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15 Things You Might Not Know About The State

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For a little over 18 months in the '90s, Kevin Allison, Michael Ian Black, Ben Garant, Todd Holoubek, Michael Patrick Jann, Kerri Kenney, Thomas Lennon, Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino, Michael Showalter and David Wain wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the sketch comedy show The State. After almost 20 years, they're still influencing a new generation of comedians. Members of the sketch group continue to create, directing and acting in movies and television, writing books, and starring on podcasts.

The very latest project from State alums is the romcom spoof They Came Together, the long awaited second Showalter and Wain writing collaboration after Wet Hot American Summer. To celebrate, let's look back at this influential show and the people who made it.

1. THE STATE WAS ORIGINALLY KNOWN AS "THE NEW GROUP."

Todd Holoubek, an NYU sophomore at the time, ditched the sketch comedy group Sterile Yak to start The New Group in 1988. The New Group consisted of the eleven NYU students and performers that would make up the cast of the show and come up with a brand new name: "The State: Full-Frontal Comedy." Of course, that name would later get shortened.

2. THEIR FIRST PAID GIG WAS OPENING FOR DENNIS MILLER.

At first, the troupe performed in campus drama labs and in small downtown New York theaters. They could do what they pleased in the theaters, so long as they could pay the rental fee. In 1990, the group opened for Dennis Miller, and they were paid the equivalent of a weekly theater rental, $1,000, to split evenly amongst themselves.

3. THE GROUP MADE THEIR TV DEBUT ON YOU WROTE IT, YOU WATCH IT.

The State first got MTV's attention by creating demo segments for You Wrote It, You Watch It, a Jon Stewart-hosted show where comedians performed recreations of letters sent in by viewers. Hired by the network to produce 28 sketches, the troupe somehow managed to get full autonomy in all of the aspects of production. The program would only last one season, existing today only as a footnote in Jon Stewart's career.

4. MTV INITIALLY ORDERED SIX EPISODES OF THE STATE, AND HAD AN INTERESTING REQUEST.

Liking what they saw from You Wrote It, You Watch It and a pilot the troupe filmed, MTV picked up The State for six episodes. As part of the deal, the network insisted that the group provide a list of "pre-existing characters" that would come under MTV's control, possibly to star in a spin-off or a movie someday. From the beginning, The State weren't keen on creating recurring characters and the inevitable catch phrases that came along with them.

Only three of the 22 characters on the list—Captain Monteray Jack, Don Law, and James Dixon—ever made appearances on the show. Two characters that weren't conceived from the very beginning as part of the deal with MTV but who nonetheless made repeated appearances were Ken Marino's Louie and Michael Showalter's Doug. Both characters were used to make fun of television shows that featured catch phrases.

5. TO PROMOTE THE SHOW, THEY DESTROYED THE JON STEWART SHOW'S SET.

In its final segment of 1993, The Jon Stewart Show welcomed The State. With the host's permission, they destroyed his set.

6. THE INITIAL REVIEWS FOR THE STATE WERE REALLY, REALLY NEGATIVE.

According to the New York Post, every MTV executive who green lit The State should have been made to take a urine test. However, the show capitalized on negative season one reviews with a "Miserable Crap" promo. Scored to "I Started a Joke," the commercial featured the entire cast in various degrees of anger and depression, unable to enjoy a beautiful afternoon outdoors while the meanest reviews were superimposed.

The reviews would soon improve, but the initial media scorn helped give the show its underdog, cult identity. The back of The State shirts given away with initial DVD purchases in 2009 feature an excerpt form The Daily News review of the show: "It's so terrible it deserves to be studied. Every scene and performance should be examined in detail so that MTV is sure never, ever to produce anything like it again ... a historic mess."

7. THE SHOW WAS CENSORED.

The State quickly discovered that any reference to guns or drugs would be cut in the script or even the shooting stages of production. One call from an animal rights organization permanently edited a cruise sketch so cats were no longer thrown into the water (obviously no cats were actually thrown into a body of water). Michael Showalter recalls that they were unable to do any sketch about an albino and that whenever fun-loving Louie proudly proclaimed he wanted to "dip his balls" into something, he had to be holding a pair of golf balls in his hand.

