Looking Back at The State

The State was on MTV from 1993 to 1995, when the network was at the height of its power. Although there were a number of great sketch shows on during this period, none of them had the backing of MTV, which at the time pretty much defined what cool was for an entire generation of disaffected suburban youths. Because MTV was forbidden in my house growing up I didn’t get to experience the show first hand, but coming to it for the first time now I recognize the deep influence the show has had on much of the comedy that followed it.

The show traces its roots back to a New York University sketch troupe by the name of the New Group. After their shows at local theaters began attracting notoriety the group soon found itself on a short lived MTV show starring Jon Stewart known as You Wrote It, You Watch It. The show didn’t last long, but soon after the group, now known as the State, had their own very own show.

During the show’s first season the cast was pressured to do sketches based on music, pop culture and other topics the network thought the audience wanted. This resulted is some of the show’s least memorable pieces, like this bit parodying MTV Sports, the network’s show about “extreme sports.” MTV Sports was such a ridiculous program The State didn’t really need to do much to make fun of it.

The network also pressured the group to create reoccurring characters and catchphrases. Annoyed by all the demands the group responded by writing one of the most brilliantly moronic catchphrases ever, “I wanna dip my balls in it!”

Of course, despite their rebellious attitude the show did manage to create some memorable reoccurring characters, like Barry and Levon, the sexy swingers who want nothing more than to stick their butts in $240 worth of pudding. Once the show proved to be a hit, the network eased up and allowed the cast to explore looser, more surreal material which would become their trademark, like this full cast showtune number about a day at the porcupine racetrack.

It’s often mentioned how strange it was for a sketch comedy group with 11 members to have only one female among them, Kerri Kenney. The cast dismissed the issue by saying that Kenny was the only girl they needed. It’s true that Kenney is an extremely versatile and capable actor, but the show also relied heavily on drag for the female roles, even when Kenney could have played the part instead. At any rate, the show had so much energy and excitement to it, you really didn’t care who was playing who. The majority of the cast was under 25 when the show was produced and the youthful enthusiasm everyone puts forth in almost all of their sketches is really palpable, setting it apart from other shows which had slowed with age, like SNL.

Of course when looking back at the show today the actors that get the most attention are usually the ones who had more prominent comedy careers after the show, folks like Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter among others. While those folks are as hilarious as you’d expect, plenty of the other cast members shine as well. I always thought Kevin Allison did a particularly good job of doing the high-energy, almost manic roles the show specialized in. Here he is as host of Mind Match, the game show that awards not prizes or money, but orphans to its contestants.

After several successful years on cable the networks began courting the show, hoping that it might be able to compete with Saturday Night Live in late night. After numerous negotiations the group decided to do a Halloween special with CBS, under the agreement that if the show did well they might be picked up for a full season. Sadly, the Halloween special, which received very little promotion, was a ratings disaster and any future plans with CBS were scrapped. MTV apparently wanted to take the show back for another season but the cast decided it was time to head their separate ways.

While the show ended in 1995, it was hardly the end of the cast members working together. Since the show’s demise there have been countless projects both big and small on which State alumni have collaborated. There is of course the films Wet Hot American Summer and The Ten in which most of the cast appeared, but mostly the group seems to have separated into smaller cliques for their Post-State careers such as Tom Lennon, Ben Garant and Kerri Kenney working on Reno 911! and Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black and David Wain performing as Stella on both the stage and screen.

Regardless of what they’ve accomplished after the show ended, The State’s legacy of absurdism and non-sequiturs lives on. This show helped introduce countless impressionable young MTV fans to the world of alternative comedy, helping to set the stage for Mr. Show and other sketch groups to come.

Carleton Atwater lives in Boston. He also writes about beer at Beeriety.com.

Looking Back at The State