Although their MTV sketch comedy series has been off the air for over 16 years, a random survey of the landscape of contemporary American comedy quickly reveals that the state of The State, collectively or as part of the myriad splinter projects featuring its alumni, is strong. In fact, it could be argued that the troupe is more popular today than when the series ended in 1997.
Beginning their career as the sixteen member New Group in 1988, while still at NYU Film School, they evolved into The State: Full-Frontal Comedy in 1992 and slimmed down the bench to a more manageable 11 members. By the time Michael Ian Black, David Wain, Kevin Allison, Todd Holoubek, Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant, Michael Patrick Jann Kerri Kenney-Silver, Ken Marino, Michael Showalter and Joe Lo Truglio began writing the MTV series, in the fall 1993, they had also slimmed down the name to simply, The State.
Although they’ve never broken up, State performers are today as well known for projects they’ve done outside the collective. State members have infiltrated all manner of popular comedy on programs such as Reno 911, Children’s Hospital, Stella, Viva Variety, Party Down and Burning Love, and have written and/or appeared in films such Role Models, Night At The Museum, The Pacifier, and the cult favorite Wet Hot American Summer. Garant and Lennon are the producers of Comedy Central’s instantly popular twitter hashtag program, @Midnight, while Black is one of the co-hosts (with D.L. Hughley) of Trust Me, I’m a Game Show Host on TBS.
Today, with Twitter and all manner of social media at their disposal, the members of The State have a reach they couldn’t have imagined when they went off the air in 1997. At that time, their TV cancellation all but buried the troupe’s paperback travel guide: State By State with The State: An Uninformed, Poorly Researched Guide To Traveling In The United States. But according to Staters David Wain and Michael Ian Black, the conditions (time, technology, and the popularity of their brand) are finally right for a self-published e-book edition, which is now available from their website and most e-book delivery systems.
“The show was reasonably successful on MTV,” says Wain, “so at the time we were looking to branch out into other projects.”
These projects turned out to be developing an unmade movie, making a comedy record, Comedy for Gracious Living, and then a mock travel guide to the United States.
“Then,” says Wain, “the show actually fell apart before some of these other things came out, but we had finished the book. It was a shame that the book didn’t get the support it deserved because I thought it was really funny and had some of the funniest material that the group had done. But today, it’s a totally different landscape, so it’s much, much easier for the people who are looking for our work to find us. People know the group in some ways better than they did then, so this seemed like a good opportunity to introduce it to our audience.” Wain says the troupe really did take a DIY approach, outsourcing very few tasks, such as re-typesetting, and having their agency, William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, put together the contracts.
“But really,” says Wain, “there was no big publishing concern behind it this time.”
“When [the paperback original edition] came out,” adds Black, “it didn’t make any impact at all. Then, over the years, we would see it pop up on EBay and people were selling for good money, you know 40 or 50 bucks, and we realized that there might be some people out there who know who we are and might enjoy it. I know we all felt really proud of it, because it really is just full of laughs. It’s nothing but jokes, page after page after page of pretty funny jokes. You know, if we’d had Twitter [back then] we would have had a much easier time promoting it. So now that we could do it we figured ‘why not?'”
Wain and Black both marvel at the technological revolution that has taken place in the sixteen years since the book first appeared. Black, in particular says the fact that there are fewer “gatekeepers” has opened up comedy in ways nobody could have predicted.
“Of course,” says Black, “this really started taking off in the middle of the 2000s, with YouTube. Once you were able to stream content easily it really changed things for everybody. The creative difference it makes has been remarkable, because you can pretty much do whatever you want, from text to full-length feature film, and you can do it all DIY.”
Among the many silly, silly made up factoids in State By State: “Did you know that all four million residents of Delaware were chemically engineered?” or “The State Teeth of Rhode Island are the bicuspids.” There’s also a helpful guide to the various regional nicknames for heroin, (“Boner Doner” in San Diego, “Altar Boy” in Boston, “eroin-Hey” in Las Vegas), so you can score skag anywhere in the country, and a tour of New Jersey where all the sights are clearly photos of famous landmarks in China.
While the troupe delegated the writing of various regional sections to the members who knew that area best (for example Garant, a son of the South, wrote most of the material about the Southern states), Black says that authenticity wasn’t especially demanded of anyone.
“It was more like, ‘start writing shit’ and then we collected it all,” says Black. “I don’t even remember who organizing it. I even doubt everybody even had email at the time, although we must have. Some states had a ton of stuff, but there were some states that ended up having nothing in them and we sort of had to cobble something together at the very end. But none of it has any relationship to anything in reality. I don’t know if I’ve even read everything in the book! When we were putting the final touches on the book, we just made up an Index with all these random one-line jokes.”
Wain admits that while he’s also fuzzy about who wrote what, he’s certain who did most of the organizational work to pull all the moving parts together.
“Over the 27 years that we’ve been doing The State now,” says Wain, “it often falls on my shoulders to do those kinds of mindless, bureaucratic logistical tasks that no one else will. There are people who just don’t gravitate towards the more productivity-oriented side of things that need to happen, so I helped them on those levels, especially back when we more like little kids starting out. A lot of the work behind this reissue was just strictly exchanging a number of emails, digging up old material and old contracts, not a huge creative effort.”
To announce the e-book, The State took advantage of all the modern tools, even making their own low-fi, promo video to debut on Vimeo, featuring all State members apparently Skyping in from their various homes and offices.
“That was so that people understood that this was us doing it,” says Wain, “and not somebody else. It was important. Anything we do as The State we try to keep our own control over the integrity and the dignity of it. It’s been quite a run and everyone in the group has remained hard working and active. It’s kind of an amazing dream situation to continue working with your old buddies from college, throughout your professional career. We’ve never stopped working together in whatever forms we can, including a number of projects as The State, which is logistically harder and harder to do, with all the scheduling.”
According to Black, there is one potential downside to the democratization and decentralization of comedy on the Internet. The gatekeepers may have been diminished but now the playing field has become so broad that it’s increasingly harder to stand out.
“The marketplace is just so vast and there’s a lot of people making really good stuff,” says Black. “The State got unbelievably lucky in being able to have a TV show on MTV right out of college. That was a remarkable turn of events, but once that happened we were kind of guaranteed an audience. Now, because there are probably 100,000 outlets for people to find comedy, it’s just much harder to break through. It was hard then too, I suppose, but I think it’s exponentially harder now. I used to think the cream will always rise, and I still think that’s true, but the cream really has to be remarkable now.”