8. THE STATE COMPLAINED ABOUT MTV TO THE NEW YORK TIMES.

After getting a 13 episode renewal, the group talked to The New York Times about MTV's insistence on dumbing down the show. They cited rejections of office sketches because the network felt a youthful audience wouldn't relate to the setting, and a dismissal of a Catcher in the Rye reference as too esoteric. The State claimed that they shoehorned Bob Dylan references into many of the shows after the network figured their audience wouldn't know who Bob Dylan was. Showalter was quoted as saying, "It's interesting MTV has a very low opinion of its audience," and the interview caused a public rift between the show and the network. MTV Senior Vice President Doug Herzog was "distraught" [PDF] over the article, saying that talking about the problems in print was "amateurish" and "unprofessional."

9. DESPITE OFFERING A 65-EPISODE RENEWAL, THE STATE LEFT MTV.

Because of frustrations about censorship and rumors of interest from broadcast networks to possibly steal the show so it could compete head-to-head with Saturday Night Live, the group left MTV in the middle of 1995. They soon signed a deal with CBS, leaving an offer of 65 more episodes with MTV on the table. Thomas Lennon claimed that they didn't hear about the offer "until much later," but as Kevin Allison put it, the group wanted to take a big risk anyway. CBS and The State agreed to Halloween and New Year's specials before going to series.

10. SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE SABOTAGED THE STATE'S CBS SPECIAL.

Despite the departure of founder Todd Holoubek, rehearsals for The State's 43rd Anniversary Halloween Special were running relatively smoothly. CBS wanted a "hip" musical guest and suggested Hootie & The Blowfish; the network and group eventually agreed to Blues Traveler. Five days before shooting began, Blues Traveler announced that they couldn't make it—they had been booked at the last minute to perform on the season premiere of Saturday Night Live. Sonic Youth was dispatched to take Blues Traveler's place.

11. PETER DINKLAGE WAS IN THE SPECIAL, PLAYING THE DEVIL.

David Lipsky was with the group throughout the production of the CBS special for a Details Magazine article. He now describes meeting actor Peter Dinklage for the first time during the special's filming:

"I'm the only person around when a very small, handsome man wearing a sweatshirt, leather jacket and jeans walks into the green room—Pete Dinklage, the dwarf. He sits down, reads a copy of The New Yorker, then hurries himself off to wardrobe to find his costume."

Dinklage portrayed Lucifer in the show's opening sketch about how the group must have a death wish for agreeing to do the special in the first place. He had no lines; it was one of Dinklage's first on-screen appearances.

12. THE SPECIAL CAUSED A LOT OF CONTROVERSY MONTHS AFTER IT AIRED.

The Halloween Special notably received a four-star review from Michele Greppi of the New York Post, who gave their MTV series one of its most negative reviews ("That was then, this is wow"). A lack of promotion, to the point where David Wain was receiving e-mails from fans the week of asking if the special was ever going to appear, led to poor ratings and a quick end to the CBS deal. The Halloween Special aired on October 27, 1995. The cast's management got the news from CBS late night chief John Pike that they were canceled four days later, on Halloween.

But that would not be the last anyone heard of Pike. Months later, Pinsky's Details article alleged that Pike made unflattering comments about African-Americans during a meeting with the sketch group while detailing who their potential audience was. Pike denied making the comments, but would resign from his job. The State was in the Bahamas working on their next project when Pike's comments became public, and they were unable to address the controversy.

13. THEY TRIED TO MAKE A MOVIE FOR DISNEY, BUT IT NEVER HAPPENED.

The State had a deal with Disney to develop a movie, but repeatedly found that their artistic tendencies were not compatible. "The Disney thing was a classic example of them telling us that they love us and want to do a State movie, and then every idea we gave them, they were like, 'No, could you make it more of a regular Hollywood movie?" David Wain said. One idea that was eventually rejected was Hello, Puberty!, a comedy set in high school. It featured tons of State-type jokes, like a jealous high school kid marrying a 53-year-old lunch lady.

14. A STATE ALBUM WAS RECORDED, THEN SHELVED FOR OVER A DECADE.

Comedy For Gracious Living was written and recorded in early 1996 in Nassau, Bahamas, intended for release by Warner Brothers. Both the group and the record label had been counting on a CBS series and a Disney movie to promote the album, but when none of those things happened, it was shelved. It took 14 years for Rhino Records to take the initiative to release it, despite some members of the group remembering it not being up to their standards (apparently, the clinking of ice in rum glasses was audible on the CD).

15. THE LAST TIME THE TROUPE PERFORMED TOGETHER ON TELEVISION, THEY WERE RECITING SHAKESPEARE.

A Norm MacDonald-hosted MTV's Spring Break '96 in Panama City, Florida featured a final performance by all members of The State (not counting Holoubek). The sketch, "Hard On Shakespeare," was a thinly veiled final message about network interference.

