Tuesday, September 01, 2009

32. The State

As I've talked about in the SuperRock entry* MTV was at a crossroads in the early to mid 1990s. On one hand, it seemed that it wanted to keep their FM-radio-on-TV-anything-goes type of vibe, but on the other hand Madison Avenue was banging on their door trying to figure out how to market their products to teenagers. Essentially, the network was a victim of their own success.

Predictably, they went the way of the marketers and started to segment their music and begin showing programs that were more easily targeted to the advertising folks. And I'm not anti-marketing (how could I be?) or anti-advertising. Companies need a return on their investment and pushing new Coke to a group of people that only wants to drink beer isn't a good way of spending cash.

* I find it interesting that when you type SuperRock into Google, my Blog is the first entry that comes up. If you type in my name, 19Thoughts doesn't come up first. Also, I go to an outside site to check where readers come from and at least three or four times a week I'll have a reader being directed to my site after looking up SuperRock.

MTV had already successfully introduced a reality show (“Real World”), a ton of game shows (“Singled Out” and “Remote Control”) and was unsuccessful in spinning off comedies and dramas. The question was, what is a cross between a sitcom and a reality show? A comedy sketch show.

Since MTV was still green when it came to producing their own show, they had to go with unexperienced comedians. Luckily, there was a troupe of 11 New York University graduates who were familiar to MTV and their audience, but weren't completely overexposed.*

* At MTV overexposure wasn't a bad word, everything successful was shoved down the viewers' throats ad nauseum. With that in mind, I'm surprised that an MTV sketch show didn't star Dan Cortez, Pauly Shore, Kennedy, Bill Belamy and Jenny McCarthy.

After the members of the State left NYU, they put on their act throughout New York City gradually building an- audience while honing both their writing skills and stage presence. By the time someone from MTV discovered them, they were already a well-oiled machine.

The first MTV show that they were apart of was called “You Wrote It, You Watch It”. Basically this show consisted of viewers writing down wacky situations and different groups of comedians would act it out. The guys from the State were the most popular of the players and while YWI, YWI came and left quickly, MTV realized that it had something in the State.

MTV also realized that it had something in the host of YWI, YWI as Jon Stewart was given a nightly talk show that was completely different from what he's doing now.

“The State” was recently released on DVD during the last month and there have been a lot of things written about the show, one article explained how much autonomy the group had when it came to their bosses. State cast member David Wain told the Onion AV Club that MTV basically gave them their space and told them to pretty much do whatever they want to do. And they did.

If you get the DVDs and watch “The State” now it seems pretty pedestrian. But when they first started popping up on the channel it was mind-blowing; especially considering the state (no pun) of sketch comedy at the time. “Saturday Night Live” had lost many of its older, stronger cast members (Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, Mike Myers) and began to lean heavily on the David Spade, Chris Farley and Adam Sandler crew. While these guys were funny, they seemed to lack any sort of comedy trailblazing and imagination, it was the same old skits with the same catch phrases week after week after week. Even bringing comedy veterans like Chris Elliot or Michael McKeon or Janeanne Garofalo couldn't break the comedic malaise.

The only other televised sketch comedy choice was “In Living Color”, which was even more of the same old, same old except that none of the funnier Wayans brothers (Keenan or Damon) were around and Jim Carrey had his eyes on Hollywood. If you like hours of Tommy Davidson and David Alan Grier playing the same characters spouting the same things over and over again, than this was your comedy nirvana. Not even the addition of Chris Rock could save this mess.

Despite the popularity of comedy (stand-up comedians were dominating the ratings on network sitcoms) the traditional sketch show was at an all-time low in terms of laughs and creativity. It's not hyperbolic to say that “The State” rescued televised sketch shows.

The sketches on “The State” weren't like anything on television at that time. They rarely had reoccurring characters and they didn't have much in terms of catch phrases. Ironically, this type of familiarity was something that MTV wanted and that the troupe fought hard to stay away from. MTV eventually got their wish and a character named Louie was created, that was so obnoxious and so loud, that viewers were able to pick up the detest that the writers had for him. Louie was a one-trick pony played by Ken Marino. He had slicked back black hair and wore a short-sleeve dress shirt. He would always yell, “Can I dip my balls in it?” no matter what the scenario was.

One example of this is when Louie was depicted as one of Jesus' disciples and attended the Last Supper.

It was no dumber than the myriad catchphrases that was being passed off as zingers and found a home with the viewers who were “hip” to what the writers were trying to do and the folks who loved the phrase on face-value.

