Statement of Fact
Corey Stulce's oral history of legendary '90s sketch comedy group The State finds the keys of their story
By Michael Shashoua
Oral histories related to entertainment are often even more engrossing and compelling than conventional prose accounts. “Live From New York: The Complete Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live” by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, and “I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution” by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum, are two great examples of the genre.
So on learning that there would be a book about the 1990s cult favorite sketch comedy group “The State,” many of whose members have gone on to artistic and popular success in one form or another in the past 20 years, I wondered what might be compelling or special about their story to make it interesting to re-tell it as an oral history. (For the unfamiliar, this means the whole article or book consists of direct quotes from participants in the story, concerning the exact events, strung together in chronological order.)
Corey Stulce, a journalist who has covered comedy extensively, has published “The Union of The State.” His book manages to balance telling a compelling story for those who may only be casually familiar with The State, with providing new and interesting details about the group’s dynamic and progression for those who knew the group’s work as it appeared on MTV in the early 1990s.
The fascinating thing about The State that Stulce manages to get at in his history is how the group ended up imploding. It’s an implosion that probably would not have happened had the group come along with its TV show in this decade, with so many more media outlets – and live performance outlets -- available. While members of The State have worked together over the years, most popularly on the series “Reno 911!” and the cult film and now Netflix prequel series “Wet Hot American Summer,” the full 11-member cast has only rarely completely reunited for live performance (one-off shows in 2008 and 2014) and the 2007 movie “The Ten.”
What Stulce gets at, particularly in quotes from the group’s managers and producers that are interspersed throughout this book, is that mistakes were made. A wiser course would have been for The State to continue its MTV series for more than the four seasons it had, to let the popularity and reach continue to build. Instead, they leapt at a CBS network contract that only ended up producing one rare one-hour special because executives didn’t really understand their comedy or how to produce, market and promote it.
Paired with half-hearted efforts at a book (“State By State With The State”) and an audio comedy album (“Comedy For Gracious Living,” finally released in 2010), the State’s network TV effort was part of what should have been a three-front mega-media splash into wider public consciousness, not helped by internal tensions between its members and the aforementioned misguided management. But around 1995 and 1996, these were the only options available to grow and expand. There was barely even Comedy Central, much less streaming outlets, podcasting or e-books – and not as many outlets for independent or lower-budget feature films.
Stulce’s book helps the reader understand and lament what happened with The State, but also tracks the influence of its comedy in subsequent years, with smaller portions about each post-State project from various members, and also some instances of how its members eventually blended and collaborated with the improv-fueled comedy built by the Upright Citizens Brigade’s performers, venues and projects. The needle that injected the State’s comedy DNA into wider influence was “Stella,” a live show featuring three former State members later in the 1990s.
“The Union of The State” closes out with a chapter about the 2014 reunion performance. After a succession of chapters about all the group’s side projects, this is as close to a triumphant finale as Stulce could get, which he was wise to place as its conclusion. The State may not have become as well known as the institutions of SNL or MTV, but the storytelling method Stulce emulates from those histories, and the sequencing of the quotes and chapters works very well for portraying the dramatic aspects of The State’s story.
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© 2005-2017 Michael Shashoua