No, David Wain isn't either of the men pictured above (they would be Michael Ian Black and Kevin Allison), but he did help write my favorite "The State" sketch of all time, and he talked to me about "Taco Man," and many other things "State"-related, in a Q&A about Tuesday's long-awaited release of the series on DVD. (You can read my review here.)
Many thoughts from Wain -- including some surprising news about the music rights issues -- coming up just as soon as I travel to a horrific world where all the words that should start with H's instead start with M's. Ma ma ma ma ma!....
So what's taken so long?
I wish there was a more fun, interesting answer. But the truth is that we started trying to make a DVD of "The State" maybe 10 years ago, and it's been caught in this nameless bureuacratic molasses labyrinth of Viacom. Everything took, like, four months. Every step. And it just took this long.
How much of it was the music rights, and how much was other things?
I would say none of it was the music rights. When they finally greenlit the making of the DVD, we went in to deal with the music. We knew that would be a problem because the music world has changed so much. So we just set about to figure out what we could license and what we had to replace, and we did that. That wasn't really part of the delay. As was true when we were on the air on MTV, we never quite got their attention or their respect the way we wanted to.
How much of the show was a learning experience for you guys?
It was total boot camp in every way. We did a lot of our own everything. We didn't have much of a support group -- we had some, but we did our own shooting and a lot of of our own editing and costumes and everything. It was a great, great training ground.
I don't want to dwell on the music too much, but you said that you were able to get one or two songs, and I have yet to hear anything in the sketches so far that is the original music. Are there some sketches that still use the old songs?
I think there is one or two, honestly. But you are basically right. We were unable to secure the rights to almost any music. And the truth is, it wasn't that it was too expensive. Almost everyone we went to, they were, like, "Not available to you." They allocated quite a generous music licensing budget for this DVD project, and the powers that be that owned the rights to this music were just like, "No. We don't care how much you want to offer us." And it was kind of shocking. There were certain ones where we were like, "Let's really make sure we get this one, because the sketch is so designed around the piece of music." And we went to the people and they said no.
So, like, The Breeders' management, all these years later, is being that tough?
I knew you'd pick that one. I don't know if it was the management or the publisher or the label, but I do know that that didn't work out.
That's a real shame. Because that's one ("Pants") where it's built entirely around that song.
You are correct.
And there's a couple of others, like in one of the Barry and Levon sketches, they talk about how they're dancing to Marvin Gaye, and it's not Marvin.
I'm not going to try to pretend that we're thrilled about it, but I will say, we worked with Craig (Wedren), who did the original music for the show, and for everything we've done since, and we did our very best to maintain the feel of the sketches.
The truth is, at the time, we hated doing that. We hated that we had to use MTV music in a sketch comedy show and all this current stuff that would date the show. Of course, now, it's become in retrospective an element of what it was, and the DVDs should have it, and it's a shame that it doesn't.
It's funny: when "Pants" comes up in the DVD commentary, Ken (Marino) immediately points out that the music is different, and Tom (Lennon) jumps down his throat and is, like, "Shut up, Grandpa! Nobody wants to hear that!"
I'll agree with both.
Other than stripping out and then replacing the music, what else had to be done to put the DVD together?
We scoured through all of our basements and archives and attics and found all of these extra sketches that had never aired, and all these other extra random stuff. We also had to go back and find -- some of the sound wasn't quite right. It was like one of thsoe things where the show was finished before DVDs even existed. It was never archived properly for DVD distribution, and so we had to do some detective work. But then we did the design for it, and the commentary, etc., etc.
A friend of mine has the "Skits & Stickers" tape, which had a few of the unaired sketches on it, and I'd watch something like "Super XIII" (a horror movie parody about a killer movie camera) and wonder, "How did this not wind up on the show?"
Frankly, a lot of the stuff that we didn't put on the show, most of it was just not the best. But some of the pieces, we didn't have anyplace to put it. The show had to be exactly 22 minutes, 30 seconds long. We packed it with sketches, and we always shot more than we needed. That was part of our formula to have a good show. Sometimes, we just ran out of room.
I want to get back to the relationship between you and MTV, because that was an obvious source of tension even when I was watching it in college in the '90s. They wanted the show to be one thing, they wanted it to be something else. If you were to put it into simple terms, how would you describe the conflict?
