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As any comic performer will attest, stand-up is a different animal than sketch comedy. So at Saturday night's sold-out show at the Lakeshore Theatre it was impressive to watch Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter —two-thirds of the popular New York nightclub ensemble Stella, which leveraged its collective insanity into one ecstatically bizarre season on Comedy Central in 2005—reinvent themselves as stand-ups. The two started in this direction a couple years ago, and their routines have a different feel, more grounded in real life, than either their old cable show or their cameos in ThinkFilm's The Ten, a darkly humorous anthology by Stella partner David Wain that opens in Chicago on August 3.
Showalter breezed through a short opening set, riffing on medical Web sites, smoking, and the tortured poetry that comes only from teenage virgins. Black, a former Chicagoan, was taping a live CD, and in his lengthier set he took off on subjects like 9/11 (while waiting in airports, his favorite pastime is playing "Who's the Terrorist") and a hostile audience in post-Katrina New Orleans. Throughout his monologue Black showed a talent for physical comedy, impersonating the whiny owner of a "Don't Blame Me: I Voted for Kerry" bumper sticker and ruefully recalling a visit to the misleadingly named Taco Palace.
After the show the two Michaels hung out in the lobby greeting fans who snapped up DVDs of the Stella video shorts that inspired the TV show. It was a series ahead of its time, about unemployed roommates who were essentially arrested in time: three business-suited adult slackers whose average emotional age was about ten. When I asked Black if people wonder if there might ever be a Stella: The Movie, he replied, "Generally, they want to know if there's going to be a second season, but what we learned from doing that show is that if nobody watches your television program the network cancels it."
Last year Black made his feature writing and directing debut with The Pleasure of Your Company, a romantic comedy starring Jason Biggs (American Pie) and Isla Fisher (The Wedding Crashers), who's engaged to Sacha Baron Cohen (now that would be a wedding to crash). The movie premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, an experience Black described as "fantastic. We had a great time. It's a beautiful city, and [the film] was received well." Bought by MGM, the movie was retitled Wedding Daze, scheduled to open in March 2007, pushed back to April, then delayed again until August. Two weeks ago the studio announced the movie's status as TBD. "It means that they're never going to release it, is what it means," said Black, who learned a week ago that the film has been permanently shelved.
Skilled poker player that he is, Black appears to be taking this setback in stride—maybe in part because this fall Picturehouse is opening a film he scripted called Run, Fat Boy, Run. Directed by another onetime Chicagoan, David Schwimmer, the romantic comedy stars Simon Pegg and Dylan Moran of Shaun of the Dead, Thandie Newton, and Hank Azaria. Black has also shot a pilot for a new Comedy Central series called Michael Ian Black Doesn't Understand. Even if a threatened strike next year by SAG, the WGA, and the DGA sends the movie and television industries reeling, Black and Showalter would appear to have their backup plans well in place.