An Oral History of the Oral History of The State
On May 3, author Corey Stulce releases The Union of The State, an oral history of the iconic MTV sketch pioneers, whose 11 members have continued reconfiguring for more than two decades in projects including Wet Hot American Summer, Reno 911! and the odd live performance.
As Stulce traces the group's origins at NYU through 2014's Festival Supreme reunion, State-mates Kevin Allison, Michael Ian Black, Ben Garant, Todd Holoubek, Michael Patrick Jann, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Thomas Lennon, Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino, Michael Showalter and David Wain are joined by sources including Paul Rudd, Rob Corddry, Janeane Garofalo, Key & Peele's Keegan-Michael Key and former MTV head (now president of Viacom's Music and Entertainment Group) Doug Herzog.
The Union of the State is available online and in person May 7 at UCB Sunset's "An Evening With The State" book-release event. (Reservations are no longer available, sadly/naturally.)
Corey Stulce, author: In 2009, my partner and I moved our menagerie of pets to the Bay Area. I had never heard of SketchFest, and only heard about it after tickets had gone on sale for that season. That was the year The State reunited. I didn’t have a ticket, but at the time they were offering potential standing room only for the show, so I went over there and hung around. I was able to get in and chat with some of the guys beforehand, because I had done some interviews with them in the past. It just got me thinking, “There’s never been a book about The State. Why isn’t there a State book or documentary?” I started doing my own research after that. The first thing I did was transcribe all the DVD commentary as background. That took a little while.
David Wain, State member: The story of how we as basically kids, not coming out of any comedic community — we were not part of Second City or UCB — how we did what we did at a time when there was no such thing as YouTube. It was a completely different landscape of cable TV, it’s just kind of a neat story to hear, particularly if you’re a fan of what we did.
Doug Herzog: I go all the way back with these guys. They were just out of NYU. They were contributors on an MTV show hosted by Jon Stewart called You Wrote It, You Watch It. The basic premise (of a very bad show) was you wrote into us about your story or your problem, and then we would visualize them and turn them into little vignettes. I’m sure we paid them about $100 a pop, almost nothing, to go out and shoot these things that Jon would introduce. That’s how we got to know them – all 11 of them. Then very shortly after that we gave them their own show, The State.
Ben Garant, State member: The big reason we did it as kids at the time is we just hated SNL so much. We all loved the early Belushi/Aykroyd years of SNL, and then after that we felt like by the time we were in college, SNL was so bad and the people in charge of it were such dinosaurs: “Forty years old? That’s too old!” (I’m 45 now.) Our goal was to get comedy on TV that was our generation. That really was our rallying cry.
Keegan-Michael Key: There’s a certain amount of courage the group had to say, “Let’s do this crazy sketch!,” like the Louie sketch with Ken Marino and the [catchphrase] “Dip my balls in it!” All that stuff came from them saying that a network wanted to try to subscribe to a formula as to how they should write their sketches, so what they did is take that formula and turn it on its head. And that's just one of many examples of where their minds were. And that’s something I really, really admire.
Stulce: I reached out to Kevin [Allison] first, and just said, “Hey, I don’t know if you guys have ever talked about doing a book, but I’d love to take a shot at it.” He agreed to do a couple of sample interviews, so we talked for a few hours. I got his take on coming to NYU, meeting the group and getting into the group. He was a great storyteller, because that’s what he does now. I thought, “Wow, there’s some really rich history here.” From there he put me in touch with Kerri [Kenney-Silver], and she was totally for it.
Garant: He spoke to a couple other guys first, I think Kevin and Joe [Lo Truglio] he’d spoke to. And I said, “Great!” Anybody who really wants to spend that much time and effort writing something, we should be as supportive as we can possibly be. I talked to him a few times over a year. He called every few months when he was trying to tackle a different era or issue of The State. I spoke to him several hours over the course of that year. I think everybody in the group did.
Stulce: At this point, no group conversations had happened. It was me contacting them all individually. And I had to be sneaky about a couple of them, like I was talking to them for something else. Ken [Marino] was the last one I talked to. By the time I talked to Ken, I’d already been doing interviews with them for about nine months. When I’d talked to all of them, it started to seem like this could be real.
Wain: Corey had interviewed us at various points over the years for different things. He was always an intelligent and informed and cool interviewer. Then he basically came to us and said, “Hey, I want to do a full-blown, exhaustive book, an oral history of The State.” We were all game for it. Frankly none of us really knew if he would actually follow through on it or do a good job, but he did follow though, and he did do an amazing job. He really did his homework and interviewed not just the members of the group numerous times and at length but also some of the various characters in our story, from executives to other people we’ve collaborated with: actors, producers, writers, management, all of it.
Janeane Garofalo: I think Kevin Allison sent me a text asking me to do it. I may be wrong about that.
Stulce: Doug Herzog was not the easiest to schedule time with, but he was willing to do it. Eileen Katz was their executive producer. Jim Sharp, their producer; James Dixon, their agent. Both of the managers who are considered the co-creators of the show: Jon Bendis and Steven Starr. And then a lot of their collaborators: A.D. Miles ended up doing props on the show for the second season. That’s how he met those guys.
Garofalo: To the best of my recollection, the first time I met them we were on one of the last Jon Stewart shows on MTV. They came on and destroyed the set, you know, in order to say goodbye. I kept in touch afterward and re-met Michael Ian Black one time when he came to an SNL taping and we hung out at the afterparty. I was so hungover the next morning and so guilt-ridden that we walked from, like, 49th Street down across the Brooklyn Bridge as punishment for me. He was good enough just to do it, I think. I don’t know if he was feeling guilty about anything, but I do remember that he slept in my room in a full suit with shoes on in the bed … in a platonic way.
