The State of comedy to 13-year-old me

Comedian, actor, writer Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick) posted something on Twitter that I saw in the midst of the usual stuff I see on Twitter — Trump’s having a meltdown, Trump’s having another meltdown, Trump’s having another meltdown — and it was a nice break from, well, the usual.

Q: what was the 1st TV show you loved, completely? Not cartoons you watched as a kid. I mean, as you got a bit older. Maybe early teens, when you could really start engaging intellectually.

It was fun to read some of the responses. The Twilight Zone, M.A.S.H., WKRP in Cincinnati, Remington Steele. It was a breath of fresh, nostalgic, no infighting air where someone would sometimes say their show and that would cause a sub-thread of people reminiscing who loved it too.

It was a thread of love, which sounds silly, considering it was about something as superficial and subjective as TV. And it made me think.

The earliest TV shows I remember loving when I was in grade school that weren’t cartoons were things like Married with Children, Perfect Strangers, ALF. Goofy sitcoms that I didn’t have to fully understand to appreciate and laugh at. I had zero reason to relate to Al Bundy, but man oh man did he look unhappy, and that was funny.

But Nanjiani’s caveat made me think on the question more. Maybe early teens, when you could really start engaging intellectually.

And one show popped in my mind almost instantly.

The State.

The State was a sketch comedy show premiering on MTV in December 1993.

I had been thirteen for ten months.

Some things you should know about 13-year-old me:

1. I lived on the outskirts of a small, rural town just south of central Florida.
2. My family didn’t have cable TV until I was maybe 11-years-old.
3. I was the son of a fairly conservative mother and father and was fairly conservative myself.
4. Likely due to not having cable TV in the ’80s, I completely missed out on things like ’80s rock. (I listened exclusively to country music.)
5. By junior high, which happened right around the time we got cable TV, I was coming into my own, as you do, becoming aware of things, and one of those things was exactly how small, and small-minded, the town I lived in could be.

So, basically, channels like MTV and Comedy Central blew my mind.

By the time The State aired, I was familiar with other sketch comedy shows, like Kids in the Hall, Monty Python’s Flying Circus (both of which I think had gotten some love from Comedy Central) and, of course, Saturday Night Live.

But something about The State struck me differently.

Maybe it was because it was an American show and the cast didn’t seem much older than myself. Maybe the timing was just right (as in, I needed a couple of years to catch up to the humor). Whatever it was, it was enough to be the first answer that popped in my head and, the more I thought about it, the more it made perfect sense.

That type of comedy was like punk rock or something to me. It made you feel like you weren’t a weirdo, that there were other weirdos. And if there are other weirdos, is it even that weird?
– me on The State

When you’re becoming a teenager, you tend to fumble down a sort of Plinko game, bumping into pegs of influence and counter-influence, all of which determine where you end up when you finally come to a stop after the free-fall. Goody Two-Shoes, Brain, Jock, Goth — basically every stereotype from The Breakfast Club (and then some).

For me, as life would have it, I bumped into pegs hard enough to hit my head and notice things, at a pretty young age, like hypocrisy within the Christian church, how kids learned fairly quickly how to manipulate one another, step on each other, climb the imaginary-but-agreed-upon hierarchy of adolescent social scenes, how that activity seemed to exist long after childhood, how classism didn’t magically disappear when you got out of class.

My grades slipped as I cared less and less for school, as I started thinking the whole thing was a joke or racket. I started writing fucked-up fiction that I never finished, ripping off Stephen King mostly (I recall one story that I wrote maybe two pages for about a killer dog).  Suddenly doubting people’s motives and words found me feeling disconnected from everything I’d grown up believing to be true. I felt like a curtain had been drawn back and there wasn’t even an old man behind it at least pretending to be a wizard. There was just a sign that said “Duh, you idiot. What’d you expect?”

I gradually felt more and more like an outcast or black sheep. Fortunately, I found friends who maybe felt the same. Smart kids who were also very creative. Artists, musicians, writers. They were funny and kind and smartasses. They made fun of the status quo. They helped me feel less insane, and less lonely.

And we’d all found new and exciting music pouring out of the Northwest. Or, rather, it found us. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and the like were heavy and full of angst, while also sounding profound and poetic. Mostly because we really didn’t have any idea what the songs were about. But they made us feel something. They made us think. That was enough.

We weren’t rebels in the literal sense. We weren’t doing drugs, toilet papering houses, baseball batting mailboxes. We were more like intellectual goofballs. We wondered aloud what Heaven might really be like, or if there’s a Heaven at all. We stayed up late until we were delirious, making each other laugh. We played tag in the dark on wet grass. I didn’t know it then, but humor was one of our ways to escape, to distract us from a town we felt we’d outgrown before we were old enough to drive.

We were, of course, also writing bad poetry, awful songs, thinking we were smarter than we really were.

But we were pretty smart. Hell, most of us were in honors and/or gifted classes. And all of us were well aware of the world around us, or at least our little neck of the woods in the world.

People often credit music as playing a key role in their development, and it certainly was in mine. People rarely, however, credit a television show or shows. But I would be remiss not to consider The State as my sort of visual punk rock.

It was absurd. It was satire. It was insane. A lot of the sketches seemed to lack a narrative entirely, playing for the sole purpose of being funny.

If punk music (or heavy metal, or whatever your thing was) made you feel less like a loner, or loser, like it was okay to have the thoughts you were having, The State made me feel less like a loner, or loser, like it was okay to be the fucking goofball at least part of me was becoming.

I never had the thought, “Holy shit, you can just be a wacky comedy person as a job when you grow up?!” I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. It was enough for me, in the here and now (then), that people maybe ten years older than me, in America, seemed to be doing what they wanted to do, completely comfortable in their own skin. That alone was interesting and inspiring.

And it was making me laugh, which meant it was healthy. And it was on TV, which meant it was probably making other people laugh, which meant I wasn’t alone.

I don’t know if you remember being thirteen, but it is a monumental thing to be able to feel like you’re not alone, like somebody gets you, even just strangers on the radio or TV.

The State was on the air for just two years. Twenty-six episodes. Afterwards, virtually everyone went on to write, direct and star in all sorts of movies and TV shows. You may not know their names, but I assure you you know the work, and there’s a lot of work and they often still work together.

They’re all still very smart and funny, and I’d think so even if there’d never been The State, if I was only finding them now.

But I’m grateful there was The State, for reasons that go far beyond the laughs.