February 4, 2009
By Allan Hough
After humble beginnings performing sketches in the dorms at NYU where they met, the members of the comedy troupe The State hit it big in the early ’90s with the MTV sketch show The State, which was known for its fast pace, absurdist sensibility, and catchphrases like “I’m outta heeere,” and “I’m gonna dip my balls in it!” After a cocksure exit from MTV and an abortive relationship with CBS, momentum began to slow, and the group splintered. Some of The State’s members went on to collaborate on successful projects like Wet Hot American Summer, Stella, and Reno 911! On January 24, at SF Sketchfest, all 11 members took the stage together as The State for the first time in more than a decade. They brought the house down with a show consisting of entirely new material, though they encored with the classic “Porcupine Racetrack.” The A.V. Club took statements from David Wain, Thomas Lennon, and Kerri Kenney-Silver on the subjects of reuniting, writing, and where the hell that complete-series DVD set is hiding.
The A.V. Club: After More Than A Decade Of Doing Different Things, The State Finally Got Back Together For Some Performances Last Year. How’d It Go?
David Wain: We were excited to be doing a new show of sketch comedy instead of some kind of retread of what we had done in the ’90s.
Thomas Lennon: When we were getting the show ready for the first time, we found that people don’t really change that much. We’re extremely hard on each other, and really, really hard on the material, to the point that there’ve been fistfights in State meetings on occasion. But once we got together live and did the first shows last March, I think it was a real reminder to all of us why we were a group in the first place, and why we enjoy working together so much.
AVC: Has anything changed?
Kerri Kenney-Silver: There are computers now. When we were in college, there were no such thing as computers; there were word processors. So we sat in one room together and handwrote our sketches, passed them around, and made ditto copies.
DW:: All the external things are completely differentâ€”many of us have kids, we live on two separate coasts, all 11 of us have insane work schedules. It took us years to actually find a weekend that we were all at one place at one time and could do this. But when we actually got in the room and did our thing, it was very similar. It was very refreshingly exactly the same.
AVC: Does being older and wiser aid the writing process?
TL: I hate to compare us to The Police or something, but there is a certain dynamic in the group that is just constantly in turmoil. It’s exhausting and it’s also totally exhilarating, and probably why we’re still creating good material.
KKS: I think in general, the group’s more savvy by necessity, having worked in the business for many years. But I think it’s surprising how little has changed at the same time. Fart jokes make us laugh, and we’re almost 40, so that’s a good thing.
AVC: What’s it like pitching your stuff to stodgy executives?
DW:: The typical meeting with a studio or production company would be them saying, “Wet Hot American Summer is the greatest movie ever made. We love it. We watch it every day. Now can you do something that has absolutely nothing to do with that kind of sense of humor, and make sure that there’s not a shred of your voice in it, and then we can work together?”
AVC: David, Role Models is mainstream, but your voice is all over it. How did you manage that?
DW:: It had to do with the fact that it was a movie that was up and running, but without a director. They took a chance and followed through on the notion that they were hiring me not to just shoot the movie, but to bring my filmmaker voice to it. Which I was shocked about, to be honest.
AVC: Tom and Kerri, you guys have made your first forays into stand-up comedy. What made you do it?
TL: I think it was just a pure unadulterated fear of doing it. Once you do it and it goes well, it’s extremely addictive. It’s kind of like the crack of the entertainment industry. If it’s going well, it’s a really fast, powerful rush that’s hard to stop doing.
KKS: Honestly, it’s like trying heroin. It’s one of those things that you think, “I think my life would be really different if I did that.” So I’m turning 39 in a couple of weeks, and I sort of have that feeling of, “What the fuck, let’s just do this.”
AVC: When you’re writing solo stuff, are you hard on yourself the way The State is hard on itself?
TL: I’m trying to be. I thought Steve Martin’s thing was really inspirational, which is that he wanted to cut any material from his show that had a provenance. Certainly I’m not there yet, but I’m trying harder and harder to create material that I feel like is completely original.
KKS: What’s funny is that I have no time, because I have a 3-year-old, and then Reno full time, and I just did a pilot for HBO in the Hamptons for three weeks, so I’m running around a lot. The only time I’m ever alone is in the car; I have a voice recorder in my car. That’s the only time I really have to do it.
AVC: Has being a parent seeped into your work with The State?
KKS: I can’t believe that I’m allowed to be a parent. I’m still the one that makes retard jokes and thinks boners are funny. It’s fun to be allowed to be that again. Actually, not just allowedâ€”encouraged.
AVC: You’re at a point now where they pay tribute to you at events like Sketchfest. How does that feel?
TL: When we agreed to do the show, I was like, “You know what? Let’s not do one of those tribute things.” Honestly, I find it a little depressing, and it makes me feel very old.
KKS: What could be more flattering than someone wanting to pay tribute to you? It makes me feel old in kind of a great way. It always cracks me upâ€”about once a week, someone will come up to me and go, “Oh my God, my parents used to watch you guys!” So we’re those guys now, and it’s kind of great.
AVC: How would your history as a group be different if web-based viral video had existed in 1989?
DW:: I honestly wonder if we would’ve ever broken through and been noticed. We were doing this sort of run-around-with-your-own-camera-and-edit-it-yourself thing that’s become absolutely the default way of doing comedy for so many in the era of YouTube. So I feel lucky that we did it a solid 10 to 15 years earlier.
AVC: So where’s the State DVD?
DW:: We put together these beautiful masters of our entire series, did commentary on every episode, threw in tons of extras, deleted sketches, never-before-seen material of all different types, in a beautiful package, mastered, everything all done. And for some reason, there’s been this unwillingness to actually release it. The latest that I’ve heard is that they are planning on releasing it, probably in the first half of this next year, but I would be foolhardy to promise anything.
TL: Several of the sketches that never made the air were written by me, and I can guarantee you, they’re horrible.
AVC: What was it like doing those commentaries?
KKS: Nothing has ever made me feel as old as that did. Watching my precious little 23-year-old skin dance around.
TL: Overwhelmingly, I look back at the shows and feel like it really was something very special. And you could tell it was material that was being written by people who weren’t at all cynical, who didn’t know enough to overthink anything. We were blissfully ignorant when we were doing that show.
AVC: What’s next for The State?
TL: I hope The State will continue to be a real entity that is creating material and at least once in a while, touring and doing some live shows.
DW:: We’ve been loosely working on a project that has evolved from a movie to possibly a special, something we would do together. It continues to be a logistical hurdle, corralling all 11 of us together to get it done.
KKS: The more things we can do together, the better. We’ve done it now for 21 years, so I know that for the rest of our working lives, we will be creative together and do different projects together. There’s no one I love working with more than those guys.
TL: We do have one thing going at The State. We decided that as we start to die off, the living members will get to dress whoever dies for their coffin. Yeah. So the only member of The State who gets to dress themself is whoever outlives all the rest of us. Otherwise, people are going to be buried in swimsuits and roller-skates, or like a full Iron Man costume.
AVC: Any specific plans for specific people?
KKS: Oh yeah, but that’s top secret. I’ll tell you that I’ve got a lot of jock straps and scuba gear ready.