oral history

The State Before They Were the State: An Oral History of How the Beloved Sketch Group First Met in College

Kerri Kenney-Silver, Michael Showalter, David Wain, and Jo Lo Truglio Photo: Courtesy of Corey Stulce

Before they were making people laugh with their MTV show, before Wet Hot American Summer, before Reno 911, before they became staples of the modern comedy scene, the State were just college freshmen at New York University. In this excerpt from the upcoming oral history of the comedy troupe, out May 3, the group talks bonding over Melon Balls, crates of alcohol, U2, and Brittany Hall (definitely not one of NYU’s better dorms). 

Elder State men Todd Holoubek, Ken Marino, and David Wain were freshmen at New York University in 1987, while the rest of the troupe was still worrying about SATs, proms, and beer busts. But two future State members crossed paths while still in high school.

Thomas Lennon: Kerri and I met when we were about sixteen years old. We both went to the Northwestern University summer camp called Cherubs. We were very, very serious actors back then. We met, then became friends in 1986 or ’87. Ever since, we’ve been stuck together.

Kerri Kenney-Silver: It was very feel-good emotionally. It’s the first time when you’re an outcast of the school as a young, pimply teenager that you find your people at these theater camps. There’s other people like me out there! It was exhilarating. I remember when my dad came to pick me up, I was crying hysterically, and he was really freaked out. “This is some kind of cult. What’s happening here?” It is, in a sense.

Larry Kenney: She didn’t want to go back [home]. She said, “I’m ready now,” and I said, “Do another year of high school just for the hell of it.”

Kerri Kenney-Silver: I just fell in love with Tom, with his humor. I just knew that we would be friends for a long time. I remember thinking he was a genius. He had a dry sense of humor. I was drawn to him as an actor and a friend. We all had good intentions, but the other forty people that I said the same thing to, I have never seen since that day. We did that thing of “Let’s always work together.” Then, he called and said, “I’m going to NYU.” I said, “OK, I’m going to NYU, too.”

Thomas Lennon: I asked her where she was going to live, because [of] her being from the East Coast. I didn’t know anything about New York. We did end up living a couple doors down from each other in Brittany, which is one of the good dorms at NYU.

For some reason, I knew I had to be in New York if I was going to do any of this stuff seriously. I certainly could have stayed in Chicago and try to do the Second City route or something. I applied to Northwestern and did not get in, but luckily NYU let you audition. So my audition got me by even though my grades weren’t amazing. I did have a feeling that New York was the place to be. NYU is a great school, and I loved going there. You do, at Tisch [School of the Arts], meet super-motivated people. I sure did.

David Wain has known “State” theme song co-composer Craig Wedren since they were toddlers in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

Craig Wedren: [When] David’s father first brought a Beta camera and two-track, reel-to-reel tape recorder into the basement, we were like, “OK, thank you. You can go now; we’re good,” and we’ve just been doing it ever since. … If you look at videos of [David] from age eleven, just by himself, alone, in his basement, armed only with this video camera and his mom’s old wardrobe from the 1960s, it basically looks like The State — maybe a little less tightly edited.

MTV launched in August 1981; we were eleven. So we just started making music videos. I don’t think it necessarily occurred to either of us that you could “score” something. Also, I don’t know that we would have known quite how to do that. David did make an insane, very dramatic, semi-narrative video for “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” by Billy Joel, which is sort of like a proto “Wet Hot,” in that it literally is every single one of our friends.

David Wain: [At NYU], I had requested to room with one of my best friends that I grew up with, Craig Wedren, the guy who would be the composer of everything else I’ve done. He was matched up with a roommate named Ross from Long Island. He was a character. Ross had a friend from high school who was also in the dorm. That was Ken. Ken came down to visit Ross the first day, and within moments it was clear that Craig and I had a lot more in common with Ken than we did with Ross. So we all hung out with Ken a lot. I remember Ken showed up with a milk crate filled with liquor.

