Saturday, June 04, 2016

"The way that you dreamed": An essential oral history of the State

My allegiance to the ongoing comedy universe of the State rivals the one I feel toward my favorite bands. The '93–'95 run of the group's original eponymous MTV show coincided almost exactly with my high-school years, which meant I fell right into the target demographic. I loved the show, and some of the classic sketches — "Taco Man," "Porcupine Racetrack," "The Bearded Men of Space Station 11," plus anything with Barry and Levon (the "$240 worth of pudding" guys), Doug ("I'm outta heeeere") or Louie ("I wanna dip my balls in it") — have stuck with me as much as anything from SNL, which I also watched religiously during the Mike Myers / Phil Hartman glory years.

The later spin-off output by various State members has made even more of an impression. Wet Hot American Summer is easily an all-time top 10 movie for me (the Netflix reboot did not disappoint), I worship all the Stella material, and I could watch David Wain's other directorial output (Wanderlust, the mindblowingly great They Came Together, the Wainy Days web series) pretty much on an infinite loop. It's some kind of primal wavelength thing: This comedy just speaks to me.

So when I heard about The Union of the State, a new oral history of the group and its various offshoot projects, spanning from the surprisingly high-stakes late-'80s NYU sketch-comedy scene that spawned the State up through to more or less the present-day, I ordered it pretty much immediately. The book is a whopping 600 pages, and I expected it to be a fun text to dip into — maybe check out a chapter at a time in-between other reads. But I knew within a few pages that I'd be reading it cover-to-cover. Simply put, this book is profound. All the facts and anecdotes are here — the stories behind all your favorite sketches; the behind-the-scenes account of the filming of Wet Hot, which is a must for any fan of the movie — but more importantly there's a larger, more universal narrative at work here: the story of what it means to live a creative life, of what happens — good, bad, ugly and just plain insane — when your passion becomes your profession. It's to the credit of the author, Corey Stulce, who, almost miraculously, self-published this remarkable book, that these larger themes don't feel at all forced. As with any great oral history, the narrative seems to sort of shape itself, but as I know firsthand (from putting together the far less extensive oral history I assembled for the beautiful Aqualamb-designed book that accompanies the craw box set), this is not the case. An oral history is a textbook illustration of the adage that "art is the concealment of art." You interview, yes, and then you transcribe. But then the real work begins, work that, if you're doing it right, leaves no trace in the final product.

I almost wish this book had existed when I was heading off to college. There is just so much useful knowledge here about the idea that if you want it to be, the thing you love to do the most can, in fact, become your career, if you work at it. Most of us experience college as a sort of dress rehearsal for life, the play-acting before the real meat of the action begins. What that often means in practice is that you follow your heart for four years — playing in bands, acting in plays, pledging allegiance to one campus cause/club/group/discipline or another — and then you sort of say goodbye to all that and go out into the world and get a "real job," i.e., one that has very little to do with what actually excites, motivates and inspires you.

We find that, almost to a person, the future members of the State were determined to buck this trend. From the time they split off from existing campus sketch group the Sterile Yak and formed the New Group, which would become the State, they were basically operating as professionals. At one point during college, Michael Showalter transferred to Brown and got involved with the improv-comedy group there. "I was amazed at how little rehearsal we did," he recalls. "I was blown away by how not seriously they took it, because with the New Group, it was life and death, and I wanted it that way." Ken Marino echoes the sentiment (emphasis mine): "We probably rehearsed more than we needed to. ... We just wanted it to be right. We wanted to get the music of the comedy right."

The narrative arc from there is part living-the-dream success story and part watching-that-dream-distort cautionary tale. David Wain found an in at MTV, and after an apprenticeship period on another program, the group, all 11 members, landed their a show on the network. They had more or less full creative control; they had their own office/playroom overlooking Times Square ("We pushed all the desks to the wall, and we taped off a four square, and we wound up playing naked four square from time to time," says Marino); they were shooting on a soundstage with a real crew. Kevin Allison (a.k.a. "the Red Head Gay")"is in some ways the book's underdog protagonist. He was a key member of the group but always felt excluded from the State's "power center" — which at different times included Robert Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon, Michael Ian Black, Wain and Marino — and like Joe Lo Truglio, after the collective splintered, he had trouble finding his way both in the industry and in life. But at the start, he was unabashedly wide-eyed: Allison's enthusiastic recounting of the State's initial breakthrough at MTV is priceless:

"To have access to costume departments, to people working on your hair and makeup, to have a staff helping you create these ridiculous scenarios that you otherwise had been working on for the past several years in college by going to thrift stores to pick stuff up, it was like being a kid in a candy shop. It just felt so exciting to be twenty-two years old and treated like a creator, being treated like artists, and having people wondering what they could do for you next to help you create this joke that you thought of."
After a couple seasons' worth of glory, the classic years that all State fans remember so fondly, the group started to think about expanding its horizons. The idea, agreed upon by pretty much everyone, was that they would jump ship and head to a network. They left MTV, and after a tentative ABC deal fell through, they started a brief, ill-fated partnership with CBS that yielded only one barely seen late-night special. In the midst of all this, the group parted ways with longtime member Todd Holoubek. All of the above is depicted in the book as a sort of protracted, excruciating downfall/misstep, and parts of it are genuinely tough to get through, in an emotional sense. Nearly every member looks back on leaving MTV as a huge mistake:

"I just can't believe I was so stupid that I thought there was some upside to taking us to network TV. It shows how incredibly naïve we were and how cocky and arrogant because I legitimately thought that we would be a hit on network TV." —Lennon
Even harsher is the portrayal of Holoubek's exit. This phase was, to quote Blink-182, the group's "I guess this is growing up" moment, the point at which the principles of friendship and loyalty collided with the realities of business. See above re: "what happens when your passion becomes your profession," but there's also a "be careful what you wish for" aspect here, or to be less dramatic/moralistic about it, simply the idea that no matter what the endeavor, how closely related it is to your creative passion, there's always that cold-water moment of reality setting in. Garant recalls how other members of the group were questioning Holoubek's commitment:

"I remember not feeling supportive but being pretty angry that he was still there if he wasn't gonna commit to us one hundred percent. Not the most supportive friend mind but just a practical mind. I could tell that this wasn't what he was into anymore. We all kind of knew that, but he was coming from a place that was still this sort of 'friends doing this as a club.' It wasn't that anymore. It was a real job." —Garant
It gets better from there, but not before it gets worse. Lo Truglio describes how, while out drinking one night as the group was fraying, he had "a nervous breakdown, a legitimate one." Then a few members score a deal to make the show Viva Variety without the bulk of the group, a move that's seen as traitorous by some. The bad blood worsens.

There's a happy ending to all this, or rather, an assortment of happy endings. Many of the State crew reunite on the Wet Hot shoot, which all involved describe as blissful and idyllic and just generally a great hang. (This section reminded me a lot of the mood of Robert Altman sets evoked in Mitchell Zuckoff's incredible Oral Biography.) Lennon and Garant become a lucrative Hollywood screenwriting team. Allison starts his own successful podcast. Wain takes on the challenge of directing mainstream comedy vehicle Role Models. The whole group reunites for a triumphant performance at Tenacious D's Festival Supreme, where they debut new material and revive old favorites while poking fun at their own nostalgia. Here's Kerri Kenney-Silver on that show:

"I'm always just so concerned with the written, with the sketch and which wig I'm going to wear for this, and I forget that ninety percent of what's about to happen is that the audience is going to be involved. And that's a good thing, because you can't count on it in comedy. ... So it's always a pleasant surprise when they show up for you, and they're reacting in the way that you dreamed they would. I'd say that happened a million fold at that show."

There's so much surreality in this book, so many episodes that seem like fantasy experiences for the members of the group: the time Garant, Holoubek and director Michael Patrick Jann stopped in New Orleans during a roadtrip they took in the MTV show's heyday and ended up crashing Lollapalooza and holding court with State fans; the time the whole group went to the Bahamas, of all places, to record a comedy album that was shelved and only issued years later; the time Kenny-Silver started a band with her friend and eventually made an album produced by John Zorn. (I have to at least namecheck Craig Wedren, the Shudder to Think member and all-around avant-pop genius who also happens to be a lifelong friend of David Wain and the group's constant musical collaborator from their beginnings through the present day; throughout the book, he provides an entertaining and insightful outside perspective on the whole State circus.)

There's so much elation and heartbreak and bonding and splintering and closeness and wariness and praise and hurt feelings. And there is such a potent sensation of hard-won reward at the end, a reward that is still being paid out, the prize that you never quite receive in full but appreciate in fleeting moments like the one Kenney-Silver describes above. The moments not only when a given audience is "reacting in the way that you dreamed they would," when there's some external reinforcement and support and encouragement for what you have made, but also when you can quietly assess a project, especially a collaborative one, whatever that might be, when you can look back on it and say, simply, "We had an idea and we stuck to it and followed it through. And look where it led." Where it led for the members of the State was essentially to the founding of an entire school of comedy, an entire generation's worth of takes on how to be funny, now. A living family tree of humor, branching ever outward.

"One of the things that I think everybody feels, I know I do, is that when every one of us does well, it furnishes the larger legacy of the State," Black observes. "I think we all feel like there's this hometown that we come from, and we're all interested in the hometown getting its share of the glory."

We should all, anyone who's involved in any kind of creative work, be so lucky as to spring from this kind of core community, one that lasts, and that evolves, seeds, expands in ways you never could have predicted. All the truths of the State saga were there before, but Corey Stulce's project preserves them, interweaves them, underscores them, canonizes them, makes them public. As loving, selfless works of scholarship go — really the only ones worth undertaking, if you ask me — The Union of the State is a masterpiece, a gift not just to fans of these comedic masters but, I'd argue, to the artists themselves. Buy it, and laugh, and learn.

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