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Monday, April 9th, 2012

The State is the Wu-Tang Clan of Comedy

In late 1993, MTV premiered The State, a sketch show run entirely by The State, a comedy group from NYU. The same year saw Loud Records releasing Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the first album by the Wu-Tang Clan, a hip-hop collective out of Staten Island. Although these two New York groups have no literal connections, they have had parallel influences on their respective fields of comedy and hip-hop, as evidenced through their respective outputs as both a whole and as individuals.

At the time of their debuts, the members of both groups (save for Wu-Tang’s GZA) were all under 25. They had even reached audiences prior, though under compromised circumstances. The State collaborated with Jon Stewart on MTV’s failed You Wrote it, You Watch It, a show that relied on crowdsourcing, and RZA, GZA, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard recorded as FOI: Force Of The Imperial Master, releasing one track (“All in Together Now”) that got some notice. But The State and (36 Chambers) were the proper debuts of The State and the Wu-Tang Clan because they featured the unadulterated material of both groups busting their collective asses as a whole to stand out in the world. And they did.

Both groups immediately established their unique voices. The State opened their pilot with Robert Ben Garant wrestling a chair, while the first track on the Wu-Tang’s album had them announcing their intent to “Bring Da Ruckus” (preferably of the motherfuckin’ variety).

These debuts would be the highlights of both groups’ careers, but only because their members were too talented to limit themselves to only group projects. The State more or less disbanded after an attempt to move The State to CBS, but all of its members have continued collaborating on many projects since the “break-up.” While the Wu-Tang Clan has technically stayed together, it has only released four official group albums since (36 Chambers) due to the varied and busy careers of its members. When their respective group projects, solo careers, and various collaborations are taken together as a whole, The State and the Wu-Tang Clan have amassed creative outputs unrivaled by anyone else in either comedy or hip-hop.

But the parallels between the groups go deeper than their collective works. Each member of The State has a clear counterpart in the Wu-Tang Clan.

Note: Todd Holoubek is not included in the pair-ups because: 1) There are only 10 Wu-Tang members to The State’s 11, and 2) Outside of The State reunions, Holoubek has not been involved in the entertainment industry since The State, making it difficult to compare him to any member of the Wu-Tang Clan. His contributions are not forgotten, especially as he founded the original New Group at NYU, which eventually became The State we all know and love. Thanks, Todd.

David Wain / RZA
Though they have no official title, David Wain and RZA are the bespectacled de facto leaders of The State and the Wu-Tang Clan, in part because so much of their solo careers has involved their compatriots. In addition to co-writing and acting in each episode of The State, Wain co-directed all 27 episodes with Michael Patrick Jann and served as the show’s chief second-unit director. On (36 Chambers), RZA was the only member given both producer and executive producer credits. More tellingly, the Wu-Tang Corp website lists him as “the Wu-Tang Clan’s chief producer,” which he has been on every album since their debut. After The State, David Wain worked simultaneously as a writer/director/producer/actor on the highest number of projects featuring partial State reunions, including Wet Hot American Summer,The TenRole ModelsWanderlustStellaChildrens Hospital, and Wainy Days. He’s also acted in small roles for his colleagues’ projects, including The BaxterReno 911!, and Reno 911!: Miami. RZA has produced tracks for each one of his Wu-Tang members’ solo careers while also working with many outside of Wu, including The Notorious B.I.G., Kanye West, and Shaquille O’Neal, not to mention producing soundtracks for Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch.

Michael Showalter / GZA
Meet the group eggheads. Michael Showalter, son of two college professors, has made no secret of his love of academia. He has taught screenwriting at NYU for the past several years and spent large portions of his WTF with Marc Maron interview discussing semiotics. An analytical thinker in a goofy package, Showalter wrote and directed The Baxter, a charming little film that also acted as a critique of the romantic comedy genre.

GZA has been less subtle than Showalter regarding his intelligence. The Wu-Tang member released his first solo album, Words from the Genius, as The Genius. In the years since, he’s shown slightly more humility by qualifying his genius, instead releasing his albums as GZA the Genius. The name isn’t all posturing; GZA is the oldest member of the Wu-Tang Clan and was the first to release a solo album. Even Bill “Groundhog Day, ghostbustin’ ass” Murray recognizes GZA as the Genius.

