TELEVISION; Beyond Beavis and Butt-head: MTV's Sketch-Comedy Group

By TRIP GABRIEL

Published: January 8, 1995

KILLING TIME ON A Manhattan sound stage, waiting for technicians to prepare a set for their cable-television show, the 11 members of the State were doing what they do best: jumping in with one-liners like a tag-team wrestling act.

The 10 men and 1 woman, who met as students at New York University, all write, perform and edit their comedy sketches. Improbably, they also make all important decisions collectively, from which sketches to include on their show to provisions in their agreement with MTV, which renewed them for a third cycle of shows.

"A lot of times," said one member, David Wain, "we'll say, 'O.K., we'll see what the 11 of us think." (Naturally, they insisted on being interviewed as a group.)

"We also grow our own vegetables," said another member, Ben Garant.

"In fact, we all met on a kibbutz in Israel," said a third, Michael Ian Black.

The members of the State, who range in age from 22 to 24, are irreverent, dark, a little cynical -- seemingly the perfect combination to carry the MTV banner into the terrain of sketch comedy, a format so ready-made for short attention spans and Tommy-gun riffs on pop culture it's a wonder MTV didn't colonize it earlier.

Since its debut a year ago, the half-hour show, seen at 11 P.M. Saturdays and repeated during the week, has become as popular as the cable channel's better-known "Beavis and Butt-head" and "Real World," according to MTV executives.

"The State is doing what MTV does when it does things well, which is bringing our audience their experience in their own language and their own terms," said Eileen Katz, the network's vice president for series development. "The State was the first generation weaned on MTV. They are savvy. They know the music and the lingo and television, and so does their audience. It's a direct connection."

But in contrast to the casts of some shows on the music channel that determinedly aim low, members of the State don't repress their expensive educations, most as film and drama majors. A talk-show parody, "Talk, You . . . With Rick Spade," has as its host a hard-boiled, Bogartian detective who gives guests the third degree: "Gab gab gab! Talk talk talk! When am I gonna get a straight answer?" And in a signature bit, a frustrated teen-ager whose hip parents defeat his efforts to rebel can only whine, "I'm outta heeere."

In fact, the State has leg-wrestled with MTV programmers over how intelligently to pitch their material. Group members say that while they were writing their first batch of six episodes in the fall of 1993, MTV, which reviews every script, automatically rejected sketches that took place in offices because the youthful audience wouldn't relate and vetoed a joke about "The Catcher in the Rye" as too esoteric.

"It's interesting MTV has a very low opinion of its audience," said Michael Showalter, a State member.

At one early meeting, MTV produced a list of suggested topics to parody, including Madonna, platform shoes, the movie "The Firm" and the television shows "Blossom" and "Beverly Hills 90210."

Young and eager, the group followed directions. They wrote a "Beverly Hills 90210" sendup in which the bad-boy surfer Dylan is confused with Bob Dylan. But MTV rejected it on the grounds that viewers wouldn't know who Bob Dylan was. In retaliation, the group sneaked references to Bob Dylan into many of its subsequent shows. "The kicker is, two weeks ago MTV gave us tickets to see 'Bob Dylan Unplugged,' " says the woman of the group, Kerri Kenney.

It's an open question whether the State's stabs at dumbing down its sketches were responsible for some disastrous early reviews. Several critics dismissed the show as a heavy-handed attempt to concoct a generational statement.

"MTV asked us to structure the show in a particular way, and we got killed for it," said Jonathan K. Bendis, a creator and producer of the show. "We made a pilot, which was very much State humor. MTV bought it, and all of a sudden we sit down for a meeting and there's this list asking us to do pop culture references. That's not what the State is."

Ms. Katz, the author of the list, defended it as an attempt to help the group make a transition to national television from its roots in Off Off Broadway theater, with many inside references. "I feel my relation and MTV's relation with the State is collaborative," she said. "I think with my instincts going toward one end and their instincts going toward another end, together we've found a place that's a recipe for success."

In a memorable move, to promote its second batch of six shows last summer, the group strung together blurbs from the worst of its reviews. Some critics have since been won over. Entertainment Weekly rated "The State" the hippest and funniest sketch show on television. The Wall Street Journal called it "everything 'Saturday Night Live' should be but isn't." Some of the inventive spirit of the early "SNL" can be seen, in fact, in sketches like the State's parody of a high school sex-education teacher: the premise is twisted zanily so that the teacher, Capt. Monterey Jack, exhorts teen-agers to keep their cheese fresh by wrapping it in plastic.

"The State" has survived in a field blackened with the husks of fallen sketch shows. ABC broadcast "She TV" only as a short-term summer replacement series. Comedy Central, which had three new sketch shows on last summer, has not yet renewed any of them. In its 20th season, "Saturday Night Live" has drawn fire from many critics, who have called on NBC to shut down the show. "They come and go really fast," said Jim Sharp, a producer of "The State," who is working on his fourth sketch show.

Whereas many sketch comedians are stand-ups looking to use the genre as a springboard to sitcom or movie stardom, the members of the State see their troupe as an end in itself. They have stuck together even though they've been told they could gain fame more quickly as individuals. The group formed in 1988 at an open audition for a college comedy club at New York University. Originally 16 in number, within two months they were down to 9, and the current lineup of 11 was fixed three years ago.

AT FIRST CALLING themselves the New Group, they performed in campus drama labs and in tiny downtown theaters they would rent for $1,000 a week out of their pooled finances. One theater was in a neighborhood with a noise ordinance because of a nearby church, so shows had to get progressively quieter as the night went on.

They were brought to MTV's attention by Mr. Bendis, a producer of news and specials for MTV, who quit his job and joined with Steven Starr, a former film agent at William Morris, to manage the troupe. Mr. Starr and Mr. Bendis had one suggestion: lose the name. The State was chosen after someone pointed at random to those words on a newspaper page.

"We'd like to be the next generation of sketch comedy," said Mr. Starr. "Let's consider ourselves a 90's . . . I don't want to say it." The name he dares not speak, for fear of being struck down for hubris, is of course "Saturday Night Live." Mr. Starr and Mr. Bendis have big aspirations -- to cross over to a broadcast network and to do a film with the State.

If the State does go all the way, it may have something to do with the troupe's democratic, not to say communitarian, work practices. Although it would seem hard to get 11 people to agree on what to eat for lunch, by all accounts the group really does make creative decisions collectively.

They attribute their ability to get along in large part to a daily "check-in," practiced since their first meeting, at which each member takes turns saying what's on his or her mind. A further strength is that the group was not assembled by a producer, like most sketch troupes on television, but sprang into being on its own.

"If MTV had cast the show we'd look more like a Benetton advertisement," said Ms. Kenney. "I'd be a 36B instead of a 34B." They brush aside criticism that with 10 white men and one white woman, they lack diversity. Of the particularly glaring scarcity of women, Mr. Black said: "It's the way the group evolved. Women have come and gone. Two women were asked to leave because we didn't think they were funny. One left us because she didn't think we were funny."

"These are lies," said Ken Marino, a member of the group. "The real reason is, Kerri ate them."