By Corey Scholibo
Originally published on Advocate.com July 24 2009 12:00 AM ET
Generations seem to have sketch comedy shows that define them. The Baby Boomers have Monty Python and the original cast of Saturday Night Live . And for Generation X it was The State , a short-lived comedy series on MTV created by a group of friends at NYU in the 1990s. If you don't remember The State , you will know most of its offspring. Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant went on to write big-budget comedies like Night At the Museum and The Pacifier , not to mention creating and starring in Reno 911! a series still running on Comedy Central. David Wain directed and cowrote Wet Hot American Summer and The Ten . Michael Showalter has been in Sex and the City , starred in films like The Baxter , and most recently he and Michael Ian Black have launched a new comedy series called Michael and Michael Have Issues , which premiered last week. But one of the members you have not heard from in perhaps some time is Kevin Allison, who just happens to be the group's only gay member. The sometimes flamboyant and always over-the-top Allison wrote some of the group's more absurd and memorable sketches, and as the long-anticipated DVD compilation of The State has finally been released, I sat down with the 39-year-old Allison to find out where the comedian has been keeping himself and what he thinks now looking back on The State in its entirety. Allison reveals why being gay may have actually hurt his career, but not for the reasons one might assume, why the cast members really broke up, and how he met his husband, on top of a telephone pole.
Advocate.com:Well it looks like the impossible has finally happened. Hell has frozen over. The complete series of The State is finally coming out on DVD. KevinAllison: Yes, it's finally over. Thank goodness.
How many years have you been trying to get this thing out? You know...I don't even know. It might have been as much as two years ago now. We all sat down together to do commentary tracks and it was really fun. There was actually a group of us together in a little recording room in New York with a phone patched to a group in L.A. sitting there. So it was kind of chaotic. Um, I mean it is so much fun looking back at this show [ laughter ].
Have you not seen it in a while?Oh, no. I mean, I teach a lot of sketch comedy. So I will refer to specific sketches a lot -- show them to classes, ask them if they can brainstorm on how they can improve on them. But I hadn't actually sat through entire episodes, and I don't think anyone had in years. So that was really fun because we could observe how much we've changed -- performers and writers. I mean, we were so big, you know. We were doing everything so big back then because there were 11 of us, and we were just struggling to get in front of that camera.
You're teaching now? Where? I kind of teach all over the place, at NYU and at a place called the People's Improv Theater in New York -- the PIT, it's called for short. And at an online thing called filmlab.ca -- it's actually a Canadian company. I'm also creating this live storytelling show here in New York called RISK! The idea is, each week, there's a theme like "sex," "family," "god," that sort of thing. And every storyteller who comes up -- they're actors, writers, comedians -- are asked to do something they've never done before, something that's not a part of their performing arsenal, and that they're a little uncomfortable doing. It will also be a podcast. It will use segments from the live show, but also like This American Life it will have produced radio segments of stories as well. So the live show will start in August, and the podcast will start in September.
How did you first get involved with The State ? Yeah, you know it's funny because I was a freshman at NYU when I saw this group that had just started there called "The New Group." There had already been a comedy group at the Tisch School of the Arts, and Todd Holoubek decided, "Hey, why don't we come up with a new group?" So he auditioned people, and I think it was 16 people at first. But people started dropping out, and it dwindled down. I saw the group's first show. And I thought, Oh my God. I'm really going to do all I can to get into that group. The energy of that group's very first show was just overwhelming. And so I found out everyone's name, found out what classes they were taking, and deliberately signed up to be in the same classes so I could get to know people. And then what happened was, I naturally started to get to know people. Then we would end up drinking together, usually on Wednesday nights at a place called the Dugout. I considered drinking together as my audition time for the group, so I would take off all my clothes and run around singing whaling songs -- just acting like a total lunatic. I can remember Janeane [Garofalo] asked me when I told her this story, "Didn't you ever think of, like, preparing a monologue? Or sending someone a script?"
Well, you thought that was the way in? Yeah. In fact it was. Michael Black, you know, approached me in my junior year -- I think it took two years of acting like a lunatic before they said, "You know what? You're hysterical. Come be in the group."
