How 'The State' Made Comedy Weirder and Better

'The State' was a short-lived, cult TV show in the 90s that laid the groundwork for nearly 30 years of comedy gold from a crew of 11 comedians, known today for 'Reno 911!' and 'Wet Hot American Summer.'

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May 7 2016, 1:20pm

Photo by Seth Olenick

Last month, Netflix announced another season of its reboot of the 2001 cult classic Wet Hot American Summer, and although most would consider it a TV reunion of the creative duo behind the movie, in reality it's merely the latest chapter in an incredibly successful comedic partnership.

Writers/directors/actors David Wain and Michael Showalter first met each other at NYU in 1987, where they, along with nine other friends, formed a comedy troupe called the New Group (later renamed The State), that would lay the groundwork for the next thirty years of creative success. The troupe was eventually given their own eponymous show that aired on MTV from 1993 to 1995 and arguably redefined the rules of TV comedy by refusing to conform to SNL's sketch comedy template, instead existing as a platform for 11 distinct voices, and nearly as many styles of humor.

The State was ultimately short-lived, as the group left MTV to pursue a big network TV deal that didn't work out, but it was just the beginning, as its cast members (which included Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Michael Ian Black, Kerri Kenney-Silver, and Thomas Lennon, to name a few) forged collaborative bonds that persevered through creative differences and lasted decades. Tellingly, the show's Wikipedia page now requires a chart that plots the cast's ongoing collective exploits in a manner that's usually reserved for superheroes that appear in Marvel crossovers. Reno 911!, Stella, Childrens Hospital, Party Down, They Came Together—all of these are the brainchildren of State alum, and all star at least four additional cast members.

Writer Corey Stulce religiously recorded The State episodes on VHS in his freshman year of college, and one of his first interviews for his college paper was with three cast members who were then starring in Comedy Central's Viva Variety, the first of the crew's post-MTV exploits. A lifelong fan of the troupe, Stulce released The Union of The State, an exhaustive, 600-page oral history of the group's career together, last week.

The book takes us from the creators' college days to their current exploits, chronologically weaving together interviews with not only the entire cast, but also some 30+ other important players along the way, from their college roommates and MTV producers to Wet Hot co-star Paul Rudd. After collecting over 100 hours of raw interview footage, Stulce edited everything down into an effortless flow where cast members finish each other's sentences more than once. Their closeness and similar senses of humor is just as palpable on the page as it is onscreen—as Stulce put it when speaking over the phone with VICE, "11 different personalities, but one big, giant brain."


VICE: Can you tell me about your personal history with The State
?
Corey Stulce: The State, the TV show, started when I was a freshman in college [at Southern Illinois University], and I immediately loved it. There was just something about it that was so surreal, bizarre, and slice-of-life that really spoke to me. I really liked that they didn't go the semi-traditional route of sketch with a lot of pop culture references. A lot of the stuff they were doing was very evergreen, which I thought was really cool and innovative.

Once I started writing for the college newspaper a couple of years later, Viva Variety had started, so I did a big spread on that and was able to interview Tom [Lennon], Michael Ian Black, and Kerri [Kenney-Silver]. So that was my first time interacting with any of them, and they were cool and really nice. As I went on as a newspaper and magazine writer and editor, I just kept up with all of their careers because I really liked writing about comedy, and just thought that it was interesting that this group of people kept finding each other, kept working together on different projects over the years.

What was the interview process for the book like?
I wanted to do some group interviews to see what kind of dynamic that created, but it just never lined up that we could all get together at the same time, other than when they put together a 45 minute set from scratch in three days before Festival Supreme in 2014. I was more like a fly on the wall then—they were rehearsing as much as they possibly could. The State is rarely in the same place at the same time.

But once everything got transcribed and I tried to whittle down what was good, it was just really magical that some of the stuff flowed together, even though I didn't have the same conversation with every member. I think that's because they worked so closely together in those early years, that even when they're just talking about The State, they get into that mode—11 different personalities, but one big, giant brain.

Was it always your intention to do such an exhaustive oral history?
I didn't envision this thing being 600 pages when I started, but the idea for the oral history was there before I even approached The State because I love that style of journalism. I love hearing the different voices and seeing the different perspectives, so I thought that was important because I didn't want the book to be about me at all. I don't think it would be nearly as interesting if I tried to meld my voice with their voices, especially with 11 main people in the group.

Illustration by Glen Hanson

What do you think kept most of them professionally close over the years? Is a collaborative circle that big and long-lasting as rare as I think it is?
I think so. There are certainly other examples of comedy troupes that continue to come together for new projects, like Christopher Guest's troupe and the Judd Apatow folks, but I really think this is definitely one of the most unique stories in the history of comedy. Where else can you find examples of 18-year-old kids meeting, forming a comedy club, having that kind of dedication to stay with it throughout the entire university process, thinking, Yeah, this could be good, we could do this, and then getting their own TV show, essentially right after graduation?

Then a couple years later, after being just chewed up and spit out of show business, essentially—I would think that 99% of the time—that would be it. You wouldn't hear from those folks [in a similar situation] collectively again. But the fact that they kept coming together for Viva Variety, Stella, Wet Hot American Summer, and all of the other movies and TV shows and webseries... I think there's a magnetism that keeps drawing them together. I don't know if I believe in destiny, but these folks were destined to be together and create comedy.

I'm astounded at how long they've stayed close, even more so after reading about all of the competitiveness and rivalries that constantly shook the group.
I think that's going to happen if you get a group of people together who are super creative and have big personalities. Of course there's going to be tension, and I think it only helps to make them stronger. They were all pushing themselves to be funnier than the person they were standing next to, and that's so important to them that I don't think they would've made it if they didn't have that. But of course, that's going to lead to tensions and fights and a breakup. I think it's sort of inevitable. If everyone just got along and made concessions then it wasn't going to be as strong of a group.

Back to the legacy of The State, the TV show. What do you think it had that other sketch shows at the time didn't?
With 11 people in the group, even if it was just a character piece with a couple of speaking roles and a handful of people in the background, they were fantastic at making those minor roles fully-formed characters. It wasn't just someone sitting there pretending to talk at a coffee shop. They took it very, very, very seriously. This was not playtime for them at all, they were hardcore and did tons of rehearsal.

Because of their background at NYU and not having any money, it was that whole DIY aesthetic where a lot of them knew how to do everything—they were writing, directing, editing, bringing props from home. I think that really showed. It was not slick, there was not a big budget, so the writing had to be really strong. I don't know where these ideas came from, or how they ended up on the page, but they just run the gamut of comedy styles... It just seems like they're constantly ahead of their time. It takes people a little while to catch onto the stuff they're doing.

Tom Lennon remarks at one point in the book that if the show debuted today, it'd be a much bigger hit. Do you agree?
I think there's definitely a larger audience for that kind of wide-ranging comedy that they do, and more opportunities to be turned onto that. If you didn't happen to be watching MTV in 93, 94, you weren't gonna see it. Now, all it takes is somebody telling you about it, getting out your phone, and seeing it in thirty seconds.

I think if they were the same group of 21, 22-year-old college kids who had that kind of dedication and had the opportunity to do a show, yeah, I think it would be huge. They were making YouTube videos 20 years before there was a YouTube. "Porcupine Racetrack" and stuff like that would have gone viral so quickly. But who knows, if they were 22 today, maybe they'd be doing something completely different. They wouldn't be thinking about YouTube, they'd be thinking about whatever the hell the next thing is gonna be.

'The Union of The State' is out now. Order it here.

Patrick Lyons is on Twitter.

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