Ken Marino: The summer before I went to college, I was a bartender at a yacht club. I stole a lot of bottles of alcohol and put them into milk crates, because they had milk crates back in college. I had two milk crates filled with booze, and I would come down to people’s rooms with my milk crate. I went down to see my buddy, Ross, and met David and Craig and wound up hitting it off with them really well. I wound up basically hanging out with them and not hanging out with my friend from high school that much anymore. That was my in. I was the wandering bar.

Craig Wedren: [I] literally met Ken Marino first thing, first day, freshman orientation, and we’re still best friends. Our sons are best friends, Ken’s and mine and David’s. It’s kind of freaky, actually — love at first sight. We just met, and we loved each other, and we became — all three of us — best friends, roommates and kind of still are.

[Ken] had a milk crate full of booze, but I had a lot of sweet-ass cassettes; so it was a really symbiotic relationship. He had the booze, and I had Queen’s “Greatest Hits.” So we were completely ready. One thing about being a precocious, semi-self-aware and totally, idiotically cocky teenager is you’re sort of a radar for awesome people. At least our radar for each other was kind of impeccable. It blows my mind, the older I get, how we all found each other and have stayed together.

David Wain: Immediately when I got there, they passed out these purple buttons at orientation. If you were in the film school, they passed out a button that said “Director” to everybody, and the actors got “Actor” buttons. I was like, “Wow, I have a label at eighteen years old.” I never really thought about this until right now, but that was sort of the key moment for me. I guess I’m a director. I guess this is what I’m going to be doing.

The way it worked is you start making movies right away at NYU on Super 8 film. They were little, tiny silent-film exercises. I put Ken Marino in all of mine. Pretty much from the moment I got there, I was doing things with people who would eventually be part of The State.

During that first year, David and Todd joined NYU’s new sketch comedy troupe, The Sterile Yak. David described the group as having a “Saturday Night Live” aesthetic, a mix of sketches and comic monologues that attracted a quick and solid following among the students. More on The Sterile Yak in the next chapter. In 1988, Kevin, Tom, Kerri, Ben, Michael Jann, Michael Showalter, Michael Schwartz (not yet Michael Ian Black), and Joe arrived on campus and amazingly started finding each other from the outset.

Kevin Allison: On the first day of school, I’ll never forget this, Spike Lee came to talk to us, the freshman class that was coming into Film and TV at NYU. He said something I’ll never forget. He said, “You’re paying an awful lot to come to the school, but let me tell you something, what you’re going to get out of NYU is what’s going on in the seats and rows around you. You are here to meet the people around you. Those are people you’re likely to be working with for the rest of your careers. As far as the education you’ll get here, or the amount that they’ll support you in your endeavors, as far as I’m concerned, it’s bullshit.”

It was so refreshing, and it turned out to be absolutely true. None of us felt that we got a good education at NYU. None of us felt like the school ever really supported us. For example, we had to rent theaters outside of campus by the time we were juniors because the school was so unsupportive of our group. NYU is a real estate company. All they do is buy up real estate in New York. It’s so easy to get lost in the bureaucracy. It turns out Spike Lee was absolutely right. It was the other students who ended up being so valuable to us. The State was the ultimate example of it.

Michael Patrick Jann: I remember Spike Lee being incredibly surly, and he seemed to have kind of a chip on his shoulder about NYU in general. NYU generates sort of that “Yeah fuck you” ethos.

Joe Lo Truglio: Mike Showalter was the first person I met at NYU, let alone the first State member, other than my roommate in the dorm. He literally was across the hall. We hit it off immediately. He was the one that got me involved ultimately in The State. At the time, I was always interested in comedy, but I was a much more serious person and in fact went to NYU with the intent to make movies along the line of Scorsese and Coppola and follow Pacino’s and De Niro’s careers and do more dramatic things. I had no interest really in comedy. He said, “Listen, there’s this sketch comedy group called The Sterile Yak. We should go and check them out.” I did it just because I wanted to hang out with Show. I wasn’t quite interested in sketch.