The group almost completed a full reunion on the January 28, 2014 episode of @midnight (a show that Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant executive produce), but fell a Kevin Allison and Todd Holoubek short.

The original 11 members would all appear together a few times over the years outside of television: on stage at the 2000 New York Comedy Festival, at the UCB theater in Los Angeles in 2008, and in January 2009 at the San Francisco Sketchfest. In addition, every member has either featured or made a cameo appearance in the films Reno 911! Miami and The Ten.

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10 Witty Facts About The Marx Brothers
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Talented as individuals and magnificent as a team, the Marx Brothers conquered every medium from the vaudeville stage to the silver screen. Today, we’re tipping our hats (and tooting our horns) to Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Gummo—on the 50th anniversary of Groucho's passing.

1. A RUNAWAY MULE INSPIRED THEM TO TAKE A STAB AT COMEDY.

Julius, Milton, and Arthur Marx originally aspired to be professional singers. In 1907, the boys joined a group called “The Three Nightingales.” Managed by their mother, Minnie, the ensemble performed covers of popular songs in theaters all over the country. As Nightingales, the brothers enjoyed some moderate success, but they might never have found their true calling if it weren’t for an unruly equid. During a 1907 gig at the Nacogdoches Opera House in East Texas, someone interrupted the performance by barging in and shouting “Mule’s loose!” Immediately, the crowd raced out to watch the newly-liberated animal. Back inside, Julius seethed. Furious at having lost the spotlight, he skewered his audience upon their return. “The jackass is the finest flower of Tex-ass!” he shouted, among many other ad-libbed jabs. Rather than boo, the patrons roared with laughter. Word of his wit soon spread and demand for these Marx brothers grew.

2. THEY RECEIVED THEIR STAGE NAMES DURING A POKER GAME.

In May of 1914, the five Marxes were playing cards with standup comedian Art Fisher. Inspired by a popular comic strip character known as “Sherlocko the Monk,” he decided that the boys could use some new nicknames. Leonard’s was a no-brainer. Given his girl-crazy, “chick-chasing” lifestyle, Fisher dubbed him “Chicko” (later, this was shortened to “Chico”). Arthur loved playing the harp and thus became “Harpo.” An affinity for soft gumshoes earned Milton the alias “Gummo.” Finally, Julius was both cynical and often seen wearing a “grouch bag”—wherein he’d store small objects like marbles and candy—around his neck. Thus, “Groucho” was born. For the record, nobody knows how Herbert Marx came to be known as “Zeppo.”

3. GROUCHO WORE HIS TRADEMARK GREASEPAINT MUSTACHE BECAUSE HE HATED MORE REALISTIC MODELS.

Michael Ochs Archives/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Phony, glue-on facial hair can be a pain to remove and reapply, so Groucho would simply paint a ‘stache and some exaggerated eyebrows onto his face. However, the mustache he later rocked as the host of his famous quiz show You Bet Your Life was 100 percent real.

4. HARPO WAS A SELF-TAUGHT HARPIST.

Without any formal training (or the ability to read sheet music), the second-oldest Marx brother developed a unique style that he never stopped improving upon. “Dad really loved playing the harp, and he did it constantly,” his son, Bill Marx, wrote. “Maybe the first multi-tasker ever, he even had a harp in the bathroom so he could play when he sat on the toilet!”

5. THE VERY FIRST MARX BROTHERS MOVIE WAS NEVER RELEASED.

Financed by Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and a handful of other investors, Humor Risk was filmed in 1921. Accounts differ, but most scholars agree that the silent picture—which would have served as the family’s cinematic debut—never saw completion. Despite this, an early screening of the work-in-progress was reportedly held in the Bronx. When Humor Risk failed to impress there, production halted. By Marx Brothers standards, it would’ve been an unusual flick, with Harpo playing a heroic detective opposite a villainous Groucho character.

6. GUMMO AND ZEPPO BECAME TALENT AGENTS.

World War I forced Gummo to quit the stage. Following his return, the veteran decided that performing was no longer for him and instead started a raincoat business. Zeppo—the youngest brother—then assumed Gummo’s role as the troupe’s straight-talking foil. A brilliant businessman, Zeppo eventually break away to found the talent agency Zeppo Marx Inc., which grew into Hollywood’s third-largest, representing superstars like Clark Gable, Lucille Ball, and—of course—the other three Marx Brothers. Gummo, who joined the company in 1935, was charged with handling Groucho, Harpo, and Chico’s needs.