Key: [Contributing the foreword] was something that happened organically, because I did an interview with him, and when he did a transcription of the interview he said to me, “You know, I’m wondering if we could edit this and use it as the foreword.” I’m like, “That’s good! That’s much less work!” So we went back and forth on it a couple times with some revisions, and we ended up with the foreword that you very well at this moment may see before you.
Garant: It’s really in depth. He asked about the very first seeds of the group, the first times we met each other and those first shows we did back in 1988. So between the 11 of us, I think it’s a pretty good version of what happened. There are slightly different versions of things that happened that people remember differently, but I’d say it’s pretty accurate. The book does a good job of rounding out all 11 of us, so you can sort of figure out exactly what happened based on 11 different sets of clues.
Wain: I knew my side of the stories, but I didn’t know other people’s sides of stuff that went on. It was fascinating for me to read. You hear about crazy trips that people took, or what people’s feelings were about stuff that went down. There are examples like the meeting where we decided not to stay at MTV, and to try to do a network show with The State. There are pretty much 11 different accounts of what happened in that room. Everybody’s memory is slightly different. Nobody is lying; that’s just the nature of memory.
Garant: There was a lot of early stuff I legitimately don’t remember. My college years are a blur. Reading the book was great, because I didn’t know a lot of the stuff! Stories that Joe would tell or Mike Black would tell, I would learn for the first time. And then a lot of stuff that I flat-out didn’t remember, I would read stories about myself and [think], “Oh yeah! I remember that now!”
Herzog: There are stories and soap operas and feuds and love affairs and make-ups and forgiveness. It’s got everything.
Wain: Certain things really brought me back and reminded me how much we’ve all been through, and what a journey this has been, and how lucky and fortunate we all are in many ways. Other times there is definitely major strife and painful stuff that is talked about. And there are things that were so funny that I’d forgotten happened. There are definitely rivalries and bitterness and stuff that has morphed in different ways over the years, but overall, I’m just incredibly grateful beyond measure that I’m continuing to be a part of this group that we started when we were 18 years old.
Stulce: I wanted to tell the story of how these guys who met at NYU back in the '80s were able to get this show virtually after graduation. But then after they broke up, they continued to do work together in smaller clusters over the last 20-something years. To this day they’re making some of the best comedy out there. I wanted to go into Reno 911! and Stella and Wet Hot American Summer and Children’s Hospital. I tried to cover as many projects that involved at least two or three of them.
Herzog: I did Viva Variety! with Tom and Ben and Kerri and Michel Ian Black at Comedy Central. I hired Tom and Ben and Kerri to make a pilot at Fox when I got there. Then when I got back to Comedy Central they were just starting to produce Stella, and then we did Michael & Michael Have Issues. Now I’m back in business with Tom and Ben with @midnight; there was Reno 911! in between. It’s been a great, great long history.
Garant: Key and Peele have been very vocal about how The State inspired them to go out and try to do it. That means a lot. I think that’s my favorite part of our legacy, is that people saw a bunch of dumb kids doing sketch and having fun, and actually getting it on the air. When I hear that inspired Key and Peele to do the same thing, stuff like that might be the greatest work we ever did.
Garofalo: In the same way that Tom Lennon and Ben Garant’s book [Writing Movies for Fun and Profit] is important, people should be aware of what they’re getting themselves into. There are both cautionary tales and encouragement.
Garant: If you’re a sketch-comedy nerd, it will be very valuable to see how we did it. All of our advice is pre-Internet. It’s much easier to get your material out to the public now than it was in 1988, when you basically had to get onto cable to have a joke heard across the country. Now all you need is an iPhone and you can get your joke heard across the country. But I think hearing the machinations of the work that we did to get onto network, I think it would work. If you want to get your show on, we actually pulled it off, and I think if you read our book and try to do what we did, I think it’s as good a road map as exists.
Herzog: It’s amazing how many of the 11 have gone on to have real careers and are real pillars of the comedy community. They continue to work, continue to be successful and continue evolving.
Garofalo: I can say, uniformly, all of them deserve everything they have worked so hard for. Every single one of them has a great amount of integrity and kindness. They’re the good guys — and gal — who thrived and succeeded even though they’ve had their rough spots over the years, as anyone does careerwise. But they have been nothing but nice to others — people who start out, people who seek advice from them — and they pursue things that they find funny and they believe in, and they’ve always been loyal to their friends.
Key: So much of the comedy that people are consuming and enjoying these days comes from different members of that group. Different, smaller factions have broken off to be creative in completely different ways, and that’s not a thing that you see very often. You see breeding grounds like the Second City and iO, who produce people from a certain type of training or a certain ideology. But the thing that’s very interesting about The State is they all came together, but when they were all apart, [there] became these new factions. They all had very different comedic voices; some are broader, more slapstick, more strange and more abstract. But I love that even those sub-groups with all the crossover have different comedic stylings and voices. I just find that fascinating.
Stulce: While a lot of people know their projects individually, I don’t think they understand how unique this group is. This is one of the most unique showbiz stories that hasn’t been told. These people met when they were teenagers, came together almost by fate, forming a college comedy troupe — how long do those stay together? — with 11 people. And then after graduation, deciding to pass on other prospects to stick with this group. Getting their own TV show that took a year or so to take off, leave a successful show to try to go to a major network, have that fail miserably, but then go on and have something that just kept bringing them together. Here they are still friends, still working together when they can, and they’re just one of the classic sketch-comedy teams.
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