11 individuals that met at NYU went on to form one of the more creative and influential comedy troupes in the recent history. That’s the story being told in “The Union of The State” by Corey Stucle. It’s an oral history of the group who went from college performance darlings to MTV stars to the creators of such beloved works as “Wet Hot American Summer” and “Reno 911”.
I should personally let you all know that I loved “The State” when it was on MTV, and I have loved a lot of what the group has done since then, especially the works I just mentioned, “Wet Hot American Summer” and “Reno 911. Even as I was watching the show in the mid 90’s, when I was in middle school, I knew it was different and out of left field, especially compared to the likes of “Saturday Night Live”. I was drawn to the bizarre and crazy energy the sketches tended to have.
Like a lot of other fans of the show, I waited and waited for the entire series to get a proper release on DVD. It was like the Holy Grail to me. I still watch it to this day and still listen to the cast commentaries.
When I heard there was going to be an oral history about the group, I knew I had to get it the day it was released. I had to get the full story behind the show.
Overall, “The Union of The State” does a fine job in telling a story that has the perspective of 11 different people. It’s presented in a very linear fashion, starting with the group meeting during their time at NYU, the comedy group that existed before The State, and how the 11 came together to form the actual group and become a favorite among the other students at NYU. It’s a great look at how a bunch of theater and comedy nerds found and gravitated towards each other.
From there, the book details how the group caught the attention of MTV, the progression of the show on that network, the incredibly foolish decision to leave MTV for CBS, the fallout from that decision, and the post MTV projects the group did. There’s also a good chunk detailing the heartache and headaches that came about when certain members wanted to branch off and do their own thing. This really comes to light during the section about “Viva Variety”.
I seriously had no idea about the tensions that were present when “Viva Variety” was being developed. A lot of stemmed from the decision to leave MTV prematurely and go to CBS, but, man, there were some incredibly hurt feelings during that time. The “Viva Variety” team basically had to pay punitive damages to the rest of the group since a sketch on the MTV show was the direct inspiration for “Viva Variety”.
When you read the chapter, especially the parts from Ben Garant, you can see the wounds have been healed, but there’s still lingering resentment and animosity. The State likens themselves to a family a lot through the book, but, like any family, they fight and fight and fight. There’s been some serious strains on the relationship over the years, but the bond between the group hasn’t ever really been broken completely.
Still, they came pretty close during the exit from MTV, the failure of the CBS show, and the creation of “Viva Variety”. The founding member, Todd Holoubek, gave up show business all together during this time.
Throughout the book, there’s lots of good stories about the inner workings of the group, the relationship dynamics, and, most importantly, how a lot of the key sketches came together. You do really get a good idea of the group’s creative process and how their ideas were developed. It was a democracy for the longest time until, again, things changed when the jump from MTV happened.
You even gets some crazy stories about members of the group working as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on a national tour and wild debauched trips during the height of their MTV run.
As a fan, this all was great to read, but, I was left wanting more. I was wanting more stories about how the sketches together. I was wanting more details and crazy stories about the MTV days. I was wanting more discussion about the post show projects.
I know it would have been overkill for a casual reader, but, I feel hardcore fans of The State would feel the same way. There were certain sketches that I loved, such as “Old Lighthouse Jeffers” that didn’t get a mention in the book. I understand they couldn’t talk about every sketch that made MTV, but, on the flip side, I wished they did.
It would have been deep comedy nerd stuff, and I would have been all about it. Just a brief blurb from the writer or key actor in the sketch. I really wanted more out of that section.
The same feeling goes for the discussion of the side projects. I know this book was about The State, specifically, but there are chapters dedicated to “Wet Hot American Summer” and “Reno 911”. When I finished them, I couldn’t help but think, “Now I want full on oral histories on both subjects, especially Reno.”
That’s really my only criticism of the book because there’s a lot of great stuff when you dig deep into things. I loved that a running theme of the book was the 11 cast members constantly apologizing for how annoying and arrogant they were in their younger days. There’s several examples of that in the MTV section alone and in the section detailing the exit from MTV for CBS.
One hilarious story involves the group at the famous 21 Club in New York, although Thomas Lennon actually went into more detail about that particular incident on an episode of “The Nerdist”.
Being young adults just out of college and getting a cable TV show, they really did give the MTV executives a lot of unnecessary grief because the group saw MTV as the enemy, especially when MTV tried to inject MTV style elements into the sketches.
The executives, to their credit, come off as really good sports when recounting their work with the group. The group really did seem like a headache and a half to work with during that period.
Because I’m such a big “Reno 911” fan, my favorite portions of the book came from Lennon, Garant, and Kerri Kinney-Silver. The rest of the group, especially Michael Jann, Ken Marino, and Joe Lo Truglio, have good things to add, but I’ll also be Team Tom, Ben, and Kerri. That’s really why I didn’t really care, at all, for the section on “Stella” or a lot stuff Michael Showalter had to say.
Speaking of “Reno 911”, I never knew why certain members of the cast left after season 5, but this book does go into a discussion about what happened and some of the hard feelings surrounding it. I was rather surprised by that part.
If you are a fan of “The State” or comedy in general, I highly suggest picking up this book and giving it your due time. You won’t get every little detail about things, but you’ll get enough to, hopefully, satisfy your curiosity and answer some lingering questions about what happened with the group over the years.
You can find out more about the book, along with how to purchase it, by visiting http://www.coreystulce.com/.