Michael Showalter: I would not have known about any of this if I hadn’t met Joe, because I was in arts and sciences at NYU. I think I was the only person that was. I think everyone else was at Tisch. The New Group, The Sterile Yak, those are Tisch clubs, so it was almost like a big deal that a guy from arts and sciences would be in this Tisch club. Like I was from an entirely different university.

Joe Lo Truglio: Showalter taught me how to like beer. I never enjoyed beer. In high school, I was pretty straight edge. I got pretty smashed at fourteen, my freshman year, and decided never to drink again. I was doing tae kwon do. I was very much into the honor and integrity of being substance-free. All throughout high school, I was sober, for lack of a better term. When I went to college, I wanted to drink again. I was drinking terrible stuff like Melon Balls or sweet, girly drinks like wine coolers. Terrible, terrible stuff.

Michael Showalter: The big thing with Joe was Melon Balls. We would drink Corona, and Joe just didn’t like the taste of beer. So he would drink Melon Balls — which, if you look up Melon Ball, it’s green. It looks like Jell-O. It looks like liquid, green Jell-O, and we used to really make fun of him for his choice of beverage.

Joe Lo Truglio: Showalter, to his credit, was having none of it. He said, “You are going to like beer. We’re getting a pack of Rolling Rock, and you and I are just going to drink it. You’re not going be ordering Melon Balls with me standing next to you. I won’t have it.” He was right to put his foot down.

He gave me that, and I gave Showalter a love of U2. He had probably heard some songs but never really listened to the album. I got him hooked on my favorite U2 album, which is “Unforgettable Fire.” That was the trade-off that we still joke about it. He gave me beer, and I gave him U2.

Michael Showalter: I never thought being in front of the camera was a career path. I always assumed I would do the more academic route. I would write about it. Joe knew of an audition for a troupe. I didn’t have to look for long to find a comedy group because Joe had already found a flier for it.

Michael Patrick Jann: It was one of those things. I guess it was an attracting-light kind of deal. We just met. I met David Wain within four hours of moving into my dorm. I was sitting in my room and wound up several hours later sitting in David’s room and playing guitar and doing magic tricks.

Ken Webb (NYU classmate of The State and member of The New Group): Mike Jann might have been the first one I met, and at the time he wasn’t in the group, and I feel like I was sort of the conduit for him to become friends with the group. And eventually become a member.

Kevin Allison: I was walking around going from one little orientation event to another in the film school. I saw Joe Lo Truglio. I just thought he was super, super hot. “Oh, my God, that kid is so hot.” I just wanted to find out what classes he was taking and what he’s up to. It’s kind of hilarious that really what got me pursuing the group in the first place was actually my dick. I’ve got to get to that hot boy.

This must’ve been in that first week because it’s in the first week or two at school when you can do drop-ins. I see that hot guy, and he’s waiting to do a drop/add, to drop one class and add another. I’ve been thinking about doing a drop/add, too. I wondered if I could eavesdrop on his meeting with the counselor and add myself to whatever class he’s added himself to. Sure enough, it’s not like a hush-hush thing. He adds a class, walks off, and I don’t say hello to him or anything. It’s kind of like Jimmy Stewart in “Vertigo,” lurching and quietly stalking him. I go to the counselor, and I say, I’d like to add Motion, Matter and Meaning. The counselor said, “Oh, that’s a popular class today.” All of a sudden, I’m in Joe Lo Truglio’s class and so was Mike Jann and so was Ken Webb, who was in the original New Group but didn’t end up coming with us to MTV. I’m sitting in class and pining over Joe, and, of course, Joe’s movies are all about his heterosexual relationships he’s had. I immediately knew I’m barking up the wrong tree here. This is ridiculous.

