Sunday, October 03, 2004

TV: MTV’s Golden Age of Comedy

According to reports, the early frontrunner to succeed Craig Kilborn in CBS’ 12:35 AM slot is Michael Ian Black. The thinking at the network is that Kilborn’s exit gives them a chance to cultivate a new late night star, the way NBC developed Conan O’Brien over the years. I caught a little of Black’s guest hosting stint this week, and he seemed right at home. Of course, I didn’t see him undertake the crucial test of any talk show host: interviewing a guest you have no interest in. (“So, your new movie is about ... what again?”)

Black was on the NBC series ED (produced by David Letterman) and is best known as one of VH-1’s pop culture pundits on shows like I LOVE THE ‘90s. He was also one of the eleven members of The State, an improv troupe that had its own series on MTV from 1994-95. It was hands down the best sketch comedy show on U.S. television since the heyday of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. (One of Black’s bits is a personal favorite, but it defies description. I can only give you the signature line of dialogue: “Two hundred ... and forty dollars ... worth of pudding.”) Naturally, MTV bounced the show around its schedule and aired new episodes without promoting them, so the show never caught on. The troupe attempted to jump ship to CBS, which ultimately aired ‘The State’s 43rd Anniversary Special’ to low numbers. I remember a terrific article about the writing of the special and its disappointing reception in one of those magazines I read only when I’m waiting to get my hair cut. Details, maybe. A compilation of The State’s sketches was released on VHS. There’s no sign of a DVD appearance.

Members of the troupe continue to perform together. Many of them turn up in 2001’s WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER, a hilarious and subversive parody of early-‘80s teen movies that features an inspired comic performance from LAW & ORDER: SVU star Christopher Meloni. A few State members had a hand in the early days of the pre-Jon Stewart THE DAILY SHOW. Others including Black created the short-lived VIVA VARIETY! Thomas Lennon, perhaps the group’s most visible member, is the mastermind behind Comedy Central’s cult hit RENO 911!, in which he plays Lt. Jim Dangle. Along with fellow ex-Stater Robert Ben Garant, he’s written the screenplays for the upcoming English-language remake of Luc Besson’s TAXI and the new Herbie, The Love Bug movie. (What’s with all the cars? I suppose if a KNIGHT RIDER movie is in the offing, these two will get the call.)

It’s quite a flowering of talent that will only become more impressive if Black ends up with his own late-night show. And it underscores the importance of MTV as an incubator of comedy. In the early days of the go-go ‘90s, the network not only discovered The State but gave series to then-unknowns like Ben Stiller and Jon Stewart. (Stewart hosted YOU WROTE IT, YOU WATCH IT, featuring vignettes sent in by viewers that were acted out by members of The State.) Much of today’s comic sensibility grows out of a handful of TV shows that almost nobody watched.

It’s a role MTV seems completely disinterested in now. Although their promotional skills have improved a thousand-fold. Now I always know when a new episode of Ashlee Simpson’s show is set to air.