Ken Marino / Ol’ Dirty Bastard
Both are the liveliest and, arguably, the most threatening members of their groups. The State used Ken Marino’s boisterous nature to good effect in the recurring “Louie” sketch, itself a parody of recurring characters. All Marino did was repeatedly shout, “I wanna dip my balls in it!”

Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s exuberant nature was also put to good use. “Shame on a Nigga,” the second track on (36 Chambers), features ODB shouting onomatopoeias like “BLAOW” and “RAHH,” adding an unhinged nature to this showboating classic.

Ken Marino may be the most “threatening” member of The State, but only by default; he is a tall, broad-shouldered, good-looking Italian among nerds of varying pastiness. This contrast was used well, as seen in the “Prom” sketch: Showalter mentions that nobody in The State had a date to the high school prom, “except for Marino, who went with two stewardesses.” Marino clarifies: “Twins.” The deceased Ol’ Dirty Bastard was the most threatening member of the Wu-Tang Clan, but unlike Marino, ODB would be threatening of any group. His rap sheet (pun intended) included shoplifting, driving without a license, drug possession, failure to pay child support, attempted robbery, and second-degree assault.

Thomas Lennon / Ghostface Killah
These two have arguably had the most successful careers outside their original groups. Thomas Lennon co-created and starred in the long-lasting cult favorite Reno 911! in addition to co-writing many box office successes, including The Pacifier, Night at the Museum, andNight at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian. Nearly all of Lennon’s projects are equal parts the work of creative partner Robert Ben Garant; however, Lennon’s many acting roles (including films as varied as Bad TeacherMemento, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) have provided him an additional level of notoriety.

While Ghostface Killah’s output hasn’t been quite as diverse as either Lennon’s or the other Wu-Tang members’, his focus and dedication to his music have provided him with a success unmatched by his peers. He hasn’t produced as many albums as RZA has or acted as often as Method Man has, but Ghostface has released nine solo albums (nearly double the output of his cohorts), all of which have been well received. His tenth album, Supreme Clientele Presents… Blue & Cream: The Wally Era, is due in August. In a poll on the official Wu-Tang site, fans narrowly voted him the best rapper of the group. Q magazine has called Ghostface “rap’s finest storyteller,” and the films Lennon has co-scripted with Garant have collectively grossed $1.4 billion.

Michael Ian Black / Method Man
These two are likely the most recognizable members due to their work unrelated to The State/Wu-Tang, particularly as actors. Each was also singled out in their groups’ debuts: The State had a sketch in which Michael Ian Black played Michael Ian Black, On Air Personality, while (36 Chambers) featured Method Man performing the song “Method Man.” Black has worked steadily as an actor since The State, gaining notoriety especially through his work in the NBC dramedy Ed, various VH1 retrospectives, and many commercials.

Method Man was also arguably the breakout member of his group, and like Black, he has amassed the largest acting career of his peers. He’s had sizeable roles in projects as varied as The WireHow HighRed Tails, and Garden State. Additionally, both have continued collaborating with group members. Michael Ian Black formed the spinoff group Stella with Wain and Showalter in addition to acting in State-related projects like Viva VarietyWet Hot American Summer, and Reno 911!. Stella produced a subgroup of its own in the partnership of Black and Showalter, which has led to comedy tours and the short-lived Comedy Central series, Michael & Michael Have Issues. Method Man has appeared on many solo albums by Wu-Tang members, including RZA’s Digital Bullet, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, and Masta Killa’s Made in Brooklyn. He also formed his own subgroup with Wu-affiliate and unofficial 11th member Redman, the simply titled Method Man & Redman. The pair even had their equivalent to Michael & Michael Have Issues with the short-lived Fox sitcom, Method & Red.