I can only look at it through the lens of my current perspective, but I would say a lot of it was just a function of our own age at the time. We were in our early early 20s, just out of school, and pretty much anything anyone ever said to us, we took as fighting words. At the same time, as always is the case, they had some silly things they wanted us to do, in terms of trying to make it an MTV show and mix it in with popular culture. I don't think we appreciated at the time how much control we were given as a bunch of 20 year olds who had never done any work before. We played the role of the rebels, and we got yelled at a lot, but when the show did well, they kept asking us to come back. We left MTV in the face of an offer from them to stay with a big raise. We said, 'Screw you, we're going to make a jump to the networks,' we crashed and burned, and there you go.
Was it MTV pushing for recurring characters?
As would be the sort of obvious thing, they said, "You're doing a sketch show, you need to do memorable, sort of franchise-able characters." And we considered ourselves more in the vein of Monty Python, where it wasn't about pop culture references and specific spoofs, and we wanted to do more universal humor that wasn't about repeating the same characters over and over again. As our way of answering their note but doing it in our way, we decided to do the most blatantly obvious franchise recurring character, that's literally nothing more than a name and a catchphrase, and that ironically became our most popular character.
You'd say Louie was your most popular?
We only had a few. We had Louie and Doug and Barry and Levon, and a few others, like Inbred Brothers, but recurring for us means we did two or three of them. Whereas on Saturday Night Live it meant they did it every week for two seasons.
What were some of the other things they were pushing you for, that you either wound up doing or were able to fight off.
One of the most memorable ones was when they wanted us -- they had this set of criteria, that every sketch had to be in the first season. It had to be pop cultural, TV parody, MTV parody or "sick and twisted." Those were the four things, as I recall. We were like, "What?" So we tried to follow that the best we could. You'll see a lot more of that music/MTV spoofs in the first season. After that we stopped doing it so often. But one of the most famous stories, which you might have heard, we did a sketch about "90210," and we had some joke about Dylan and then making reference to Bob Dylan, and then the MTV people were like, "No. Nobody knows who Bob Dylan is. So that got under our claw, so we proceeded in the first season to make a Bob Dylan reference in nearly every sketch.
Like when Doug says, "You mean Uncle Robert?"
Yes, but if you look carefully, it's on the menus, on the walls, it's mentioned under the breath. It's kind of everywhere in the first season.
You watch something like Python or "Kids in the Hall," where it's five or six guys, after a while it becomes relatively easy to tell whose sketch this is, what everybody's sense of humor is. Because you were such a large group, I never was able to peg that with you guys. I guess it's become easier now that you've moved on to different projects, but what are some sketches that you would say typify your sense of humor and what you were trying to do on the show?
"Taco Man," the "Cannonball Run" credits, the dentist who goes not through the mouth, "The Jew, the Italian and the Red-Head Gay." But just to comment on your first part of it, I think more than those other troupes, we had such a long history of doing it together before we went on MTV, that the voice was a lot more unified by the time we got there. Much of the material was really very much a group product. Certainly, I can easily recognize the earmarks of every single guy in the writing. By the time we did it, everyone in the group put their stamp on every sketch.
"Taco Man" is possibly my favorite of them all.
Thank you very much. That was one where it was like, I don't think MTV approved of us to shoot it, but we just had a camera out and did it run and gun while we were filming another sketch nearby.
In listening to the commentaries, it seems like a lot of the ones that people were really fond of were filmed in that way.
The ones that I loved were the ones that we did second unit, just grab a camera and do it ourselves without the crew. There was a certain feel I try to maintain with my web series "Wainy Days," to maintain that spirit of keeping it really small run and gun.
Were you ever as satisfied with the sketches you did on the stage as you were with the ones you could shoot yourselves.
Yeah. Our history was as a live performing troupe. We were very cognizant of not wanting to give up the energy of sketches that are done with an audience... I'm so glad that we had that as an element of the show. We would hire a TV studio director to come in and direct those pieces. I liked the bounce, personally. Not everything needs to be a big visual feast. Not that we necessarily had big visual feasts on everything, but you know.
Well, every now and then you'd do something really visually impressive, like that black and white travel commercial with Kerri (Kenney) and Mike Jann.
Mike Jann in particular is such a visual encyclopedia. I pretty much learned a lot of what I know about directing from watching him. He really had an incredible feel, and still does, for creating those kinds of moods. We did do a lot of cool stuff. The State in college, we were half film majors and half theater majors, so it was in our DNA.
