<EM>Stella</EM> Stella

Trying to explain Stella, Comedy Central's new show (Tuesdays at 10:30pm/ET), to someone who has never seen it isn't easy. The simple answer would be that it's a half-hour comedy starring three former members of MTV's The State, Michael Ian Black, David Wain and Michael Showalter. But that's probably not enough. "It's sort of Marx Brothers mixed with Three Stooges," offers Black, best known for his role on NBC's Ed and his wry commentary on VH1's I Love the... specials. "It's not really sketches. It's self-contained stories featuring the three of us playing ourselves getting into various mishaps and scrapes."

In one recent "mishap," for instance, the guys needed disguises, so they visited a seedy "fake mustache" dealer who didn't "use his own stuff." Like any sequence on the show, this absurd moment was of course played totally straight without a wink to the audience. Oh and, as always, the guys wore their dark, retro-looking suits. (The alternative — "big housedresses and wigs," according to Wain — just wasn't practical.)

OK, that all kinda makes sense, but why call it Stella? Is it some sort of bizarre homage to A Streetcar Named Desire? In a word, no. "But we like all things Tennessee Williams," declares Black. (Actually, when Stella was first conceived in 1997 as a New York City stage show, the guys were lent performance space by a woman whose daughter was named Stella. In the spirit of coming full circle, they recently signed a poster for the youngster.)

Late last year, it appeared that there might not be any posters to sign for Stella, the series, as Black was part of the final four in contention for The Late Late Show's host chair (along with Craig Ferguson, D. L. Hughley and Damien Fahey). "It was obviously a tough time," says Wain, "because we were really excited for our friend to get a huge job, but it definitely would have prevented us from doing the series." As fate would have it though, Ferguson got the gig, and the guys, who've known each other for nearly two decades, got to transform Stella from a stage act to a rather unique TV show.

Since the trio writes and directs every episode, it has proven to be not only exhausting, but difficult to stay objective about their material. "It's definitely hard to have fresh eyes after you've written it, shot it and looked at it 400 or 500 times," says Black. Adds Wain, "But the hope is that it still, on some level, remains funny throughout, and then you know it's probably pretty good."