And how long was The State on the air?We were actually on MTV for what they considered four seasons. It was, I think, 30 or 32 episodes -- somewhere in there. It's so damn tragic. They have actually offered us 30 more episodes but with no raise in pay. We were like, "Well, screw you!" You know, we were very big for our britches. We thought we could make this leap into network. We were all ready to go to ABC -- right up against Saturday Night Live. Right as soon as we quit MTV, ABC said, "You know what? On second thought, no." So we went with our hats in our hands to CBS. They gave us a Halloween special. I think it was actually a series of specials. Les Moonves was just coming in at this point, looked at us and said, "I don't want a young sketch comedy group." We also happened to manage to...I don't know if I want to drag this into it...it's in the Details magazine thing.
Yes, there was an infamous racist remark that you repeated to Details made by a network executive.His name was John Pike. He was an old CBS guy, and we managed to get him fired for quoting some racist comments he made. So it was just a disaster. We did not handle any of that very well. I mean, not that the comments that John Pike made to us were appropriate.
Right, and you basically got him fired, or did you lobby to get him fired?No. Not at all, because he was our executive.
Really shot yourself in the foot on that one? [ Laughs ] Yeah, we managed to get the only guy in our court at CBS FIRED.
Not good. Not good. So then when that happened it all stopped? They fired us, and then we made the exact same mistake again with movies. We had a chance to work in independent movies, and then we got an offer -- some million something offer. A sign your life away for five years or something to Disney -- and we did that. And for a year and a half, they strung us along. Every time we give them a treatment, they would say, "No, no. We want Animal House ." So we'd write Animal House in space, Animal House underwater. They'd say, "No, no. You don't get it. We want Animal House . As in scene three: rebel guy in dark jacket meets bimbo blond. We were like, "Why did you hire us? Why did you hire us? So eventually what happened was, the group had this unspoken -- rather clearly spoken -- rule. No one could take significant film or TV work without consulting the group first because it would mean that all the rest of us would have toâ€¦ it would kind of mean the end of us because schedules would start to get fucked up.
Right, so you're not working? Absolutely. Then three of the folks went to do Viva Variety at Comedy Central and there were several years there when things were very tense between all of us because of it.
Because they did this on their own or because you let them?No, they revealed to the group, "We pitched a show to Comedy Central, and they're going to do it. So, the group is over."
So that didn't work so well with your unspoken pact I guess? Right. But now that we're older, we look back and say, "You know what? Everyone was just trying to survive at that point." Plus, we love each other. We're like a very dysfunctional family.
Who are you in the family? It's odd. In psychology they say a person takes a role in the group that he takes in a family. I was the middle child in my family who was sort of always off daydreaming and was different and was the gay one. It was the exact same thing in The State. I was never a part of the little cliques that formed among the 11 of us, and in retrospect I thought, Oh crap, that sort of really fucked up my career later. You know, Stella formed and Reno 911! formed and all that sort of thing. I was always the floater. Also the timing -- everyone spent so much time socializing together while I was running off with my gay friends. You know what I mean? It was just a time when I needed to be playing with the boys. I was just naturally a little bit, just a little bit , alienated from the rest of the group that way. And of course, we had a system of joking with one another. Whatever was different about someone, we would rag on them for it. There were always gay jokes being made about me and Jew jokes about David [Wain] and Italian jokes about Ken [Marino]. Not terribly mean-spirited things, but um, you feel that you are kind of different in the group. Also sometimes, I compare my situation to Mel Brooks on Your Show of Shows . He was writing there with Woody Allen and Neil Simon and Carl Reiner and Sid Caesar, and they could never use Mel Brooks's sketches because they were just too ridiculous.
So the rest of the group was more adept at being savvy and going to all the right Hollywood parties and all that?Yes, just savvy with just not being shy about hanging out with the up and up sorts of people -- the executives and the agents and stuff like that. And also, yeah, it was a little bit like Survivor at some points. Like, I'll vote for your sketch if you..." that sort of thing. I was never the most strategic sort of guy.
What are some of the sketches that you did get through that you're very very proud of?Oh, a perfect example was the "Taco Man" sketch?â€¨
That was you? That is one of my favorite sketches. Yeah, that was an example of sketch, but David and Mike and I said, "You know what? Let's just the three of us talk to some of the people from the art department, knock on some people's doors, ask to use their front lawns." We totally shot that with a home video camera while everyone else was shooting a $5,000 sketch down the block. We cut it together, then presented it to the group. And they were like, "All right, it's funny." And of course, "The Jew, the Italian, and the Redhead Gay." The way that sketch came up was, I said to Ken and David, "You know, the three of us have never written anything together." So we were like, "great." After work we'll get some beer, we'll lock ourselves in an empty office and see what happens. And we're sitting there, unable to think of anything. I think Ken said, "What is a sketch that only the three of us could do?" And I said, "The Jew, the Italian, and the redhead gay." We were like, "Perfect!"
