EW chats with the creators of The State -- Three members from the eleven person comedy group discuss their new show, ''Stella,'' and the 17-year history of the group
The motto of the late comedy group the State seems to be ”divide and conquer.” Ever since CBS dissolved a series deal with the MTV-bred sketch group after one dismally rated 1995 special, the 11-member troupe has been spreading the loopy State sensibility in revolving guerrilla comedy combos. This summer, two of those mini-States will border.
Season 3 of Comedy Central’s Reno 911! — cocreated by and starring ex-members Robert Ben Garant, Kerri Kenney-Silver, and Thomas Lennon and often directed by Michael Patrick Jann — premiered June 14; starting June 28, it will lead into the new, Marx Brothers-like surreality series Stella — the brainchild of alumni Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain. And these are only two of the many projects written, directed by, and/or starring various permutations of the group. ”I [still] tell people I’m in a group called the State,” says Kenney-Silver. ”We just don’t do a show together right now. . .but it’s about the people, not the group.”
Before CBS, nobody had ever impeded their quest to depose Saturday Night Live as the hip comedy ensemble. The group formed in 1988 at NYU when most of the members were freshmen; MTV hired them in 1992, a few months after graduation, to contribute skits to Jon Stewart’s You Wrote It, You Watch It, and the next year gave them their own sketch show, which lasted three seasons. Nobody in the group cared that MTV’s salary divided 11 ways barely surpassed unemployment. ”The difference between the state of New York saying ‘You cannot do anything’ and working 20 hours a day was $100 and change,” remembers Reno’s Lennon. It was all accepted as a necessary sacrifice for complete comedy domination. ”It didn’t matter because every show was like, ‘This is the next step to big time,”’ says Garant, who also has an in-demand screenwriting partnership with Lennon, having coscripted The Pacifier and Herbie: Fully Loaded.
When CBS lured the then-10-person group from MTV (State founder Todd Holoubek had quit to pursue graphic design), the network attention attracted a movie deal and a record contract. But after the network dropped them, the movie deal faded, the record remained unreleased, and a mock travel book — State by State With the State — was the group’s last original project. ”When the show got canceled,” says Garant, ”it took weeks for us to realize, ‘Oh, wow. There’s nothing else.”’
Though the members knew they’d have to pursue outside work, the first splinter project — 1997’s Telemundo spoof Viva Variety, created by the Reno trio and Stella‘s Black — stunned those left out, cementing the group’s demise. ”Viva pulled the pin in the grenade,” says Lennon. ”We really get the blame. And rightfully so. We pitched the show.” Remembers Joe Lo Truglio (The Station Agent), who guests on Stella and Reno, ”I can look at it with much more clarity now, but it was tough and emotional.”
Any hurt feelings have long since dissipated, and the members collaborate on scripts, pilots, and movies in ever-shifting combinations. (Ex-Staters say that while a full reunion would be great, their busy schedules make it improbable.) For example, Stella‘s Wain and Showalter co-wrote 2001’s Wet Hot American Summer, starring Black, Lo Truglio, and Ken Marino (Men Behaving Badly), some of whom appear in Showalter’s directorial debut, The Baxter (out this August). And any member in town while the Comedy Central shows are in production — Stella is filmed in New York, Reno in L.A. — is automatically cast. ”The State are still the funniest, most reliable people I know,” says Garant. ”We have them in as much as we possibly can without the network going, ‘Dude, you can’t have the same guy do 30 different characters.”’ Says Stella‘s Showalter, ”We were shooting the other day, and Ken Marino was backstage and it felt right. We always felt like we are each other’s biggest inspirations.”