‘The State’ and 7 Other ’90s Sketch Comedy Shows You Forgot You Loved

The 1990s were the golden age of sketch comedy, with seemingly every improv or sketch troupe in the country getting a shot at the spotlight
‘The State’ and 7 Other ’90s Sketch Comedy Shows You Forgot You Loved

Hey 90s kids, what was it about your favorite decade that made everyone so hungry to devour sketch comedy? 

We’re not talking about Saturday Night Live, the venerable sketch factory that yukked it up in the 90s with the likes of Chris Farley, Molly Shannon, Adam Sandler, Cheri Oteri, Will Ferrell and Norm Macdonald. Lose SNL and you’re still left with dozens of sketch shows, from In Living Color and MADtv to Kids in the Hall and the still influential Mr. Show. Up-and-coming networks like Comedy Central, MTV and Fox (which had only launched in 1986) couldn’t get enough sketch. With talented but unknown comedians willing to work fast and cheap, TV execs ordered up shows as fast as they could cancel them. There was Exit 57, the sketch precursor to Strangers with Candy starring Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello. There was Tompkins Square, Townsend Television, The Jenny McCarthy Show, The Tracey Ullman Show, The Weird Al Show, The Martin Short Show — you get the idea. 

But by the 2000s, networks in search of cheap programming turned their attention to reality shows like COPS and The Real World, explains Jason Klamm, comedian, filmmaker and author of the upcoming book We’re Not Worthy: From In Living Color to Mr. Show, How 90s Sketch TV Changed the Face of Comedy. With MTV and Fox looking elsewhere, many young comics interested in sketch, like the guys in Lonely Island, turned their attention to YouTube. 

Sketch comedy on television still exists in the 2020s, of course, but it’s easy to make the argument that the 1990s were the genre’s golden age, with seemingly every improv or sketch troupe in the country getting a shot at the spotlight. I recently revisited those halcyon days with Klamm, taking time to remember eight sketch shows that are worth another look today.

The State

The grunge aesthetic of Nirvana had its DIY counterpart in The State, an unwieldy (11 members!) comedy group that formed at NYU and began making short comedy videos at MTV after member David Wain got a foot in the door as one of the new network’s directors. “Sketch is DIY by its very nature,” says Klamm. “If anybody's ever performed sketch, like in college, it always ends up being cheap.” (Check out a show at Second City sometime — most sets consist of a bare stage and a couple of chairs.) “There is that element to The State because that’s how they got the show, by proving, ‘Hey, we can make this show for almost nothing.’” Which was perfect, since that was what MTV had to spend. “(MTV was) the first ‘do it for exposure’ company. They offered nothing.”

Clips from The State are nearly impossible to find now, mainly because MTV ordered the group to fill its sketches with popular music. This was back in the days when promoting music was still MTV’s reason for existing. But licensing rights make music-stuffed reruns, even on YouTube, prohibitively expensive. (It’s also the reason Klamm doesn’t own the musically neutered DVD set.) That said, you can still catch episodes on archive.org to get a feel for its sensibility, with extra VHS degradation for 90s authenticity.


Sketch group or 90s punk-ska band?

As comedy family trees go, The State was prolific, with its members going on to comedies like Reno 911, Wet Hot American Summer, Night at the Museum, Party Down and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. By sheer numbers, says Klamm, one or two members of the group were likely to go on to reach comedy heights. But nearly every cast member has gone on to either star in, write or direct iconic shows and movies. “Everything that’s flowed through them is sheer brilliance.”

The Ben Stiller Show

The version of The Ben Stiller Show you might remember aired on Fox, starring not only an insanely young, barely famous Stiller but unknown costars Bob Odenkirk, Janeane Garofalo and Andy Dick. But there was another, earlier version of the show that aired on MTV with another premise entirely, with Stiller playing an exaggerated, huge-ego version of himself. Like The State, Stiller’s MTV show had virtually no money. The show’s co-star and co-creator, Jeff Kahn, told Klamm that they filmed a joke about getting picked up by Fox where they’d have bigger budgets. Kahn sent the segment over to Fox, again as a joke of sorts, and the network decided to give Stiller a chance. 

