Stella boys late and slow at First Ave.

Fans of the comedy troupe Stella are cultists among cultists; it's a bit like being devoted to Jim Jones but preferring a specific flavor of Kool-Aid. For the uninitiated, Stella is a live stage show-turned-cancelled-Comedy-Central-series-turned-live-stage show featuring Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain, all founding members of the mid-'90s MTV sketch show the State. The Stella triumvirate performed an overwhelmingly tepid show at First Ave. last night to a mostly enthusiastic crowd.

The show eked to a start an hour and a half after the doors opened -- a significant delay for a three-man stand-up act playing to a packed house growing increasingly drunk during the interminable downtime. When the gang launched into a bit in which they listed the rules for the evening, the three asked, "Do you know the number one rule of the evening?" and a crafty heckler called out, "Yeah, don't be late!" Wain then thanked the crowd for their patience and quipped, "We were bored as hell backstage."

Image by Dan Corrigan

The boys build little momentum in the first half of the show, a series of bits that consisted of three-way banter of such forced whimsy that it recalled Bill Hicks's classic line about "plastering on a fake smile while I plow through this shit one more time." The undeniably talented performers showed flashes of wit when riffing and interacting with the crowd, but the prepared material played like a strained, nerdy Rat Pack routine.

The absurdist blend of obscure references and gleeful stupidity that made the State famous came through more in the second act. The performers lived up to their comedy rock star personas with weird, engaging bits that hit topics as varied as the group's favorite novels and Wain's sexual thrusting technique (dig the throwaway line about Christopher Marlowe and the repeated gags about forgotten bestselling author Herman Wouk). A new sketch about Showalter's birthday killed.

Stella ultimately hit more than they missed (barely), but one wonders if the audience would have been equally patient had the performers not rode in on a raft of previous accomplishments like their cinematic opus Wet Hot American Summer. There's a fine line between faux-stupidity couched in irony, wrapped in a thick layer of smarm, and just plain stupidity. That line was threatened repeatedly throughout the night.

Funny as these guys are -- and their body of work speaks for itself -- they didn't quite live up to their collective reputations. Sketch comedy is their bread and butter for a reason, apparently. Just one night prior, the Twin Cities' own comedy collective, the Minneapolis Comedy Death Squad (Chris Maddock, Patrick Bauer and Wayne Burfeind), put on a stranger, edgier show at Grumpy's, complete with an excellent new sketch and appearances from homegrown talents Andy Ritchie, Scott Brady and Isaac Witty. The Grumpy's show featured a few groaners, but the local performers outdid the visiting team belly laugh for belly laugh, and that show was free. Those damn hippies might be right -- buying local is the way to go.