Monday, June 27, 2011

Flashback: The State and Teen Idolatry

Yesterday, I finished reading Allison Pearson's fun yet poignant novel I Think I Love You, about a 14-year-old David Cassidy groupie, then and now. And I got to thinking about teen idols. Some burn out eventually, others extend their fame and flourish. Either way, they're a life-changing influence on kids on the verge of discovering who they really are and what they want from the world.

I asked myself: who did I idolize at age 14? And not one, but eleven people came to mind. Recently, I've been rewatching their short-lived MTV sketch show as research for a possible writing project. Not only is 90% of it still extremely funny, but I realize how much this group influenced me: I developed a taste for witty dudes who wore flannel, learned the theatre/film geeks could also be the cool kids, and realized there was a place outside my small farm town where being different and proud of it was a positive trait that could take you far. Because with teen idols, it's not what they become or even who they are in real life, but the influence they have on their groupies.

With that, here's a post I wrote in 2009 when I was still finding my writing voice and I had about 2 readers. Please to enjoy: an ode to the guys and gal I idolized then and now. The State, I may never meet you, but I salute you.

I'm gonna go Sophia Petrillo on your asses for a second: Picture it, small Midwestern town that shall remain nameless, 1994. My cousin and ninth-grade classmate Erin asked me if I'd watched The State on MTV. The answer was a resounding no. I didn't like grunge music, and I was afraid it was one of those weird Alternative Nation-type shows.

One night I was over at Erin's, and since she had her own TV I had no choice. After Beavis and Butt-head, she kept the channel on MTV. "You'll like it," she promised. And I was transfixed.

Suffice it to say I was not a cool kid. (Scrape your jaw off the floor.) At least not in my high school. I was number one in a class where it was so socially unacceptable to be smart that the alpha-jock deliberately got average grades. I loathed sports with a passion, preferring busting my ass at dance class with my best friend. Who was a BOY. I assistant directed children's plays and read library books instead of going to football games and trying to convince liberal parents to buy me beer. (Okay, I still went to football games, but I had no idea what the hell was going on.) The clean-cut dudes in blue oxford shirts who populated my tiny Catholic high school did absolutely nothing for me. Neither, for that matter, did my boy best friend. I was fourteen years old and had lived in the same 30-mile radius my entire life. I had the nagging feeling there was something wrong with me.

Then I saw The State, and I started to change my mind.

Sure, the eleven sketch-comedy rogues were technically adults, but they were in the twentysomething realm that was more accessible than parent-age. They possessed the unselfconsciousness of preadolescents, but were old enough to have creative freedom and control. They were almost all male, except for one girl, Kerri of the ever-changing hair and black leather jackets, who more than held her own with the boys. You could tell they didn't mess with her. I remember watching in the basement of my house, inches away from the TV just in case I had to change it quick lest my mom come down and deem it inappropriate. In at least half the sketches, someone had a cigarette dangling out of their mouth. In one sketch, Kerri was actually sitting there SMOKING like it was no big deal. My eyes widened at the sight--she was baaaaaad. And though I thought smoking was gross, I wanted to be that bad too. I wanted to spend my days with fun, cool guys who considered me an equal and didn't ogle my boobs.

Because The State gang was baaaaad--but not in a petty-crime, teenage-sex type way that terrified me (Catholic school will do that if you buy into the hype). They were bad in a fun way. Their sketches were dirty but quotable, irreverent but really freaking smart. I didn't know you could be both. I didn't know that intelligent could be regarded as hilarious too. I know, I know, Saturday Night Live--but you have to remember that at this point, SNL was pretty awful. Mike Myers and Dana Carvey had left, David Spade's schtick was getting so old, and I didn't yet know that Michael McKean was way more awesome than those hack writers were making him out to be. Plus, duh, SNL was my parents' thing. The State, on the other hand, was mine.

The group was tight, you could tell. Later, I found out that most of them had met at NYU's Tisch School for the Arts. (I would also find out that Tom Lennon hails from the suburbs of Chicago--one of my coworkers did community theatre with him.) During the bits where they talked to the camera, they'd be draped all over each other, totally comfortable. During the opening credit sequence, they clustered together in one quirky, very expressive united front. They bantered, collaborated and had fun together. At this point in my life, I had a few very close friends--even now, I'm a girl who takes quality over quantity when it comes to buddies. But at fourteen, I was lonely and craved a group dynamic (even in dance classes, it was often me and my BFF against a gaggle of public school cheerleaders). I longed for the familiarity and shared passion that these eleven had.

And oh, the guys.

Granted, I didn't understand this well enough at hormone-addled fourteen to articulate it. But looking back, there was something about the male cast members. None were conventionally "handsome" (in the way that I'd been brought up to believe was the only way), but several . . . intrigued me. Not just the obviously adorable Ken Marino and Michael Ian Black. But (Robert) Ben Garant's and Joe Lo Truglio's intense eyes. (By the way, Garant has not aged a DAY. Seriously. Watch Reno 911.) Thomas Lennon's sweet, round face and Michael Showalter's cool floppy hair. I thought Michael Patrick Jann's Jesus Christ Superstar Goes Homeless look was dirty, but I blushed whenever his shirt was off. (Which was a lot, if you recall.) What increased the cute factor was this: these guys made me laugh. I wouldn't have admitted it to anyone, but I wanted to hang out with them--then make out with them.

