During their brief but glorious two seasons on MTV (1993–1995) the comedy troupe The State was never really into metaphors. One of their most famous sketches was called "The Jew, The Italian and the Red Head Gay," which just about sums up the punch line of the sitcom parody. Yet there is something appropriate about the fact that when the 11-member group reunited for the first time in over a decade on the set of "Reno 911!: Miami," each of the eight State mates who weren't part of the Washoe County Sheriff's Department were subjected in one way or another to the end of a tattoo needle. Permanence. Pain. A sense of camaraderie…it is fitting.
"We all looked around and we all said, 'Wow, we have been eating in tents in goofy outfits for a long time together,'" says Robert Ben Garant, who along with fellow Staters Thomas Lennon and Kerri Kenney-Silver created the Comedy Central cop show–turned–movie. "And we never discussed what anybody was going to do at all. We just said, 'You work in tattoo parlors.' It was really great to be with people who we have such a shorthand and such trust [with] that we can just kind of set them loose."
While the troupe drifted apart following a disastrous CBS special in 1995, none of the members can ever shake the brand of "The State." Even if Kevin Allison or Todd Holoubek find the cure for cancer, they'll still only be asked when "The State" will finally come out on DVD. (Note, it did in 2009.) But in the meantime, they have all been set loose on the multiplex. In August alone, former Staters-turned-directors Garant and Lennon's "Reno 911!: Miami" follow-up "Balls of Fury," Michael Ian Black's "Wedding Daze," and David Wain's "The Ten" each carry on the troupe's unique comic sensibilities. And that's without even mentioning Joe LoTruglio's scene stealing turn as a hapless driver in "Superbad."
"Our real heroes were Monty Python," says Michael Showalter, who with David Wain became the first Staters to really put their stamp on the big screen with the nostalgic 1980s summer camp comedy "Wet Hot American Summer." "The template for us wasn't "Saturday Night Live." We weren't the big live troupe. Our bread and butter was making short films on location, so I think it was a natural progression to move into a feature-length medium."
Unlike with "SNL," State fans were never led to expect, say, pudding lovers Barry and Levon to make it to the movies. (In fact, the troupe was reluctant to have recurring characters at all.). After they disbanded in 1997, Garant, Lennon, and Kenney-Silver created the "Sabado Gigante" spoof "Viva Variety" for Comedy Central with Michael Ian Black, while Michael Patrick Jann — the Terry Gilliam of the group — went on to direct the beauty pageant comedy "Drop Dead Gorgeous" for New Line. Showalter and Wain's "Wet Hot American Summer" was met with ambivalence when it was released in 2002 but has since gone on to become a cult classic.
Watching "Wet Hot American Summer" now, one can see the seeds of what was to come, not just for The State, but for comedy in general. Paul Rudd, "Saturday Night Live"'s Amy Poehler, "30 Rock"'s Judah Friedlander, and "40-Year-Old Virgin"'s Elizabeth Banks all had prime roles in the film, which was a showcase once again for The State's non sequitur–filled humor. Despite the fact that the film used pop-cultural references as a touchstone, Wet Hot is timeless as far as gags are concerned — one reason the film's director Wain believes it took some time for the audience to come around.
"The sense of humor that we had in The State has always been kind of sidelined," Wain says. "When we were at MTV, it was like the black sheep and 'Wet Hot' was certainly a very sidelined movie, as far as the mainstream goes. Maybe now finally the time has come for the larger populace to embrace our sense of humor."
The time certainly appears to be now. In 2005, Showalter started The State's second major move into film with his directorial debut: the anti-romantic comedy "The Baxter," in which he played "that other guy" who is always left at the altar in romantic comedies. Again, Rudd and Banks were part of his ensemble cast and the film played Sundance before becoming a staple on the IFC Network. Meanwhile, Garant, Lennon, and Kenney-Silver got the greenlight to turn their successful "Cops" parody "Reno 911!" into a film, while Garant and Lennon became A-list Hollywood screenwriters by penning family films such as "The Pacifier," "Herbie: Fully Loaded," and then their biggest hit of all, "Night at the Museum."
