The Hilarious Halloween Special That Killed The State
Back in the early 1990s, MTV decided it wanted to stretch its wings and develop its own programming beyond its nonstop slate of music videos. Only one problem — it had no money. “They needed cheap, youthful programming, and a large amount of it,” says Michael Ian Black in I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution. “The way to do that is to hire inexperienced people who will work for almost nothing—like the State, a sketch-comedy troupe I helped start at NYU in 1988. Fairly quickly, we ended up on MTV, which then launched the careers of several marginally successful comedians who you may or may not know today.”
Inexperienced people working for nothing perfectly describes the MTV version of The State, a raggedy sketch comedy show that nonetheless became not only a moderate success but an incubator for future comedy stars. The show featured not only Black, but Party Down’s Ken Marino, Reno 911’s Thomas Lennon, Kerri Kenney-Silver, and Robert Ben Garant, Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Joe Lo Truglio, and Wet Hot American Summer’s Michael Showalter and David Wain.
Like many sketch shows of the ‘90s, The State set out to be an anti-SNL. That meant ignoring topical sketches and celebrity impressions in favor of quick-moving bits that had a decidedly DIY feel. “It was decidedly unpolitical,” says Wain in We’re Not Worthy: How 90s Sketch TV Changed the Face of Comedy. “We wanted to keep it moving, and we wanted to keep it raw and cool and visual.”
Success meant an opportunity to leave MTV for greener pastures, even though the group might have stayed if not for a miscommunication. “We were not told that MTV wanted more episodes,” Kenney-Silver says in We’re Not Worthy. “We were told CBS wants us, and so we said, ‘Great!’ My mom, all my life, had been saying, ‘When are you going to be on regular TV so I can watch you?’”
The group decided to make its network television debut with a typically absurd premise — their new show’s “pilot” would be presented as The State’s 43rd Annual All-Star Halloween Special, the final installment in an imaginary annual tradition. It was a funny meta-concept — though perhaps one that would be lost on CBS’s notoriously mature viewing audience. (At the time, the network’s top-rated shows were 60 Minutes and Murder, She Wrote.)
The special is full of great bits, including fake interviews with rock stars Sting and Ric Ocasek reminiscing about how they grew up with State Halloween specials. There’s a wonderfully absurd sketch built around Manzelles (men dressed up in antlers and nude bodysuits) taking on their natural enemies the Boyotes (pretty much the same idea plus tighty-whities). It’s bizarre stuff, especially if you thought you were tuning in to an episode of Dick Van Dyke’s Diagnosis: Murder.
“We were all in a room together watching it live on television,” says Kenney-Silver. “The first commercial that came on was for Geritol. It was on a Friday night at 10 PM, and we said, ‘Oh, we’re dead.’ Michael Black goes, ‘Why do I feel like we’re probably the only people in the world watching this right now?’”
Not long after, the group reconvened in their new CBS offices to begin writing their next network project. Kenney-Silver and Lennon were goofing around, wrapping themselves in toilet paper to harass the other writers as undead mummies. But those shenanigans were interrupted by a network executive who said, “I need you in my office right now—the head of CBS comedy is calling.” The call didn’t take long — The State was fired and told to clean out their desks after that single shot at network stardom.
And that was that. The State hasn’t officially broken up — the group performed a live streaming show during COVID — and many of its members continue to work together in various combinations. But the treat that was promised in The State’s 43rd Annual All-Star Halloween Special turned out to be a nasty trick that ended the group as we knew it.