Once The Ben Stiller Show got to Fox, “Hoo boy, there’s just some perfection,” says Klamm. Unlike the “by the seat of our pants” aesthetic of some of the other sketch shows, Stiller had a Hollywood eye for recreating slick movie trailer excesses. Couple that with Stiller’s ability to do goofy impressions and you had something special, like Cape Munster, a Munsters/Cape Fear parody that killed. “He was doing pop-culture mash-ups before they were popular.” 

Not everything looked this good — Stiller and Co. would get by with videotaped segments, saving their money for the one feature piece a week where they’d invest all the production cash they’d saved. “The stuff that stands out — that stands the test of time — is where they actually have the money to shoot it on film, cut it on film,” explains Klamm. “So (The Ben Stiller Show) was DIY, but it doesn’t come across because those film pieces carry the whole thing.” 

The Dana Carvey Show

Like The Ben Stiller Show, Carvey assembled a cast of unknowns who would define 21st-century comedy, including a couple of Steves named Carell and Colbert. It’s so funny, and features so many future stars, that it’s almost inconceivable why it wasn’t a hit.

Well, actually, there was a good reason. ABC, ecstatic after luring Carvey into the network fold, decided to air the sketch show directly after wholesome family sitcom Home Improvement. The show no doubt befuddled America when those canned laughs gave way to an opening sketch featuring Carvey as Bill Clinton, nursing a litter of puppies from his lactating teats. The country had never seen Tim Allen pull off a stunt like this.

In an homage to old-timey comedy/variety shows of the 1950s, Carvey had a tongue-in-cheek gag that each episode was brought to you by an actual corporate sponsor like Taco Bell. The twist? The show would tell you how terrible the product was. Klamm recalls a Mountain Dew open, complete with dancing cans, in which Carvey and cast made fun of the garbage ingredients viewers were putting in their bodies. You could get away with mischief like this on HBO, and show co-creator Robert Smigel told Klamm the show would have run 10 years if it had landed on pay cable. On ABC however? It was doomed.

Almost Live

If there’s a show on this list you don’t remember, it’s likely Almost Live, a local sketch comedy show that originated on Seattle TV station KING before landing a deal with Comedy Central to produce 65 episodes. Amazingly, the show’s plucky creators produced all of them — 65! — over a single summer. 

Even Klamm had never heard of it. “I didn’t know about this show at all until I told a friend that I was writing this book and she was like, ‘I can’t wait, you’re gonna talk about Almost Live, right?’ And I’m like, ‘What the fuck is Almost Live?’” The answer is that it was one of several local sketch shows being produced around the country, usually using equipment from a station’s news operation and making do with nothing, the true garage bands of sketch comedy. But the fact that Almost Live made it to Comedy Central tells you that it was doing something right. Community’s Joel McHale worked on the show as an intern and performer, and future Oscar nominee Bob (Nebraska) Nelson got his start there writing gags and parodies. 

True to its Seattle origins, Almost Live “was very grunge comedy,” Klamm tells me. “They had grunge musicians on the show. Everybody who was part of the Seattle scene at the time probably appeared on that show at some point. Dave Grohl has said that it was his summer stock. He got his start on Almost Live, and he’s very funny on it.” 

The Edge

Likely no show had more talent with less to show for it than The Edge. It starred Julie Brown, famous for a pop novelty song called Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun and the film Earth Girls Are Easy. But the unknown cast was full of future comedy stars, including Jennifer Aniston, Wayne Knight and Mr. Show’s Tom Kenny and Jill Talley. Amazingly, Charlie (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich) Kaufman wrote for both The Dana Carvey Show and The Edge. Alan Ruck and Paul Feig would also show up on a show that never quite clicked. 

“It's called The Edge and it is trying to be edgy, but that’s not what's going on,” says Klamm. “There's no satire there. Once In Living Color hit, I think they were trying to recreate that magic.” But the spell didn’t work. One weird (and unfunny) part of the show was that each episode would open with all of the cast members getting killed. “These sketches are uneven. They are too long. There are a few that stand out as very funny but overdone.”