7. CHICO ONCE LAUNCHED A BIG BAND GROUP.

Chico took advantage of an extended break between Marx brothers movies to realize a lifelong dream. A few months before The Big Store hit cinemas in 1941, he co-founded the Chico Marx Orchestra: a swinging jazz band that lasted until July of 1943. Short-lived as the group was, however, it still managed to recruit some amazing talent—including singer/composer Mel Tormé, who would go on to help write the “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” in 1945.

8. THEY TESTED OUT NEW MATERIAL FOR A NIGHT AT THE OPERA IN FRONT OF LIVE AUDIENCES.

With the script still being drafted, MGM made the inspired choice to let the brothers perform key scenes in such places as Seattle, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. Once a given joke was made, the Marxes meticulously timed the ensuing laughter, which let them know exactly how much silence to leave after repeating the gag on film. According to Harpo, this had the added benefit of shortening A Night at the Opera’s production period. “We didn’t have to rehearse,” he explained. “[We just] got onto the set and let the cameras roll.”

9. GROUCHO TEMPORARILY HOSTED THE TONIGHT SHOW.

Jack Paar bid the job farewell on March 29, 1962. Months before their star’s departure, NBC offered Paar’s Tonight Show seat to Groucho, who had established himself as a razor-sharp, well-liked host during You Bet Your Life’s 14-year run. Though Marx turned the network down, he later served as a guest host for two weeks while Johnny Carson prepared to take over the gig. When Carson finally made his Tonight Show debut on October 1, it was Groucho who introduced him.

10. SPY MAGAZINE USED A MARX BROTHERS MOVIE TO PRANK U.S. CONGRESSMEN.

Duck Soup takes place in Freedonia, a fictional country over which the eccentric Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) presides. In 1993, 60 years after the movie’s release, this imaginary nation made headlines by embarrassing some real-life politicians. Staffers from Spy got in touch with around 20 freshmen in the House of Representatives, asking some variation on the question “Do you approve of what we’re doing to stop ethnic cleansing in Freedonia?” A few lawmakers took the bait. Representative Corrine Brown (D-Florida) professed to approve of America’s presence in Freedonia, saying “I think all of those situations are very, very sad, and I just think we need to take action to assist the people.” Across the aisle, Steve Buyer (R-Indiana) concurred. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s a different situation than the Middle East.”

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12 Facts About the Smithsonian's Collections
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With 19 museums spread along the East Coast, the Smithsonian Institution has become the country’s richest repository of American history. From culture to science, zoos to space exploration, the federally-backed archive has spent nearly 200 years preserving and educating. Check out some facts on its history, how a new species of dolphin was found hiding in its archives, and how the founder eventually became part of the collection.

1. ITS FOUNDER NEVER SET FOOT IN THE STATES.

Wealthy British globe-trotter James Smithson (1765-1829) had acquired an estate worth roughly $500,000 at the time of his death and ordered that all of his assets be inherited by his nephew, Henry James Dickinson. There was one twist: The estate was to be turned over to the United States in the event Dickinson died without an heir of his own so the country could build a hub for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Henry, then 18, died just six years later, and so President James Polk signed the act approving the Smithsonian Institution into law in 1846. Curiously, Smithson had never even visited the U.S. Why leave such a legacy to a foreign nation? Smithson never commented on his decision, leaving people to guess that it was either because he was impressed by democracy or because he wanted to enrich a country that, at the time, had only a few educational hubs.

2. NO ONE WAS REALLY SURE WHAT SMITHSON WANTED.

A portrait of James Smithson

“Increase and diffusion of knowledge” can be interpreted pretty broadly, and it took the United States a long time—roughly 10 years—before anyone could agree on what to do with Smithson’s gift. Educators, politicians, and civilians all had a unique notion of how to spend his fortune, including opening a university, a library, or an observatory. Ultimately, the Smithsonian Institution was a compromise, involving many of these ideas. By 1855, construction on the main building was complete at the National Mall in Washington; it was designated as a National Museum in 1858 [PDF].

3. THEY HAD TO HIDE THEIR COLLECTION FROM AXIS FORCES.

At the height of U.S. involvement in World War II, museum curators knew that Axis forces would have designs on destroying the vibrant culture housed at the museum’s main location at the National Mall. To protect these irreplaceable items, the Smithsonian arranged to have them shipped to an undisclosed location—now known to be near Luray, Virginia—and stored in a climate-controlled warehouse. They didn’t return until 1944.

