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15 Things You Might Not Know About The State

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the-state.com

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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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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