Joe Lo Truglio: I get a kick out of that. I was flattered. I was completely oblivious to it. He made no blatant overtures to me at all, or if he did, I just had blinders on. I just liked Kevin. Like David, he would be hanging out with the group a lot.

Michael Patrick Jann: That’s a big university, and we all found each other, and we all really got each other in one way or another. It was kind of crazy. Here’s how Kevin ended up in our production group. I knew Kevin from another class we were taking because he had this crazy-ass laugh. He was the only one dying, laughing hysterically in a room of five hundred freshmen at Jacques Tati’s “Mon Oncle.” … The class we were all in was studying it for its innovative use of sound and color, like real academic, and only Kevin Allison was bursting out laughing and actually enjoying it, literally whooping with joy in a totally silent auditorium of his peers. … Kevin Allison was laughing at it like it was “Holy Grail” or like it was the first time seeing “Animal House” or something. He was the only guy. We took him on based on his laugh. Joe and I and this other guy, [Ken], decided we were going to team up as a production team, and we said, “What about that guy? He seems funny.” Flaming red-haired Kevin Allison, he was a guy with a beard at that time.

Joe Lo Truglio: Me, Jann, Kevin and Ken Webb, we were the four-person crew in the film class. We would go out to The Dugout, which was on Third Avenue and 11th or 12th. We’d get these beers that were a dollar a pint or whatever and get so drunk.

Kevin Allison: The Lost Boys of Filmmaking is what we called ourselves.

Joe Lo Truglio: At the time, “American Gladiators” had just come out, and it was the first of those crazy reality game shows. They were so sensationalized and cartoony and new. It was like a Japanese game show almost. We were pretty obsessed with that show. We ended up giving each other Gladiator names. We would challenge the Pink Tornado — I think that was Kevin Allison’s name — challenge him to slam some terribly cheap, watery beer out of the mug. I believe I was Prego, which was the name of a spaghetti sauce. Jann’s gladiator name was Stilt.

Kevin Allison: I’m still upset that I did not get to be Fuck Bullet. I don’t know why, but I said, “I want to be Fuck Bullet,” and everyone had already decided that I was Fireball, mostly because of the color of my hair. “NO, I AM FUCK BULLET,” and everyone was like, “No, everyone’s already calling you Fireball.” To this day, I’m like, it should’ve been Fuck Bullet.

Joe Lo Truglio: We would get drunk, and then Kevin would go on rants, which became a prominent fixture of all of the State characters that were just brilliant. So quick. He would be so funny. I’d never seen anything like this guy. He’s a strange cat. He’ll just drop his pants and start singing at the drop of a hat and have no problem with it. He embraces his deviant nature with such gusto; it’s spellbinding. Let’s get him into the group. It was easy to do that because like David and Tom, he was always around the group on a social level well before he was in it. That’s how all the members that weren’t original members ultimately came into it. We had to know you.

Thomas Lennon: Mike Jann made a lot of heavy student films that I was in, actually co-starring with Kerri. I’m sure I would cringe at the things that we said and did.

Michael Patrick Jann: [Tom and I] just got along the first time we met each other. We both lived in the same dorm, and I remember the first time I met him. I was standing in the student lounge at the Brittany dorm, and he had on this sort of outfit that he was famous for that first year, which was a pair of jeans with big bleach stains on them and white button down shirt, buttoned all the way up, David Lynch-style.

We met each other there and start playing the video game “Paperboy.” That was our thing.

Joe Lo Truglio: When I first met Tom Lennon, I thought he was the snootiest prick in the world. Tom was in the film department and would always dress in a sport coat and white shirt and jeans. He would play tennis in this thing. He would play tennis in jeans.

Thomas Lennon: That’s probably true. Yeah, I had these acid-washed jeans. I don’t know if they mentioned I also wore cowboy boots. I was the lamest dude you ever met. There are a lot of pictures of me from that era that are just positively terrible. Cowboy boots, acid-washed jeans and a blazer or leather jacket.

