You are here

The State on MTV (1993-1995)

After coming together as undergraduates at New York University in the late 1980s, the eleven members of the comedy troupe then-known as The State: Full Frontal Comedy performed in an off-Broadway show produced by Steven Starr (and fellow State co-creator Jonathan Bendis) in October 1992. Soon thereafter, The State starred in MTV's short-lived docu-comedy series, You Wrote It, You Watch (1992). Hosted by a then-unknown Jon Stewart, You Wrote It solicited humorous anecdotes from viewers, which were then re-enacted in exaggeratedly parodic ways by The State. Though crude in its execution, the program highlighted many of the absurdist tendencies for which The State would later be known. 

In April 1993 troupe members Kevin Allison, Michael Ian Black, Robert Ben Garant, Todd Holoubek, Michael Jann, Kerri Kenney, Thomas Lennon, Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino, Michael Showalter, and David Wain and producers Bendis and Starr signed a development deal with MTV's Remote Productions Inc. The initial agreement was for a six-episode cycle and included a list of  "pre-existing characters" that would come under MTV's control. While a standard development practice, the explication of pre-existing characters in the case of The State would prove to be a site of tension between the cast and the network.

Indeed, MTV continuously pressured The State to showcase recurring characters and catch-phrases in order to familiarize viewers with the unwieldy eleven-member cast. Given cable's appetite for new content and the thriving home video markets, moreover, it seems reasonable to believe that MTV envisioned The State as a bountiful source for spinning-off recurring characters into new merchandising, television, and film opportunities. (As a bit of context: the 1992 film Wayne's World, based on a popular Saturday Night Live sketch, grossed $183 million worldwide.) The State defiantly responded to these pressures in the form of Louie, an obnoxious, catchphrase-spewing boor who simultaneously appeased and flew in the face of MTV's demands.

While the commercial imperatives of television led to conflicts between the network and the young, headstrong comedians, anecdotal evidence from the program's DVD commentary suggests that MTV was largely supportive of The State. Its hip eccentricities jelled with other MTV original programming like Beavis & Butt-Head (1993-1997) and The Jon Stewart Show (1993-1995), and the network promoted these like-minded programs with a flippant irony targeted at the lucrative teen and twenty-something demographic. 

By the beginning of its third season in January 1995, The State was competing in the Saturday late-night slot against NBC's Saturday Night Live and gaining an increasing audience share. In the early months of 1995, however, contract negotiations between Starr and MTV revealed growing tensions. Though initially receptive of The State's esoteric dalliances and overtures to Gen-X, MTV executives began insisting on more conventional pop-culture parodies. The troupe brashly complained about its corporate parents in the press, a move that displeased MTV.

Starr and Bendis, meanwhile, were already anticipating a more lucrative move to CBS, which had a recent run of success importing the Lorne Michaels-produced, Canadian sketch comedy program The Kids in the Hall (1988-1994). In March Starr informed MTV senior vice president Doug Herzog that The State would not return after its contract expired in August.Throughout the summer of 1995, the troupe planned a Halloween special for CBS that, if successful, might mean a Saturday late-night series in the fall of 1996. However, things did not go as planned.

Digital Documents

List of Pre-existing Characters

Herzog letter in response to NYT article

Starr Memo ending The State

Related Links

Gabriel, Trip, "Beyond Beavis and Butt-head: MTV's Sketch Comedy Group," New York Times, 8 January 1995.