When Michael Showalter was a boy at summer camp in the ’80s, he soiled his pants and did what any self-respecting pre-adolescent would: hid the tainted evidence in the woods. Showalter would have gotten away with it when a group of campers found the discarded underpants — had his name not been stitched on the back.
The traumatic memory, along with the ’80s, has faded, but Showalter’s comedy routine still draws on his obsession with the era and the part-traumatic, part-hilarious experiences at the root of his summer camp hang-up.
These days, Showalter, with college buddies Michael Ian Black and David Wain, is having the last laugh as a member of the comedy trio Stella, which is coming to Columbia Saturday. Showalter and Wain, two-thirds of Stella, took a moment to talk to Vox about their act, summer camp, the ’80s and former President Bill Clinton. Besides their addiction to the new-wave era, they revealed a serious issue: major difficulties with keeping a straight face.
Self-described NYU taxidermy students Black, Showalter and Wain, along with their friends, formed a sketch comedy group in 1988 called The State that became an MTV show of the same name.
Showalter and Wain also co-wrote, with Wain directing, a film based on their experiences at summer camp in the ’80s. Now on its way to cult status, Wet Hot American Summer parodies the “campsploitation” films of the Me Generation. The movie stars Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Molly Shannon, Showalter and Black.
The movie is merely a symptom of a larger issue at play in the comedy stylings of Black, Showalter and Wain. Hung up on decades past, as the acute attention to period detail in the movie shows, the boys of Stella appear on VH1’s I Love the ’80s and I Love the ’70s.
Stella wouldn’t give away much about the show, only that audiences “should expect a lot of pizza, a fair amount of blood and a generous helping of sentimentality.” On second thought, Wain lets out that none of that is true and dispenses practical advice, “I’m not going to say what would happen if you’re sitting in the first row, but I’d wear a raincoat.”
The show apparently has the tendency to change people’s lives profoundly. “One person saw it a couple weeks ago and is now a multibillionaire,” Wain says.
Wet Hot American Summer didn’t net Stella billions of dollars, but it did receive critical acclaim and audience praise, according to the back of the DVD. The film retells, with great nuance, the last day of camp in 1981 when everyone has one last chance to meet that special someone “or lie to everyone back home about it.”
In the movie, Showalter’s and Wain’s passion for the decade shines. From the male booty shorts to the 20-sided Dungeons and Dragons die, they took great pains to recreate their childhoods.
Wain says his own summer camp experience was not that different from the one depicted in the film. “It was mostly hanging out with your friends, trying to make out with girls, having a great time.”
Ironically, the one summer Wain didn’t go to his boyhood camp was 1981, the year chronicled in the movie. Instead, Wain went to magic camp, which was different because there were no girls. He describes himself in those days as a mixture of all the losers in WHAS.
After Stella’s success and Wet Hot American Summer, what’s next? Various film projects are in the works, but the Stella guys are mum on the details. The Stella Web site, stellacomedy.com, is more forthcoming and mentions a romantic comedy parody in the works.
Aside from press clips and sexy photos of the Stella guys, the Web site offers 24 short films, free for viewing. The videos feature, among other things, a surprise cameo by former President Bill Clinton.
“We were all intricately involved in that whole Whitewater thing,” Showalter says.
The life of pro comedians isn’t all fun, games and hanging out with former leaders of the free world. Sometimes, Stella gets stage fright, and one of two things occurs.
“We run offstage,” Showalter says.
“Or pee in your pants, and I mean, specifically, your pants,” Wain says. “Remember what I said earlier about the raincoat?”
— Josh Eiserike