Ever since MTV’s The State went off the air in 1995, the 11-member sketch comedy troupe has faced the same problem every time it tries to reform: Finding the time when every member can commit to a project is virtually impossible. That finally changed earlier this year when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire entertainment industry and left this particular creative group at home with little to do.
“I was sitting on the couch about a month ago like, ‘Uh, I can’t look at the news anymore,'” says State member Michael Patrick Jann. “I was like, ‘I can’t go out. I can’t do anything.’ This is before the George Floyd tragedy. I was super depressed and reached out to everyone, basically out of desperation, to see if they’d want to put something together via Zoom.”
They’d just had a lot of fun re-creating their musical masterpiece Porcupine Racetrack, and all agreed that something more substantial would be a great idea. “Then the George Floyd thing happened, and I thought that maybe it’s not time for the comedy group to get together,” says Jann. “I thought maybe we should sit on it for a second. After a couple of days, David [Wain] piped up and said, ‘We should do this.'”
After communicating via what Michael Ian Black describes as “endless, impossible-to-follow email threads,” they decided on a paid Zoom event where they’d redo old sketches and auction off bits of State memorabilia from their personal collections — giving all the proceeds to the NAACP and UndocuFund San Francisco, which supports undocumented families and children impacted by the coronavirus health crisis.
The only problem was finding the right time to do it. Jann initially threw out July 5th as a possibility, but many in the troupe couldn’t make that work. “We realized it was either five days from now or a month-and-a-half from now,” says Ken Marino. “I think we all felt, ‘Let’s do this as soon as possible.’ It’s important.”
That meant they had five days to pick the right sketches, figure out how to execute them via Zoom, get the word out to fans, assemble crude props and costumes, and comb through their homes to find artifacts for the auction. It was a logistical nightmare, but they used the technical infrastructure Kevin Allison put together for his Risk! podcast to make it easier. His producer, JC Cassis, played a huge role in making everything work.
As far as the sketches, members ultimately picked out fan favorites like “Taco Man,” “Monkey Torture,” “Louie,” “The Bearded Men of Space Station 11,” “Cutlery Barn,” and “The Jew, the Italian and the Red Head Gay.” (These names will mean a lot more to you if you happened to be a regular MTV viewer circa 1994.) They talked about reviving Michael Showalter’s Doug character (best remembered for his catchphrase “I’m out of here”), but decided against it.
“He said it felt odd to do a sketch about a kid who is being rebellious even though there is nothing to rebel against,” says Kevin Allison. “Kids today have plenty to rebel against, so it felt a little dated.”
Marino had no such qualms about bringing back Louie and his immortal catchphrase “I want to dip my balls in it.”
“It’s my cross to bear, I suppose,” he says. “For whatever reason, people still remember that character. I thought, for this, it would be worth doing since it has a lot of energy and everyone is in it and we all act like idiots in it. That’s some of my favorite State stuff.” (Both Doug and Louie were created because MTV demanded SNL-style catchphrases and recurring characters, so they came up with the most inane ones possible.)
The reunion went live at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, June 10th, with no one knowing quite what to expect. “We were like, ‘Is it going to be 10 people or 10,000?'” says Marino. “It could have been anything. We wouldn’t have been surprised either way. But we were surprised how many people bought it.”
More than 2,700 people people shelled out for the show. Ben Garant couldn’t make it because he was on vacation with his family at Sequoia National Park in California, but the other 10 members — which also includes Todd Holoubek, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Thomas Lennon, and Joe Lo Truglio — were there. And it was the rarest sort of reunion, one that didn’t feel like a pale, pointless retread of the past or a transparent money grab. The genuine affection everyone felt for each other radiated from the screen, and even Michael Ian Black couldn’t resist breaking into laughter as he redid his old lines from “Taco Man.”
“Watching the sketches I was not in, I was like a kid in a candy store,” says Marino. “I didn’t realize how excited I was going to be, but when I heard Kevin and Black doing ‘Taco Man,’ I became a fan of it. When they finished it and they did ‘Cutlery Barn,’ I was freaking out.”
A moment of State unity like that would have been impossible to imagine back in 1995 when the troupe left MTV for CBS, who yanked the show off the airwaves after airing a single special. “They originally told us that they didn’t want to be the Murder She Wrote network anymore,” says Jann. “Then Les Moonves took over as president, and he was like, ‘We’re doubling down on Murder She Wrote.’ It was so demoralizing.” (Just one year later, Dana Carvey had a similar experience when he tried to do another off-kilter sketch-comedy show on ABC.)
At that point, the group had been together since their college days at NYU, but there was no clear path forward. MTV let it be known they weren’t welcome back, but the pay was so low there (just a smidge higher than unemployment benefits) that they didn’t feel like going back anyway. They recorded a comedy record (Comedy for Gracious Living), which got shelved, and wrote a mock travel book (State by State with the State: An Uninformed, Poorly Researched Guide to the U.S.) that was ignored by everyone outside of their rapidly shrinking cult. “Speaking personally, I thought we had fucked it up so terribly,” says Black. “Totally fucked it up.”
In 1997, Black, Lennon, Garant, and Kenney-Silver signed a deal with Comedy Central to create Viva Variety. The others weren’t a part of it, and the group totally splintered apart, many of them feeling quite bitter. “There was so much competitiveness and negativity when we were in our early to mid-twenties because we were all just scrambling,” says Black. “We were desperate, both individually and as a group.”
“It felt like a band,” says Marino. “It always felt like a band.”
“It was like the Eagles,” adds Jann, “but with 11 Don Henleys.”
As the years went by, they worked together in small groups on projects like Reno 911!, Stella, Children’s Hospital, and the Wet Hot American Summer movie and Netflix series. Slowly, the old tensions from the Viva Variety days faded away. In 2014, all 11 members reformed as the State at Festival Supreme in Los Angeles. And now after this successful Zoom reunion, they hope to do something like that again.
“I went to that Kids in the Hall show at Town Hall [in 2015] and went backstage afterwards,” says Allison. “It just looked like so much fun. I thought, ‘Oh, man, we can do something like this.'”
The idea of a State movie has been floating around for years too. “I’ve always said that the only way to get everyone to do a movie together is if someone has a script and says, ‘Hey, here is a part for everybody, and we have the money and the time to do it,”’ says Marino. “And then everybody would be like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ Other than that, there are too many moving parts and it’s difficult. But hopefully some day we can do it before we all die.”
“Back in the day, we used to say that we’d be like Monty Python, where we can come back together whenever,” says Allison. “I still feel that way.”