In the summer of 1994, I spent hours studying a sketch comedy show. I’m talking hours. I had several reasons, the first being I was a bored high schooler with plenty of free time but also because the show was unlike any I’d ever seen before.
The State ran for two seasons on MTV, from 1993 until 1995. At one point, the show ran on continuously, almost every few hours at one point. I watched it every single time, some episodes up to 20 times, not just because it made me laugh so hard but because it seemed to push the boundaries of what I thought sketch comedy was “supposed” to be. SNL, The Kids In The Hall, SCTV all had sketches and premises that occasionally went off the rails but none of those shows ever introduced characters so sophomorically absurd.
Louie, the guy who liked to dip his balls into things.
The motivational ways of Capt. Monterey Jack.
The old fashioned guy.
Barry, Levon and two hundred pounds of pudding.
It was also impossible, at least for me, to pick a favorite performer. Unlike the other sketch shows, everyone on The State had the ability to become my favorite in that moment, that joke, that sketch. There were performers and sketches on SNL and SCTV that I didn’t care for but I’d watch any sketch, any premise and any character at any time.
Though the show had a short run on the music channel, the cast never went away. They moved on to become the creators and stars of countless comedic masterpieces. Reno 911 and Wet Hot American Summer are the first time spring to mind but there also Viva Variety, Stella, Michael And Micheal Have Issues and too many others to list. The shows were finally released on DVD a few years ago and the cast has had mini-reunions here and there — most notable San Francisco Sketchfest — but the troupe has never had their SNL Live From New York-style story told….until now.
The Union of The State is an oral history of the acclaimed troupe’s creation, dissolution, reinvention and reunion, told by all members of the group: Kevin Allison, Michael Ian Black, Robert Ben Garant, Todd Holoubek, Michael Patrick Jann Kerri Kenney-Silver Thomas Lennon Joe Lo Truglio Ken Marino Michael Showalter David Wain.
The book follows the members of The State from their time as classmates at New York University in the late 1980s to their quick ascent to fame via their three-season, sketch-comedy TV series and through their post-MTV projects. It also includes histories of the movie-turned-Netflix-series, Wet Hot American Summer, the Comedy Central hit Reno 911! and cult favorite Stella.
Writer Corey Stulce, much like myself and countless others, considers The State “his” sketch show — the show that spoke to his generation of comedy writers and fans. Prior to the books release, Corey talked with me about the show, putting the book together and how one group of people produced so much influential comedy.
Q: How did the project come about?
After pushing my face to glass trying to get a glimpse of The State reunion in San Francisco in 2009, and not having a ticket, I thought, “These guys need a book.” I knew some of the members a bit from prior interviews, and I started feeling them out to see if they would be interested in a book.
I approached Kevin first and we did a couple sample interviews. They went well—he’s a natural storyteller—and then I asked Kerri. She said yes. Michael Black said yes. And so on.
For most of a year, I did interviews with all of them and I think they started talking to each other about it. “What’s this guy’s plan?” In January 2014, I met with Michael Showalter at SF Sketchfest to lay down the skinny on my plans. I sent The State a proposal on what I thought the book should be, got the members’ input, and it was off to the races. A little more than two years after that, the book is ready.
Q: How hard was it to track down everyone?
It wasn’t too difficult tracking anyone down, even Todd Holoubek, who lives in South Korea. We ended up doing all of our interviews in Google Hangouts when it was nighttime for me and morning for him. The challenge was finding time with everyone. These are some of the busiest folks working in show business, fortunately for them.
So we would schedule time whenever we could. Of course, once I got a good story from one, it typically involved a least one of the others, so I would need to follow up with multiple people.
There are so many people involved with The State’s story and the same people kept coming up, like the head of MTV at the time, Doug Herzog, the executive producer of “The State,” Eileen Katz, and their former agent, James Dixon, that I had to track them down, too, in order to get their take on the stories.
There are 40+ voices in the book.
Q: Is the book written as an oral history or in chapters?
It’s an oral history, in chapters, loosely chronological.
Q: How has The State influenced you?
“The State” debuted when I was a freshman in college and it instantly became “my” sketch show. I have loved sketch since my father introduced me to Aykroyd and Belushi at around five years old, but there was something different about The State. I think it’s their approach of not wanting to do pop culture stuff that really grabbed me. Most of their sketches are evergreen and are just as funny and poignant today as twenty-five years ago.
When I started writing sketch comedy with St. Louis’ NonProphets, they were a huge influence on my style.
Q: Why do you think one comedy troupe produced so many successful performers?
As much as I don’t believe in a thing called fate, I think these eleven people were destined to find each other. You’ll see in the book that the way they crossed paths is pretty magical. Their drive and competitive nature is what made them so strong—and ultimately tore them apart. They worked so hard to be funnier than the one standing to their left that it was inevitable that they would always have comedic appeal. From the first days, they also did multiple jobs, so by the time they began working apart, they could pretty much land anywhere in show business and do well: acting, writing, producing, directing.
That said, it’s amazing that all of them are doing so well. Everyone is still working in entertainment. Todd chose to leave show business but he’s a successful artist/teacher in Korea, so even he couldn’t stray from the arts.
One of the reasons I got so excited about telling The State’s story is that there isn’t another like it in the history of show business.
The Union Of The State is available now on Amazon.