Joe Lo Truglio: We met at a short-film audition, a short film of a guy named Adam Marcus, who went on to direct one of the “Friday the 13ths,” from Connecticut.

Thomas Lennon: For most of my freshman year, I had an eye patch over my right eye because my second week in New York, I got mugged and beaten almost to death. I could not open my right eye for many, many months. So instead of people asking me about it, I just wore a black eye patch. So I looked pretty weird.

Joe Lo Truglio: I’m outside in the waiting room, and Tom was there. He’s in his outfit, and he’s got this eye patch. At the time, I didn’t know he had been mugged and, unfortunately, pummeled in the face. This is like two or three weeks after that mugging. His eye was swollen. No other part of his face showed any kind of marking. I’m in a screening room, looking at this asshole in an eye patch and realizing we have to go in and read together. We hit it off. That audition couldn’t have gone better. We bounced off each other. I just remember clicking with him so quickly. In the middle of the scene, I remember all of that hatred and disdain falling away and thinking this guy is awesome and funny. We became fast, fast friends immediately, and then ended up doing this movie called “So You Like This Girl” that went on to maybe win an award at NYU Festival. That was how I got to know Tom Lennon.

I often cuffed the jeans around my ankle and did no socks and Capezios or boat shoes. It was atrocious. It was literally like Don Johnson coming up to a college, “Listen guys, I know you’re New York, but I can flash some style around you Yankees.” The “Miami Vice” Florida style that I was just peacocking all over NYU, which included Ocean Pacific shirts, bright neon orange bowling shirts, acid-washed jeans and jacket.

Thank God I went over to Grunge when it was appropriate. Grunge saved me.

Thomas Lennon: I was actually very scared of Ben when I first met him. He seemed like a really strange dude. He had bright green hair like the Joker. He looked like a slightly skinnier Sid Vicious.

Joe Lo Truglio: [Ben] had a safety-pin-lined leather jacket; he had a padlock around his neck, and he carried a switchblade. But he never seemed dangerous to me because he was in the drama department, and who isn’t dramatic at that age — including myself? I got the sense he was extremely intelligent from the very beginning.

Robert Ben Garant: I dressed like that back in Tennessee so people hated me. I was really picked on. They sliced my car’s tires in the school parking lot four times, all four tires, during the school day.

I had this weird knowledge that I wasn’t a freak. There were more of me, just not in Tennessee. So when I got to New York it was just great. I dressed in kind of Sid Vicious/garage sale look. Anything that would kind of make me look weird.

Our first dorm on 10th and Broadway was one block from the old Ritz, which is now Webster Hall. The shows were ten bucks! The Cramps played there. I saw The Ramones there like five times. It was just great, and it was a block from our dorm, so it was like being thrown into heaven.

Kerri Kenney-Silver: My first day there, I met Michael Black in a creative writing class. He was sort of an outcast like me, and we kind of connected. I felt like we were writing really dark stuff. It wasn’t sketch-related at all. I don’t know; we just got each other.

Michael Ian Black: Justnormalfreshmanbullshit. Undoubtedly dark poetry. I wasn’t thinking of myself as a writer. I felt like I could write OK. I wasn’t thinking I’m going to devote any real time or energy to writing, except as required by class. You’re not allowed to audition for plays as a freshman, which actually was probably a very good thing for The New Group’s history. We couldn’t do plays, and had we all been able to do plays, probably some of us would have. My theater school was called Circle in the Square, which went out of business for a while, but I think they might be back in business. There were some sort of financial improprieties and something with The Mob.

Joe Lo Truglio: Black, his outfit I remember was a long trench coat, a skateboard and a backward baseball cap. That’s all he wore. He was doing Trench Coat Mafia well before any of that happened. He’s got dibs.

Excerpted from The Union of the State by Corey Stulce with permission from Corey Stulce. Copyright 2016.

Book Excerpt: The Union of the State