Welcome to our column Sketch Anatomy, where we ask some of our favorite comedy writers to choose any sketch — one they personally wrote or one from history they find particularly hilarious, notable, or underappreciated — to learn from a writer’s perspective what separates a successful sketch from the rest.
For this week’s installment of Sketch Anatomy we spoke with Jake Fogelnest, who has written for Funny or Die, Billy on the Street, Hulu’s Difficult People, and Netflix’s upcoming and warmly anticipated Wet Hot American Summer prequel series. On top of all that, Fogelnest also has a new Ben Stiller-produced show in the works at IFC tentatively titled Start Making Sense, but he still found some time to talk with us about a classic sketch from MTV’s The State that we featured in 2013 as one of the show’s best forgotten sketches ever. Starring Michael Ian Black and Kevin Allison, season 4 sketch “Taco Man” is a deceivingly simple, three-minute chat between a mailman and a frustrated suburban homeowner who, understandably, prefers getting his mail over delicious tacos.
How’s the IFC show going? Have any updates to share?
It’s going really really well. IFC is awesome to work with and so is Red Hour. I guess I don’t want to say too much about the show yet, but I’m really excited about it. I’m in the middle of writing it right now – IFC bought the pilot script and then they ordered three more scripts, so I just have three more scripts to go right now.
That’s exciting! So why’d you decide to pick “Taco Man” from The State?
It’s so hard to pick. There are so many great sketches, and it’s just so impossible to think of, like, “What’s the best sketch of all time?” But this one immediately jumped to mind because it’s my favorite kind of sketch in that it is totally insane, and then totally reasonable at the same time. I remember using this as an example when I was teaching sketch writing at UCB, because sketches are very simple to me and the formula to writing a sketch to me never changes. So when somebody asks me “How do you write a sketch?” it’s always: Establish your premise right away. Joke, heighten the joke, heighten the joke. And then get out, quickly. That is the formula to every single sketch, and this is just such a small, perfect example of that formula at work. Very quickly, right at the top, he puts tacos in the mailbox, and then we just kind of heighten and explore that idea until literally it devolves into crazytown in a way that just warms my heart. It’s just so great. It’s my favorite thing – it’s super dumb and completely reasonable.
How’d you first get into The State?
I was 14 or 15 years old when The State started on MTV. It was literally a television show for 15-year-old boys, and I was a 15-year-old boy – and a pretty odd 15-year-old boy with already sort of an encyclopedic knowledge of comedy and pop culture. I was living in New York and I was doing my public access show [Squirt TV] at the time and The State guys were a little older than me. They were in their early 20s doing the show for MTV and I was 15, and they watched my show! And that blew my mind that they – David Wain, Michael Showalter and stuff – were fans of Squirt TV. Just to give you an idea how long ago this was and the time frame, the very first person who I emailed on my very first email account was David Wain. It was the first back-and-forth email exchange that I ever had. [laughs]
So I just thought they were great, and during their last season on The State they invited me up to their office and I went up there, had them on my public access show, and then when I was doing a pilot for what would eventually become the public access show that went to MTV, the entire State came to my bedroom – like all 11 of them – and they were guests on the show. They were leaving MTV as I was just starting, and I couldn’t have been a bigger fan. It’s just really classic sketch comedy, and we have so much of it now with shows like Inside Amy Schumer and Kroll Show. And The State is different than Saturday Night Live, because Saturday Night Live seems so far away, you know? With The State they were kind of just grabbing video cameras and making weird stuff, and I think it hit me at the right time. And obviously I’m not alone, just looking at all the great things those guys all went on to do.
I noticed that David Wain lists “Taco Man” as one of his favorite The State sketches on his website too.
Oh he did? That’s amazing. My thing about it is the way you’ve got all the best people in it. The way that Michael Ian Black is just so – the word is reasonable – he knows he’s gonna hurt Kevin Allison’s feelings by the way he says “I wanna make it clear,” you know what I mean? It’s like, “This is not about you, you’re just not seeing the bigger picture here. I want you to know that I appreciate what you do and the service that you’re offering, but it’s at the expense of this other service that is very very important.” [laughs] That confrontation and Kevin Allison’s reaction of, you know, “I don’t think you know what you’re even saying!” are just so funny.
I love Thomas Lennon’s appearance too. “Great tacos today, Jake!”
Exactly, he’s not helping anything. I love when a sketch can raise more questions than answers. Like, what is that guy’s life like that he’s totally okay with not getting his mail, and he’s also driving around eating a taco at like nine in the morning? But with justification too – everything is justified in that sketch, like “These bags weren’t designed for tacos.” And then the ending – every sketch should aspire to that ending, where now that we’ve heightened and explored this insane premise and we cannot spend another minute in this sketch, right when it reaches that point there’s three things that happen. One is Kevin Allison dissolves into thin air. Which would be enough, but then, David Wain – for no reason – comes out in a dress and says “Who was that?” or “How’d it go?” or whatever, and then Michael Ian Black says “I don’t know, but I do know this: That was the longest conversation I’ve ever had,” and that’s enough. And then, the mailbox walks away and they say goodbye to it as if that’s okay and completely normal. [laughs] The three things that happen at the end of that sketch are insane and I think a great example of everything that was great about The State, and I think it remains in Wet Hot American Summer. The craziest things happen, but it’s always rooted in some kind of reality; as long as you can ground the thing in some sort of reasonable reality, then you can go anywhere or do anything. That was very inspiring to me.
