Just four days after Barack Obama’s inauguration, another emblem of national unity and pride will cause the masses to assemble: For the first time in 14 years, all 11 members of the iconic, pioneering sketch comedy group the State will reunite onstage to perform more than an hour’s worth of new material at San Francisco’s Sketchfest. Up to a million viewers watched the State’s surreal, absurdist sketches for four seasons on MTV between 1993 and 1995. The group then failed to win a CBS contract and splintered into sub-projects for more than a decade. Now, two intimate State reunion shows on January 24th have sold out in minutes, faster than any event in SF Sketchfest’s eight-year history, say organizers of the 12,000 attendee, three-week festival. Such fan rapacity is more evidence of the group’s enormous legacy, which has seeded dozens of projects including Reno 911! and Stella, and films like Role Models and Wet Hot American Summer.
Rolling Stone sat down with five cast members — Michael Ian Black, Thomas Lennon, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Ken Marino and David Wain — to talk fistfights, ball smoke, trucker speed and more State projects.
The State formed at New York University when you were all in college and many of you now live in L.A. What’s this reunion doing in San Francisco?
David Wain: We didn’t realize that Rolling Stone had moved to New York. That’s why we set this thing up in San Francisco. We wanted to be wherever Rolling Stone was. That didn’t really work out for us.
Thomas Lennon: It’s weird, because we sort of operate like a band, by which I mean, a sort of dysfunctional band; by which I mean — we fight a lot. But once we’re up onstage, and once we’re all together, you remember why we were such a cohesive and fun group to be in. And I’m curious for people to see us all old and wrinkled and sad.
Kerri Kenney-Silver: Personally, I thought at least half of us would be dead by now.
Wain: Shockingly, everyone in the group is unbelievably busy. By last count seven of us have directed feature films. It wasn’t a question of getting anyone to sign on, it was a question of coordinating our availability.
If sketch comedy is a lot like being in a band, and there’s 11 of you, what does that make you? Afrobeat?
Lennon: I was thinking we’re probably the equivalent of something like the Pogues in terms of how difficult it is to get us all onstage together. You can get most of us together but they’ll always be a sort of Shane MacGowan who will knock somebody’s teeth out or push them down the stairs. Of course, there’s been a couple of fistfights in the State. There have been a couple of punches thrown.
Not full-on fisticuffs, just single punches to the back of the head.
Lennon: It seems like someone told you this. Are you not serious? David Wain did punch Ken Marino in the back of the head. Ken Marino was in two punching-related incidents in the group. One with Mike Jann where I think Mike Jann punched him. I take it back. There weren’t a lot of fights. Ken Marino got punched twice. We’re like Oasis.
Ken Marino: In the back, yeah. He punched me in the back and then I turned around and said, ‘Don’t. Ever. Punch me, again,’ but I don’t even think Dave was in the State at the time. Dave, he spazzes out, he’s mellowed out from that a lot. I think it was my fault. I think I pulled his back hair. I think he was sensitive to it and freaked out on me.
You roomed with Wain at NYU, did he have the same problem he had at the State: sticking his hands down his pants?
Marino: It was a huge problem. I mean, it wasn’t a big problem except when you were eating something. The problem really came to a head when he would pull his hands from his pants and then nibble on something that you were eating. A lot of stuff for him was finger food. Anything that you were eating was finger food. He’d go straight from his pants and he’d have ball smoke coming off his fingers and he’d dive into our, you know … That’s actually how our “Louie” character [catchphrase: “I wanna dip my balls in it”] came about.
Besides fights, what else would be in the VH1: Behind the Laughs special on the State?
Kenney-Silver: I introduced the group to this woman who worked at Warner Brothers and she said, “Lets do a comedy record.” So we were like, “Oooh, we’re famous.” So they gave us a budget which we quickly, literally put in our pockets, ran to the Bahamas, and got drunk and recorded an album with. We spent four dollars on the recording and $500,000 or whatever they gave us on the plane ticket and the cocktails.
Lennon: We decided, since nothing eleven people do is profitable, we might as well at least have a really fucking fun time, so let’s go to where U2 records.