And they liked musicals! The "Porcupine Racetrack" sketch was a thing of beauty: before it aired, Thomas Lennon explained onscreen that MTV had expressly asked them not to do the sketch. But they were going to do it anyway because it was just too funny. (They even rebelled against their own network. I was in AWE.) Then the sketch--homages to Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, and Les Miserables, with decent choreography and singable lyrics. Clearly no one (except MTV) was giving these clearly straight (well, except for Kevin Allison) guys crap for singing and dancing. Sure, "Porcupine Racetrack" was a parody, but you can't effectively make fun of a medium you don't know really, really well. These guys were theatre GEEKS. And they were proud of it. (I was totally turned on.)

Fourth quarter of ninth grade, Erin and I had a study hall. It was second period, and we were good girls who did our homework the night before, so we really had nothing to do. So while our compadres struggled through Business Math worksheets, Erin and I traded long scribbled notes quoting The State. "Um, I don't like you so much, ah, for one, you stinky and for two, you don't smell so nice!", "I'm gonna dip my BALLS in it!", and "I'm outta heeeeeere!" all made the rounds. We also speculated whether Kevin Allison was really gay--after all, in "The Jew, the Italian, and the Red Head Gay," David Wain was actually Jewish and Ken Marino was actually Italian. Yes, it seems weird to me now that there was a time when I wasn't surrounded by menfolk who prefer other menfolk. And yeah, I'd been doing theatre since I was nine, but at this time I still wasn't sure if I knew any gay men. I didn't think so. It would be totally obvious, right?

This note-passing was our nerdy rebellion. Our way of asserting ourselves in an environment where conformity was praised (and I'm not dissing my high school here; high school in general is this way). Later when we graduated, Erin's mom (my aunt) said that we'd had senioritis as freshmen. We weren't hugely precocious or mature, but we had the presence of mind to know that there was a world beyond our 150-person high school. A world where the smart kids not only ruled, but got their very own TV show where they joked about being on speed but still used big words knowing you would understand them. A world where handsome wasn't paint by number looks and came with a sense of humor and wit. A world where a guy could croon a ballad dressed in a gigantic porcupine costume--and misanthropic teens everywhere considered him a hero.

That same year, I started to branch out. I took part in my high school's very first musical. I made friends with very charismatic twin boys in the sophomore class, who not only had rockin' singing voices, but adored The State. (I still remember one of them going, "Michael Ian Black" and shaking his head in reverence.) A year later, I was cast in a show at a large outdoor theatre in the city twenty miles away, and met a darling boy with floppy hair like Michael Showalter. At a cast party, he and I were sitting on one side of the room, eating Doritos and talking about TV.

"You know what was the best?" I enthused, my mouth full of Doritos. "Did you ever watch The State on MTV?"

He looked at me, mouth dropping open. "Oh, my God." I waited--would he think I was weird? "That was my favorite!"

It was settled: he was the one I had been waiting for.

The State was canceled in 1995, mainly because MTV was stupid. (A trend that continues to this day.) But its members have continued to kick ass and take names in Hollywood. In fact, they work the studio system to their full advantage. Tom Lennon, Robert Ben Garant and Michael Patrick Jann have been responsible for writing and/or directing such high-concept big-budget fare as Herbie, Fully Loaded (the unfortunate Lohan remake) and the Night at the Museum franchise. They rake in the bucks and fund their own projects, such as the hilarious cop farce Reno 911! (most of The State gang is visible in the 2007 film), which also features Kerri Kenney-Silver and Joe Lo Truglio. Michael Ian Black's ubiquitous, showing up everywhere from VH1 to Sierra Mist ads to another brilliant-but-canceled show, Ed, and collaborating with David Wain and Michael Showalter on such brilliant fare as Stella (long-form acting exercises on crack). The 2001 camp comedy Wet Hot American Summer was a class reunion of sorts, if your class reunion was chock-full of awesome one-liners and montages set to eighties music. (I'd have totally gone to my class reunion if that had been the case.

Have The State taken over the free world? No. But they're still a huge presence, seen and unseen, in the entertainment industry. Proving that smart really does sell, that one can be successful on his or her own terms, and that every dork, if patient, will have her day. Inspiring a generation of outcasts who sat inches away from their basement television to laugh loud, talk back, and never be ashamed of their idiosyncracies. Because being different was what got The State their own TV show, successful careers, and each other. There was no telling where being different could take you.


  1. I loved The State. MTV does so little right, but when they manage it, the rsults are terrific. I find Michael Ian Black incredibly doable. Is this available on Netflix Instant by any chance? I'd love to rewatch it.

  2. Yeah it seems like MTV just let them do their thing, which is awesome. The one exception is recurring characters. Apparently The State didn’t want to have recurring characters, but MTV made them, so that’s why we have Doug, Louie and Barry and Levon.

    You can have Michael Ian Black, I’ll take Ben Garant. Sexy then and now. Rawr. Seriously, though, it’s remarkable how most of them have not aged.

    I believe it may be on Netflix Instant, because a coworker mentioned her husband has been watching it. Definitely see if it’s there. Still incredibly funny, and remarkable to see that much talent all together, young and energetic and creative.