Do you think that’s what separates an absurd sketch ending that’s successful from an ending that feels more like a cop-out?
Yes. Nothing makes me laugh less than randomness for the sake of being random, and nothing makes me laugh more than randomness that is earned. If that sketch started with a mailbox walking away or whatever, it’s like no – after we had a completely reasonable discussion about something that’s so grounded in reality with the writing and the performances, after that idea has been exhausted, then we can get as crazy as we want.
Dialogue is obviously a huge part of what makes “Taco Man” so funny. Between that sketch and all your experience as a writer, what separates good from bad dialogue?
Learn how people talk. To me, dialogue is something that comes pretty easily. I’m not someone who dislikes stylized dialogue if it’s done well. My favorite example of it is Heathers. Heathers has stylized dialogue and invented teenage slang that just works, you know? “What’s your damage, Heather?” No teenager had ever said that before. That’s invented teenage slang, and it just works. And then I think of other teen movies or whatever, where I’ve seen people try to do that and it just doesn’t work and it just sucks. [laughs] I think that it ultimately has to sound how people talk. It can’t be too writerly. I don’t know when that works and when that doesn’t work – I know it when I see it, I know it when I write it, but I don’t know if I can explain it to someone other than say it works when people talk like that.
And I also think it’s important to write for each character’s voice. There are so many times where I’ll read a script and every character sounds the same. It sounds like the writer’s voice, and it’s like no, you actually have to write for different voices. For me it’s sometimes helpful to have a certain actor in my head, and if I don’t have a certain actor, a type of person in my head, and then write to that character’s voice. I was just reading something from a friend of mine and it was just leaping off the page. It was realistic teen girl dialogue and it was so exciting to read. When you read it and it’s good it’s my favorite thing in the world.
It seems like The State is still very much a comedy nerd cult type show. It’s obviously influenced a lot of comedians and fans, but it doesn’t seem to get the same level of recognition today as shows like Kids in the Hall or Mr. Show. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. Kids in the Hall and Mr. Show are absolutely brilliant – they’re as good as sketch comedy gets. Maybe it’s because Mr. Show came a little bit later and I haven’t looked to return to that stuff as much, although I still do all the time. There’s a moment in Mr. Show I thought of recently. You know how everyone argues back and forth online about nothing all day? I think of Karen Kilgariff’s one joke in the “East Coast/West Coast Ventriloquist” sketch where they cut to her at one point for an interview with one of the ventriloquist’s wives, and she’s holding a glass of booze and she’s clearly drunk and she just looks to the camera and goes “Oh you men.” [laughs] That’s how I feel when I read people online going back and forth: “Oh you men.”
I don’t know, but to me, The State was so ubiquitous for a while because it was on MTV and they played it all the time. In the ‘90s The State was actually more accessible than Mr. Show was – The State was just seen by more people, and Mr. Show became this thing that you kind of had to discover. So I think that your hardcore comedy nerds probably haven’t exhausted all the conversations about Mr. Show yet. [laughs] That’s not to say it’ll ever be done though, because that show was absolutely brilliant. And what kind of world do we live in now where Netflix is bringing us eight new episodes of Wet Hot American Summer and we’re getting the Bob and David thing? And just for me and as a younger person, I can’t believe I get to work with these people. There’s still a part of me that’s like “I really loved this stuff as a kid, and now I get to do it!” It’s really cool.
It’s also cool that you made that transition especially before stuff like Twitter made interacting with comedians and show creators so much easier.
Yeah, now it’s easy. You can contact anyone. I can go right now and fuckin’ tweet Kanye West and be like “Hey, your music’s good! Thanks Kanye!” and he would definitely see it and he would definitely reply because I’m verified on Twitter and an important person in show business.
[laughs] But what was crazy to me is that they were fans of mine as a teenager. That experience was crazy. Now that was nice when I was young, but then as I got older, my whole history with Wet Hot American Summer became pretty meaningful because I remember they had a reading of the screenplay at William Morris for financing and I thought it was really funny and great and of course they’ll give them the money to make this. And they did, and then I got a call saying “Do you want to come in and read for this part of Silas who jerks off and gets kicked out of camp early?” And then I got put in Wet Hot American Summer, and that was really cool. Me and Paul Scheer and David did a show at UCB to celebrate the release of the movie – this was back in 2000 or whatever – so it was really cool when the Netflix thing came up and to then to be a writer on the show. I can’t wait for people to see it.