Wain: Basically we went down there and we would spend the day swimming and snorkeling and gambling and eating and having fun and go out at night and go to casinos and stuff and then about midnight we’d grab some drinks and go into the recording studio and lay down some stuff.
Kenney-Silver: You could literally hear ice tinkling in the record. We did one sketch where Michael Jann was so drunk that he threw up in a chair while we were recording. We couldn’t get his headphones off of him because his arms were in front of him with the vomit in his hands.
Michael Ian Black: I was actually really miserable making the State CD. I felt like I was at a low point in my relationship with the group. There were some fun things. I think I really started to develop my gambling addiction there, which was good.
So you got the fights, the parties, the drinking and drugs, now we just need to round out the special with some mammoth business missteps.
Black: In the long run the chief mistake that the State made was leaving MTV to begin with. At the time there seemed like very good reasons to do it, chief among them that we were all making about $400 a week and working our asses off and feeling kind of not supported by the network. Also, we just weren’t getting along. It’s very hard to keep 11 people happy. It’s almost impossible. I think I was very aware that the thing that was going to break us up was success far more than failure. And I think that was true to a certain extent. I have often compared us to Fleetwood Mac.
Lennon: We were really super badly advised by some really naïve people and we were so naïve. But I gotta say MTV was really great to us. They offered us 65 more episodes guaranteed on the air and instead we took a deal at CBS for three specials and got canceled after one.
The State had to get great ratings for its Halloween Special on CBS, but there was no promotion for it and your main musical guest canceled?
Kenney-Silver: We needed to prove to the world and the people at CBS that we were capable of being on network television. And so I was like, “No problem guys, our best friend’s the drummer from Blues Traveler. We’re in.”
Lennon: For some reason they took SNL with like 10 minutes warning before our show. They called us like, “Hey guys, sorry we got to play SNL” and we were, like, “Fuck, really?” But the flipside was we had fucking Sonic Youth, which was insane.
Black: It was a real kick in the balls … As if we weren’t going to be sort of wrong enough for the network, we decided to throw Sonic Youth into the mix. I just don’t feel like the Murder She Wrote crowd really embraced us or Sonic Youth the way we were hoping.
Kenney-Silver: I can’t blame them. No one blames them. They had an opportunity to play Saturday Night Live and I think honestly, given the chance, if anyone of us had been asked to go on Saturday Night Live that night, we probably would’ve left as well.
What does the Great Recession of ’09 mean to comedy and the State?
Black: It’s good for comedy. I mean, people are miserable, they want to laugh.
Lennon: We actually have a really wonderful sketch in the SF show called “The Great Depression” and it’s really sort of a charming, Hallmark Hall of Fame scene about a family that’s trying to decide whether or not they should eat their baby.
Nine members of the cast did a dress rehearsal of this new show in March 2008. How has time affected your writing and delivery?
Marino: I’m happy to say that our material has not matured at all. It’s the same stupid fun stuff I hope.
Black: It really comes down to “are we making each other laugh?” and if we are doing that, then it goes on the show. To me it’s just a really personal voice, in the way that retarded monkeys are personal.
Well, retarded monkeys are hilarious.
Lennon: There was a moment backstage when we were all looking at the clock about half through the second show — and the group has kids and we’re mostly nosing up on 40 — and we were all looking up at the clock and I think it said like 12:25 or 12:40 a.m. and we still had half of the show to do and we just had a look on our faces like, “Ohh fuck, how are we gonna do this?”
Kenney-Silver: We had trucker speed and Coca Cola back then. Now, it’s just good old fashioned crystal meth. We’re willing to do whatever it takes to make the audience laugh.
They may just laugh at anything.
Black: I hope so. I don’t need to earn the laughs. That’s fine with me. If they just want to laugh cus we’re up there, great. I don’t need to feel like we’ve did anything. I just don’t want to walk onstage and think, “God, we’re awful.”
Might there be more State to come?
Black: We’re still talking to Comedy Central about The State movie or the special. We wrote a tremendous amount of material in a very short amount of time, so we have all of that and I think we’d all like to do something so I think we just need somebody to write the check. I think we all fully expect it to fail, that’s not an issue. It would still be fun to do.