Michael Showalter is all over New York City. Literally. He's "the man in the hard hat on the far left." That is, he is one-third of the comedy troupe Stella, wearing a hard-hat next to David Wain and Michael Ian Black (from I Love the '90s and Ed) in posters advertising the new Comedy Central show Stella, that are plastered to every single flat, outdoor surface in Manhattan. In addition to staring smugly at you on your way to work, Showalter's second major motion picture, The Baxter, which he wrote, directed and stars in, hits theaters in August. So if that guy on the far left looks familiar, it's probably because you've seen him before.
"I was never like, 'I'm a comedian,' until very recently," Showalter explains. "It took me a while to be able to say that." This is surprising, given that the 34-year-old has devoted the past 15 or so years of his life to various comedic endeavors. And he, along with Wain and Ian Black, are probably the closest thing there is to New York comedy royalty. While their previous ventures, like the short-lived MTV sketch show The State and the cultishly popular 2001 film Wet Hot American Summer went over the heads of many Americans, critics hailed them as groundbreaking and Showalter and company were propelled to cult-like status. With Stella slated to fill in the coveted Tuesday night spot left open by Chappelle's Show and with the more traditional romantic comedy The Baxter coming soon to a theater near you, Showalter is diving head-first into the mainstream.
After spending his formative years growing up in Princeton, New Jersey, (both of his parents are retired professors) Showalter moved to New York to attend NYU. After his freshman year, he transferred to Brown, but not until he had met his future troupe-mates, Ian Black and Wain. The young men, along with a handful of other improv funnies, formed the comedy group The State in New York City in 1988, and after graduating from college, peddled their sketch comedy genius to MTV.
The State was equal parts hilarious and totally retarded -- think SNL on crack -- and ran on MTV from 1994 to 1995. After an unsuccessful leap from cable to prime-time, from MTV to CBS, The State kids hung up their collective hat in 1995. But Showalter, Wain and Ian Black remained collaborators and in 1997, created Stella, a weekly comedy show at Fez. Peppered with "Stella shorts," silly little films featuring former State members and more established actors like Paul Rudd and Josh Hamilton, the shows were all the buzz around town. They ultimately took their gig on the road, and performed to sold-out audiences across the country. For kids with a Simpsons sensibility disillusioned with the schlock that passed for stand-up comedy in the late-'90s, the slapstick, rude and irreverent comedy of Stella was a welcome reprieve.
In 2001, Showalter co-wrote (with Wain), produced and starred in the summer camp farce Wet Hot American Summer, which featured Janeane Garafolo, Rudd, Amy Poehler and Ian Black. Making Wet Hot, Showalter explained, was all about the drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll. "No one did anything but party for six weeks -- there was drinking, drug use, sex." For Showalter, that film was something of a "last hurrah." He said, "I used to be kind of wild, but I decided I wanted to focus on different things, I reprioritized. I decided to start living a different way; living during the day instead of at night."
After watching The Baxter, it's clear that Showalter has settled down a bit. There are no steamy gay sex scenes in the barn a la Wet Hot. Instead, it is above all, a sweet, albeit slightly deranged, traditional romantic comedy. Showalter stars as Elliot Sherman, aka The Baxter, aka "the wrong guy," aka the socially awkward tax accountant who always seems to get left for the smarter, funnier, handsomer other guy. Neurotic but not nebbishy, Elliot "is less Jew-y, and more WASP-y than Woody Allen," according to Showalter. Michelle Williams plays Cecil, the small-town, equally awkward young temp who helps Elliot change his ways. It's one of those meta romantic comedies about romantic comedies -- hence, Cecil's wise advice to Elliot: "Your problem is that you're not willing to take a risk. Leading men take risks."
On moving in new directions, Showalter says, "I can't just be totally mainstream, but I tried to make a film that everyone could enjoy -- including my parents and my nephew." In reaction to the envelope-pushing, edgy, and at times exceedingly crude material in Wet Hot, he says, "I tried to get out the other part of me that really likes graceful, polite things. I tried to immerse myself in a world where people behave."
That's not to say that Showalter has abandoned his silly side. Stella is a half-hour of ridiculous, totally wacko comedy. In the pilot episode, the three ambiguously homosexual roommates (Showalter, Wain and Ian Black), get evicted from their apartment, take part in a choreographed dance in front of a co-op board, perform open-heart surgery on their Nazi landlord (and fail and end up killing him), and are rewarded with a toaster, a laundry basket and a polar fleece. Stella is certainly not your little nephew's comedy show. Journalists left and right are wondering whether it will succeed in appealing to a broad audience. Slate's Dana Stevens recently asked, "Can a show like Stella -- abstract, high-concept and defiantly weird -- attract a wide enough base of viewers to deliver on the network's expectations?" If the first episode is any indication, odds are most lay-folk will be left scratching their heads and going "whaaaa?" But if equally baffling shows like Arrested Development and MTV2's Wonder Showzen are able to stay afloat, perhaps there is hope for Stella.
So, this summer, to put it mildly, is a big summer for Showalter -- and he couldn't be more excited. "Both of these projects are part of a larger thing that I'm doing," he says, referring to the group of comics with whom he has collaborated for the past 15 years or so. Wain and Ian Black are both featured prominently in The Baxter. Elizabeth Banks and Paul Rudd, who star opposite Showalter in the movie, will make guest appearances in Stella. Other lesser known Wet Hot staples (A.D. Miles and Zak Orth, for example) appear in both The Baxter and Stella. "We're like a big troupe, a big company," Showalter says proudly. And whether the television show and the film become huge successes or fail fantastically, it's clear that little boys and girls for generations to come will discover Showalter's oeuvres on the "Staff Picks" shelf in their local indie video stores, and know that they have found their hero.
Stella airs on Tuesdays at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central. The Baxter opens on August 26.