Some sketch-comedy shows have become iconic over time. Some have stretched on for years and have exhausted and renewed themselves, like a phoenix of entertainment. Some shows have been overlooked and barely remembered, but are actually the inspiration for the edgiest, most ground-breaking comedy out there today. Such is the case of “The State” MTV’s cult hit from the early ’90s, recently released on DVD. The comedy itself has withstood the test of time and still funny nearly two decades later.
Todd Holoubek, a founding member (if not arguably the founding member) of The State, recently joined Review Fix Contributor Samantha Losapio at Tompkins Square Park to talk comedy, entertainment and life after “The State.”
Review Fix: Can you tell us how The State was formed?
Todd Holoubek: We were all in college. We were at New York University. I was in a comedy group called The Sterile Yak. It was sort of a student organization, and at one point the school said, “You have to let some more people in.” And, you know, that’s a little difficult because the larger a group is, the harder it is to sort of do performances, so I said “I’ll start a new group.” Sort of a splinter group, and we’d start another comedy show, and that seemed to satisfy everybody.
So I held auditions, a couple of workshops, a lot of students would show up. We’d do comedy games and stuff, and then we held auditions. I think there were originally 14 people who made it into the group, and that number changed over time until we were eventually 11 and we would produce two shows a year, one a semester, and then for three years in college we just produced our own live comedy shows. Then, right after college, we started working at MTV, and that’s when we became “The State.” Before that ,we were actually “The New Group” because we never came up with a name. I said, I’ll start a new group and it just stuck.
RF: What made you decide to get into comedy?
TH: I don’t know. I think as a kid, I had always watched comedy, so I had always watched “Saturday Night Live” with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner and Chevy Chase and that whole crew. A lot of Monty Python, which was on public television at the time. I think that was really the only sketch I was really exposed to as a kid.
I think when I got to college, it just seemed natural to start a comedy group or, you know, start doing sketch comedy. I think as a freshman in the theater department, you weren’t allowed to be in any shows, and I always thought that was a ridiculous rule, and you know… you should be performing, there should always be some outlet to keep performing. There was nothing official, so that’s when I joined one, instigated one.
RF: What do you think your biggest impact was on “The State,” in general?
TH: Like what I brought to the stage? I have no idea. I think it’s such a weird and unique beast, “The State.” A lot of what anybody brought to “The State” was that you were part of this whole, you know, it’s really strange. It’s really different when it’s like, all of us in one room and just 10 of us in one room. Whenever one person is missing, you feel it. So, I think as far as any impact any of us had on “The State,” it was just being part of that whole. There’s a kinetic energy. We all did so many different roles.
One of the strengths of the group was that we could do an 11-person sketch. That’s an energy that you don’t get a lot. Traditionally, the classic sketch size is like three guys, two girls, set by the Second City in Chicago. We had 11 people, that’s a whole different ball of wax. Individually, it’s throwing in a joke here or there. A lot of it was that. We’d argue about words a lot. We’d argue about one word for, like, two days.
RF: What would you say was the best thing about being in a sketch-comedy show?
TH: The best thing about being in a sketch-comedy show… you laugh a lot. I don’t think there’s anything I’ve done, before or since, working with “The State,” that I’d laugh uncontrollably. When we’ve gotten together, you know, we’ve done a few things since, like we did SketchFest out in San Francisco recently…. you just laugh, for like four days. It’s really amazing.
Plus, you know, you work with these people, and the longer you work with these people, you form this bond, that is sort of… it is like family. It doesn’t matter where you all end up or you go. I think as you grow older, you appreciate that a great deal.
RF: What about the worst?
TH: Um… probably the exact same answer. It’s like family. You know, with family, with any group of friends or any social group you belong to, you have pluses and negatives. Take the s–t with the sugar, right?
RF: Which sketch was the most fun to create?
TH: That’s hard, ’cause we did a LOT of them. The best sketch is one no one will ever see. All right, some people have seen it, but you will probably never see it, ever.
It was called “Medication” and it suited itself for live performance. I think we did it twice, in two different shows. It was an 11-member sketch, it took ALL of us. It was probably the sketch I will always remember as one of the most incredible group efforts that we’ve ever had, and I think it is best suited as this, because no one will ever see it. Sort of like the fish that got away, no one will ever really know, so it takes on sort of this mythical proportion.
RF: Did any sketches get you in trouble?
TH: I think so. Not in like real trouble. I think there was one, I think it’s on the DVD, it was called “Hops Plus.” It was all about beer, and some beer company had a real problem with it and we had to pull the sketch. Years later, everyone’s like, “Ah, it’s not a big deal.” The censors would always flag stuff before it got us into any trouble.
RF: Is there anyone on “The State” that you’re particularly close with?
TH: I think we’re all particularly close just as to the bond of what “The State” was. Every time I see them, again, it’s like family. That closeness exists in your history.
RF: What are you doing now?
TH: Now I build a lot of art. I work with interactive art. I teach. I travel a lot. I do a lot of installations around the world, which is a lot of fun. I mess with electronics a lot. I work mainly with technology and such, I do a little acting here and there, but for me it’s more of a low-key kind of situation.
I work with students, I teach at a place called the Interactive Telecommunications Program, it’s at New York University. It’s an amazing graduate program that is unlike any place you will ever find. If you guys are ever interested, since you’re all kind of local, every semester we have an “end of semester” show so you should come check it out, see what the students do. They do really amazing things.
Anthony Kapfer contributed to this piece.