"They went in the back door and we went right in the front door," says Garant, referring to the more indie sensibilities of his other State brethren. "The reason that people greenlight our scripts is that they have The State's pace and The State's smartness. They're the same kind of sensibility of very kind of smart comedy masquerading as very dumb comedy and very dumb comedy masquerading as very smart comedy, which I think is what The State did really well."
Consider their fellow Stater Michael Ian Black a fan.
"I don't think that I could've written "Night at the Museum," Black says. "Those guys have really learned that [studio] system, and they've really learned how to game it in a way that is really remarkable and really impressive."
Living on the east coast, Black has been prolific in his own right. After joining Showalter and Wain in the unofficial State spinoff "Stella," in which the trio performed on New York's standup circuit and had a Marx Brothers–inspired show on Comedy Central, Black turned to filmmaking. Besides penning the upcoming Simon Pegg comedy "Run, Fat Boy, Run," he is about to release his first film, "Wedding Daze," which stars Jason Biggs as a cautious type who, after being spurned by his girlfriend, chooses to ask the first girl he sees to marry him. Thankfully for Biggs, the bride-to-be is a waitress played by Isla Fisher.
The comedy has had a rough road to movie theaters since it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2006, changing titles from "The Pleasure of Your Company" and "The Next Girl I See" to its current incarnation. Yet the film preserves Black's mix of crazed slapstick — Biggs shows up in a cupid costume that one could easily see Black wearing on The State — with the dry humor that has made him the most ubiquitous former State member as a frequent commentator on many of VH1's various nostalgia fests.
"It's gratifying in the way that climbing Mount Everest is gratifying," says Black of directing for the first time. "Which is to say, it's incredibly difficult and a lot of times you don't feel like you have any oxygen and you sometimes feel like you're going to die. But at the end of it, you sort of go, 'Well, yeah, I climbed that mountain.'"
Ken Marino and Wain have scaled not one but two such plateaus this year. Even though Marino was the most likely to become a matinee idol out of The State, he has made his greatest strides as a writer. This year, he and Wain toured the festival circuit with two films: "Diggers," the 1970s-set dramedy about a legacy of Long Island clamdiggers, and "The Ten," a comedic take on each of the Ten Commandments. Paul Rudd, The State's resident leading man, starred in both films, which, like most State-sanctioned productions, boast incredible supporting turns from Lauren Ambrose and Maura Tierney in "Diggers" and Jessica Alba and Winona Ryder in "The Ten." Wain and Marino also made sure that "The Ten" would feature the second full State reunion of 2007, though Jann was out of the country during filming. (Marino and Wain improvised by posting a portrait of Jann "near a nude man's crotch.")
"The only thing that's possible right now for us to do as a group or in smaller factions of a group is film because there's an end to it," says Marino, who is currently working with Wain on another screenplay and with LoTruglio on a show for Comedy Central. "We're all just trying to create stuff that we think is funny, and we're all just trying to work, and film is the easiest way for us to work together because we can do it, and then we can break off and go do some other stuff that doesn't involve every member of The State because we're all spread out. It's not as simple as when we were in our twenties and we were all hanging out at a bar late at night and writing skits on napkins."
But even if life is getting in the way of a State reunion, the daring spirit of State comedy remains the same. In addition to "Wedding Daze" and "The Ten," Garant and Lennon will close The State's triple play in August with "Balls of Fury," which Lennon calls "a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, if Jean Claude Van Damme was good at Ping Pong." But, according to Wain, there might finally be an actual State movie in the near future.
"The idea has been in the ether since 1988," Wain says. "People have come to us from studios and have approached us about it. We're actually ramping up for another run at trying to see if we can overcome the logistical hurdles to making it happen. It's really just a function of people's time, which with a group this size, is quite daunting."
Whatever happens, they are all still miles away from the comedy troupe that was once struggling for laughs at NYU.
"We were so insular coming up," Black says. "We only knew each other essentially in the comedy world, [so we were able to] really develop our own voice" — one that will now be simultaneously offending and entertaining the masses in Dolby Digital."