4. SMOKEY BEAR LIVED AT THEIR ZOO.

Smokey Bear takes a bath at the National Zoo

Yes, that Smokey Bear. (And there’s no “the” in his name.) In 1950, a bear cub that survived a raging forest fire in Capitan, New Mexico, was adopted by the U.S. Forest Service and named Smokey after the popular ad campaign mascot of the era. As a living symbol of the effort, he spent his remaining 26 years at the National Zoo, a constant recipient of visitor attention and hundreds of jars of honey.

5. THEY DISPLAY JUST ONE PERCENT OF THEIR COLLECTION.

In order to execute Smithson’s mission statement, the Smithsonian has had to morph into the greatest display of hoarding the world has ever seen. All told, the Institution’s various artifacts, specimens, and other arcana is believed to number in the neighborhood of 137 million, with an official museum estimate of 154 million. Just 1 percent of that is available for viewing at any given time.

6. ONE CATEGORY IS USUALLY OFF-LIMITS FOR VIEWING.

17th century human remains found in Jamestown, Virginia

Evolving public attitudes over the decades have prompted the Smithsonian to be very wary of displaying human remains. While they’ve collected everything from shrunken heads to the “soap man”—a corpse whose body turned to a soap-like substance thanks to a chemical reaction to soil—most of it remains out of public view.

7. AN EXHIBIT ON NUCLEAR WAR STIRRED CONTROVERSY.

For a planned exhibit of the Enola Gay, the bomber plane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima during World War II, museum organizers drew criticism in 1994 for presenting material that some veterans groups and members of Congress felt was politically charged. The museum agreed to omit text near the display that some felt dwelled on the horrific effects of the bomb, as well as references estimating the U.S. and rival casualties that might have been suffered if the bomb had not been deployed.

8. THE WEIRDEST ITEM THEY’VE CATALOGED IS A CRAPPY VIDEO GAME.

The box art for the Atari 2600 game E.T.

Amidst many internet lists of strange Smithsonian catalog items—taxidermied animals, beards, and other miscellanea—nothing seems more incongruous than the 2014 inclusion of a 1982 Atari video game based on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Renowned for being produced quickly and for helping to fuel the video game crash of the early 1980s, supplies of the cartridge were buried in a New Mexico landfill and only recently excavated. One went into the museum's archives.

9. THEY TURNED DOWN JIMMY DURANTE’S NOSE.

In the 1950s, actor and comedian Jimmy Durante was easily identified by his bulbous nose, a three-inch-long (from bridge to tip) feature that led to his nickname, “the Great Schnozzola.” Sensing a publicity opportunity, Durante’s management arranged for a makeup artist to create a plaster cast of Durante’s nose and offer it up to the Smithsonian as a piece of Americana. Frank Setzler, the museum’s head of anthropology was unimpressed. “Heavens, no,” he was quoted as saying. “Who would want that? The only place we could use it would be in the elephant display.”

10. AN UNDISCOVERED SPECIES OF DOLPHIN WAS LURKING IN THEIR INVENTORY.

A dolphin skull from a recently-discovered species

With so many specimens, the bowels of the Smithsonian almost certainly harbor secrets that can surprise even scientists. In 2016, two researchers in search of fossilized marine mammals stumbled across the skull of a 25-million-year-old river dolphin they named Arktocara yakataga. Said to have been found in Alaska, the dolphin may have dwelled in the Arctic. It was estimated that the skull—plucked from obscurity because one of the researchers found it “cute”—sat on the shelf for 50 years before being identified.

11. THEY’RE COMMITTED TO PRESERVING DOROTHY’S SLIPPERS.

Possibly the most iconic pair of footwear in pop culture, Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the 1939 film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz have become a Smithsonian trademark. In 2016, the Institution successfully raised over $300,000 on Kickstarter to build a state-of-the-art preservation case to protect the kicks from deterioration. While star Judy Garland wore several pairs during filming and the Smithsonian’s are mismatched, it’s clear that visitors want to keep them in condition for any future travels along the yellow brick road.

12. SMITHSON EVENTUALLY BECAME PART OF THE COLLECTION.

James Smithson's final resting place within the walls of the Smithsonian

In 1904, some 75 years after his death in Italy, Smithson’s remains were about to be disturbed. U.S. Smithsonian officials were alerted that his grave site would be displaced because of a nearby stone quarry expansion. The Institution took the opportunity to have his casket shipped to America so he could be interred at the site of his legacy—the Smithsonian itself. Escorted by Alexander Graham Bell, the casket traveled 14 days by sea. The body was entombed and topped off by a marker in the Smithsonian, where it remains viewable by the general public.

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