Was there ever any tension between the two factions?
We didn't forget who was who. But you'd be surprised by some of who were the film majors and who were the theater majors. Tom Lennon and Joe Lo Truglio and Kevin Allison were the film majors, and Michael Black and Ben Garant, both of whom have gone on to direct feature films, were theater majors. What's crazy is, of the 11 people of The State, I think 7 of us have directed feature films.
(NOTE: A quick perusal of IMDb finds feature directorial credits for Wain, Jann, Black, Garant, and Michael Showalter, though several others like Lennon and Lo Truglio have directed episodic television.)
What's nice is that sometimes a comedy troupe comes along, then splits up, and that's the last you see of anyone, and for the most part you guys are still out there working.
Part of the reason might be that we've continued to work together. We've all worked together a lot.
Was that something anyone was reluctant to do? To get it back to Python, the Pythons would wax and wane and want to do their own thing.
It was both. We were all very strong personalities, and strong of what we wanted to do. When the group split up, we took our opportunity to make our own voice, but at the same time we recognized that each other were some of the best collaborators and continued to work in various configurations. I love the fact that we're doing it, I still work with many people of the group every year in many things.
How would you describe the difference between what you and Showalter and Mike Black have done with Stella and those projects and what Tom and Ben have been doing?
They've supported themselves? They've made a beautiful livings for themselves and their families, and we've garnered cult fans. That's sort of a kidding way to say the true thing, which is they've done something really right. With "Reno 911," they've been able to keep a very specific and edgy voice and still appeal to a wide audience that has great longevity. And I really admire them. But Stella is something that has lasted in various forms for 12 years now and is still going, and I'm proud of what we did in our shorts and on Comedy Central and on tour. We have a DVD coming out in the fall of our more recent live show.
Is there any chance that the CBS special will be on DVD?
Yes. What's nice is that we actually own that. That's the one thing that we did sort of on our own. So whenever we get a chance to, or somebody gives us the money to do it, we'll release that.
In going over the sketches to make the DVD and do the commentary, how long had it been since you'd watched the show?
Oh, god. I don't think I'd really watched it, other than maybe a tiny snippet here or there, since we did it. So it was a trip. I think you can tell from the commentary that we all felt very old.
Did it all hold up?
I'm teased as the member of the group that's most in love with our own work, but I think it does. I think a lot of it is surprisingly good. I've watched a lot of the pieces and been pleased and kind of scared that we haven't gotten much better than that. Some of the stuff is really really good. And then some of it clearly isn't. Some of it is either just dated or doesn't hold up. I'd put it against any sketch show. I was very happy about "The State."
I'll tell you one thing: a lot of us came to New York City specifically with the goal of being on "Saturday Night Live," as many people do. We're here, the big goal is can we do that. And once we started doing The State, even before we were on MTV, there was this shift where we were, like, "This is cooler than that. We don't need to be on 'Saturday Night Live.'"
Could you give me a couple of examples of either sketches where you were surprised they were as good as they are, or that in retrospect didn't hold up as well?
To be honest, I haven't watched the whole thing through yet. We each took turns on some of the commentaries and I worked a lot on the music stuff. Ones I never really thought much about were some of the more filmic ones, like Mime Crash or International Signs. And some of the stuff that just cracks me up that are just stupid, like "H's and M's," or ones that I've seen a lot because people put them on YouTube, like "Taco Man." But I get a kick because I think they're funny and it's like seeing my old college videos.
And what about ones where you felt they were a product of their times?
I can't think of an example, but believe me, there are plenty.
A lot of you have worked together in things like "Wet Hot American Summer," and you all at least cameo'ed in "Reno 911" and "The Ten," but what are the chances that there might ever be a full-on State movie or TV project?
We did a full show of brand-new material in San Francisco in January. We decided if we were going to get the whole group together, we didn't want to look back on our pasts, but do what we do. We've had various pushes towards doing a movie or a special or a series, there's plenty of interest among ourselves for doing that, but it's certainly a logistical nightmare.
And how was it being together on stage again?
They were great, it was like going back in time. One of the saddest, most tragic things is that the show we did in San Francisco was in a 200-person theater, and the video didn't work. They didn't get the sound or something.