn loft where their series is shot, they amuse themselves, however deadpan, with the same thing that makes “Stella” tick: serial silliness.

“That’s what we do,” says Wain, who, with his partners, not only stars but also writes and produces. “Silly humor. We’re silly.”

The three have practiced sharply wrought silliness, both together and apart, since meeting at New York University in 1988. A few years later, they helped create the groundbreaking sketch comedy show “The State,” which ran on MTV.

Among other projects was the 2001 comedy film “Wet Hot American Summer,” which Wain directed and co-wrote. It featured Showalter, who was also in the original off-Broadway cast of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “How I Learned to Drive.” Black was part of the Comedy Central series “Viva Variety” and more recently appeared on NBC’s “Ed” as Phil Stubbs, the manager of Stuckeybowl.

Stella began in 1997 as a weekly nightclub comedy showcase they hosted as a sideline in Greenwich Village until last year.

“The woman who originally booked the room we appeared in was pregnant at the time,” Black recalls, “and if it was a girl she planned to name the baby Stella. So we appropriated that name for the show. We thought it was classy.

“We’re about nothing, if not class.”

‘Worships at the altar of Benny Hill’Eventually the name was applied to the troupe itself, while the three characters — demented versions of the real-life Michael, Michael and David — evolved in a string of comic videos created for the nightclub show.

Now viewable online, these hilarious shorts are as raunchy as the TV series is clean-cut.

The threesome made other refinements in adapting Stella to television.

“We didn’t want to make a sketch comedy show,” says Wain. “We’ve put a lot of effort into making sure a good story gets told to hang the jokes on.”

So, how do they go about writing the show?

“I would say there’s a huge overlap in our sensibilities,” Black explains, “and then on the margins there are things that each of us likes that the others don’t. For instance, Showalter worships at the altar of Benny Hill.”

“The really stupid slip-on-the-banana-peel stuff!” says Showalter with approval. Then, turning to Black, he admits, “I don’t know what your specialty is.”

“Moliere,” replies Black. “The entire Comedie-Francaise.”

“I’m more influenced by the dadaists,” announces Wain.

“Really?” says Showalter, an eyebrow raised. “Who’s your favorite dadaist?”

“Ohhhh,” says Wain, not missing a beat, “I wouldn’t know where to start.”