But the true greatness of the show came from the anonymity of the cast; who were these guys? Where did they come from? Why did MTV give a show to these dudes, they look like they could be in my dorm. And there's only one woman, who's going to play the female roles?

Add these questions to the sketches that were shown week to week and you have a show that went from cult worthy to a success in an instant. MTV does something very, very well: once it finds out what their demographic likes, it will shove that show down it's throat through endless marketing and hours of show marathons. With “The State” it wasn't like that. Sure, they would show weekend marathons, but I don't recall an all-out media blitz. They seemed to take a very hands off approach and continued to let the group churn out its off-beat brand of humor.

While MTV left the show alone, it's corporate partner CBS did not. In 1995 CBS wanted to get younger, most of their shows were geared for the geriatric set and that's not where the dollars are. The prime age group is 18-34 because theoretically the people in this age group have disposable income and are more apt to buy stuff. Part one of CBS' plan to get younger was to use MTV as a minor league team and their first call-up to the Big Leagues was “The State”.

From my recollection, CBS entered into an agreement with “The State” sometime in the beginning of that summer. That meant that they weren't going to produce any more new episodes for MTV and their focus was going to be on CBS, which gave them a big budget (bigger than MTV's anyway) for a Halloween show. As Halloween drew closer and closer, it has been reported that CBS got colder and colder feet about “The State”. Absolutely no marketing was done and to make matters worse, the Halloween show was going air on Halloween at 10:0 PM, which was on a Friday that year.

“The State's” major audience were high-school, college and young 20 somethings, all of whom would have something better to do than to sit around on a Friday night and wait for a show to come on. Especially when they were used to seeing that show running around the clock on MTV. Factor in that Halloween is among the top two biggest party nights of the year and it was no wonder that “The State Halloween Special” was a complete and total bomb.

After that debacle, “The State” sort of went underground for awhile. Every once in awhile you'd see one of them in a commercial or as a guest on a TV show, but there wasn't much going on. At the end of the 90s, Comedy Central aired a few seasons of “Viva Variety” which starred about half of the original State crew and it was a take on how Europeans translate American culture all whipped up into a variety show. It was pretty funny.

Then most of them got back together for the feature film, “Wet Hot American Summer” which was a spoof on the early 80s summer camp movies and while it wasn't a blockbuster, it did develop a very large cult following. After that, Comedy Central dabbled with members of the state for “Reno: 911!” which spoofed reality shows like “Cops”. This was probably the biggest hit post-State as it was on air for six seasons.

Comedy Central's partnership with members of “The State” continued with “Stella” an amusing send up of the traditional sitcom that starred Wain, Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter. Although it was really funny (my favorite thing that any State alumni have done since the original show) it failed to catch on.* Showalter and Black were brought back to Comedy Central for a latest go-round with “Michael and Michael Have Issues”, which is pretty awesome.

* My neighbor grew up with David Wain and has remained really good friends with him through the years. In December, he got me tickets to see “Stella” live. It was really, really funny. Showalter, Wain and Black know each other so well that it seemed less like a comedy show and more like a bunch of friends sitting around trying to crack each other up. Their Comedy Central show was a lot like this except it had a framework of a plot.

What did "The State" wrought? One could argue that it did change television sketch comedy as in 1995 Lorne Michaels completely blew up the cast of SNL and started from scratch with a completely anonymous cast. A year or two later HBO also started their own off-beat sketch show called "Mr. Show" that was able to take what "The State" had done and go even further.

Would these shows have existed or changed without "The State"? That's debatable. I'm sure the Michaels was sick of the drek that was being pumped out by Sandler and Rob Schneider; but the 1995-96 season had a different edge to it. They weren't copying "The State" but one could sense the influences.

As for myself, after watching a few episodes of "The State" it occurred to me that comedy isn't about the name of the performer, it's about the set and how hard the performer works to get your laugh. Catch phrases and familiar characters are easy, you already know when to laugh. But getting a joke perfectly crafted or writing a tight scene isn't easy and it's not supposed to be. "The State" opened my eyes to that.

I guess that this is the point in the Blog where I list out my favorite sketches and defend them and their hierarchy, but aside from a few there aren't a heck of a lot of sketches that I remember. It has been about 14 or 15 years since I last saw the show. I haven't purchased the DVDs yet, but when I do I'm sure that I'll enjoy it again.

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