House of Buggin'

If you wanted to be cynical (and probably right), you might guess that House of Buggin’ was Fox’s attempt to recreate the success of In Living Color with a Latin flair. (If you really wanted to be cynical and probably right, you might say The Edge was Fox’s stab at a whiter version of the same.)  

“It started out as another one of John Leguizamo’s stage shows, one-man shows where he played the sketch characters,” says Klamm. “You can find them on YouTube, and they’re very astute and kind of beautiful character examinations, even when they verge into stereotypes.” 

The new show had an actual cast, built a following among theater fans and landed a deal with… HBO? “This was a common thing in the ’90s, where HBO would produce a lot of stuff that would end up on other networks. HBO was a big one behind a lot of these different shows, and they were the first to show interest in House of Buggin’.”

But what probably would have made a great HBO special didn’t turn into a fantastic Fox show. Unbelievably, the show had no Latin writers (besides Leguizamo), and network censors got in the way of anything that might have made a cultural dent. Fox also bounced it around from time slot to time slot, making it impossible for House of Buggin’ to find an audience.   

Upright Citizens Brigade

Most modern-day comedy fans probably associate UCB with a theater space or an improv troupe. That was the case in the 1990s as well, but Upright Citizens Brigade was also a Comedy Central sketch show starring Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh and pre-SNL Amy Poehler. The show had an unusual conceit as its framing device. “The four UCB members are part of this organization that wants to sow chaos in the world and they record it,” explins Klamm. The sketches are representative of that chaos “so we’re supposed to assume that the characters who cause trouble are them in disguise? Maybe or maybe not.”

UCB aimed for actual subversion, incorporating real-life pranks into the show after pulling off some doozies in their Chicago theater days. (One-time member Adam McKay distributed flyers advertising his upcoming suicide as part of a show; the group brought the audience outside the theater and threw a mannequin off the top of the neighboring building. Not everyone laughed.)

“Watching an entire episode all the way through can be anxiety-inducing because of how raw some of the sketches are played,” Klamm writes in We’re Not Worthy. “Even if there’s a goofy wig, crazy makeup or an insane premise, there’s a legitimately unsettling layer of reality on the face of each UCB member. The commitment is what makes you question your reality just enough while watching it, especially as they occasionally pull off continuations of their sketches in hidden camera segments, amongst the populace.”

The Bert Fershners

“I was speaking early on with my buddy who’s a fellow upstate New Yorker,” Klamm says, reminiscing about starting his book on ’90s sketch comedy. “And he's like, ‘Oh cool, you’re gonna talk about the Bert Fershners, right?’ And that’s when I was like, ‘Okay, you just said a mumblemouth bunch of garbage.’ He’s like, ‘Oh no, you need to check out Jelly Truck!’”

“(The Fershners) all started in (improv show) ComedySportz, and similar to the way The Kids in the Hall started with Theatresports, they put on their own sketch show and it’s whirlwind quick after that,” says Klamm. “They go from Madison, Wisconsin to performing their own stuff in New York City. They develop a show with Comedy Central.” The resulting pilot aired as a special, but a second pilot was passed over. Despite on-air promotions, appearances on several Comedy Central variety shows and a ubiquitous music video (“Tube Tops”) that seemingly aired nonstop for an entire summer, an ongoing show wasn’t meant to be. 

“The Bert Fershners were a sketch comedy group that got their shot, didn’t get picked up, and yet still came back to the same network and got their own half-hour special,” Klamm writes in We’re Not Worthy. “Not long after, the group called it quits. Whether you know who they are or not is irrelevant; they are the story of every artist who almost makes it. It’s basically the story of That Thing You Do!, only the music is sometimes about a truck filled with jelly.” 

Tom Hanks, if you’re reading this, we might have another screenplay idea for you.

(We’re Not Worthy: From In Living Color to Mr. Show, How 90s Sketch TV Changed the Face of Comedy is out September 12th and is currently available for preorder.)

Scroll down for the next article
Forgot Password?