Naturally you felt a sort of outsider's tension in the group. Were you out to them in the beginning? I came out to everyone after we all did mushrooms in this tent. We went to this pond down by the woods in Pennsylvania that Ken Marino's family owned. On the way home, on the car ride home, I came out to everyone, and you know, it was absolutely no big deal. I feel like Ben hadn't been there on the car ride home, so I had to tell it to him later. I'll always remember. He was like, "Well, all right. What do you want, a ribbon or something?" So it was never a big deal. If anything, it was, "Oh great. A way we can make jokes and stuff." I have so many great doodles from Tom Lennon, which would probably be worth something someday -- they were usually a "What Kevin did this weekend" and it's basically a drawing of an amusement park where everything is made of cock.
What about when you came out in your other life? Oh, I came out to my family the summer before I came to NYU. It was so funny because I knew I was gay from day one. I was one of those people...like the very first memory that I have was finding this little like Hummel statue of a little toddler crawling around and the back door of his PJs is open so you can see his butt. And I grabbed this statue and I ran around the house screaming, "You can see his hynie!"
Do you think it hurt your career?I don't think so. No, I think that I definitely think that I have big regrets of my own, as far as my career goes, but it has everything to do with holding myself back in the years right after The State broke up because of a lack of confidence, a lack of understanding exactly what my voice was to be and I think what I should have been doing and what I now understand was to be simply forcing myself to be getting up onstage every night just doing what I had to do.
So what was it like for you after you guys broke up? I did a heck of a lot of auditioning and a heck of a lot of writing these character pieces that I do. But I wasn't having much luck making anything stick. So there was a period there where I actually quit and I started writing for magazines. I wrote some for Premiere and just did some magazine work at like Spin and Rolling Stone. So it was kind of like a cop-out really for a few years there. Finally I got to a point where I was like, "What am I doing? I can feel in my bones what I should be doing. I wrote an essay lately when I said, "Look, I know that if I were working in an office somewhere that I'd fuck that up. If I were working as a garbage man somewhere, I'd fuck that up. And if I was working as a comedian, I'd fuck that up and kind of already have. But it's the one area where I have faith that I can fuck up upwardly."
Was there a dark period? Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I call it the "belly of the whale" period where I had to quit drinking. Because The State broke up in '96, so from '97 to 2000 was definitely a dark period for me.
What brought you out of it? It's interesting, what brought me out of it was teaching. I was offered a job teaching sketch comedy at a place called MediaBistro. I actually still teach a class there this summer. I had so much fun doing it, it sort of got all of this desire to be doing it riled up in me again. The process of teaching is so interesting because you learn so much from teaching. Just how to put into words what you know kind of reinforces things for you, and you start to learn new things. It was through teaching that I really sort of started to re-create myself. Now I'm at the point where I'm kind of hoping the show will take off and leave me less time to be teaching because I've been teaching for a while now. It would feel good just to move on.
The Statehas a huge cult following. Does it still follow you today?I was so pissed off when I was on TV because gay people didn't know about The State . I guess SNL was known at that time to be such a frat-boy thing, I think a lot of gay people thought The State was sort of the same thing. People recognize me all of the time now. And people are always like, "Oh, I hate to bother you," and I'm like, "You can bother me away." I met my husband that way, actually. I guess there is one gigantic exception to that one. It was '93 when he was a fan of The State and I was at a gay pride parade in New York and I was just standing there on the street. He's a little martial arts dude. He had climbed up a telephone pole like a monkey and was watching the parade from there. We kept smiling at each other, and I said to my friend, "Well, I can't really say hello to this guy. He's all the way on top of a goddamned pole!" So about three years later, we pass each other on the street and smile at each other. And I didn't recognize him, and he said, "Do you know we smiled at each other about three years ago at the gay pride parade?" And I said, "Holy crap, I totally remember that." He said, "Yeah, I'm a fan of The State ." So we went out on a date, and we've been together ever since.