Robert Ben Garant / Raekwon
Robert Ben Garant and Raekwon have had very successful careers outside of their groups, although theirs might pale in comparison to those of Thomas Lennon and Ghostface Killah, respectively. While he shares the aforementioned screenwriting and creative successes with Lennon, Garant has not had the same visibility as his partner since he has focused on directing (Reno 911!: MiamiBalls of Fury) over acting. Meanwhile, Raekwon has released several well-received albums outside of Wu-Tang, including 2009’s hit Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II, though his five solo albums fall far short of Ghostface’s nine. Unlike Ghostface, however, Raekwon has appeared on many albums by others, including Outkast, Kanye West, and Yelawolf, not to mention tracks by his brothers in Wu. Garant’s tightly plotted scripts could be compared to Raekwon’s lyrics, which the Miami New Times described as “straightforward yet linguistically rich universes not unlike a gangsta Iliad.” (Gangsta Iliad could very well be a new project from Garant and Lennon.)

Joe Lo Truglio / Masta Killa
These two have primarily reached audiences through either their original groups’ projects or the side projects of their cohorts. In addition to The State, Joe Lo Truglio has appeared in all of David Wain’s films, as well as State-related projects like Reno 911!Stella, and The Baxter. While Masta Killa has released two low-selling albums, people primarily recognize him for his work with the Wu-Tang Clan as well as getting feat’d on albums by nearly all its members. They have also appeared in a number of projects unrelated to The State/Wu-Tang. Truglio acted in SuperbadHorrible People, and The Station Agent, among other film and TV projects, and Masta Killa has appeared on tracks by Public Enemy, Pete Rock, and Mathematics, among others.

Neither, however, has amassed as many credits as Michael Ian Black or Method Man.

Kerri Kenney-Silver / Cappadonna
Each was the outsider of their respective collectives who quickly gained acceptance in the group. Kerri Kenney-Silver was the only woman in an otherwise penis-heavy crew, while Cappadonna is the one member of the Wu-Tang Clan who wasn’t in the original nine; however, he became an official member after making his recorded debut on Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Reproductive organs aside, Kenney-Silver further stood out from The State by being the only member to pursue a music career. Along with two other NYU alums, she formed the all-woman indie band Cake Like. They released three albums in the mid 1990s and sounded not unlike The Breeders.

Kenney-Silver’s brief sabbatical from comedy parallels Cappadonna’s own break from music. While in production of his second albumThe Yin and the Yang, Cappadonna (apparently speaking in the third person) says that, “he intentionally gave up what material possessions he had amassed and walked the streets of Baltimore for 8 months, before returning to the rap game." He then returned to music, to which Kenney-Silver has apparently not returned.

Michael Patrick Jann / Inspectah Deck
These two are lesser known members of their group, in part because they have worked behind the scenes more so than their peers. On The State, Michael Patrick Jann (along with Wain) co-directed every episode. Since the show’s end, Jann has continued working primarily as a director. He has directed one feature, the underrated mockumentary Drop Dead Gorgeous, and many episodes of television, including State-related projects like Reno 911! and Childrens Hospital as well as other shows such as Happy Endings andReaper. Inspectah Deck has had more visibility, releasing four solo albums, but he has likewise predominantly worked in production capacity over the years. Deck has produced his own music as well as many tracks for his Wu brethren, including tracks from Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele, Cappadonna’s The Yin and the Yang, and RZA’s Bobby Digital in Stereo.

Kevin Allison / U-God
Neither has received much exposure outside of their original participation in The State and the Wu-Tang Clan, but in recent years both have used new means to reach audiences. Kevin Allison has found a new career as podcaster and storyteller with his RISK! podcast, which has also developed into a successful stage show. U-God joined independent label Babygrande in the late 2000s, and releasingDopium in 2009. Also, U-God has stated that he has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, which could lead to interesting stories on Allison’s RISK! Podcast. (I agree: this comparison is a stretch, but the others worked out so well that doing analytical calisthenics to liken Allison to U-God was worth it.)

While comparing a comedy group to a hip-hop collective might seem as pointless as comparing Muhammad Ali in his prime to anti-lock breaks (or Johnny Mathis to Diet Pepsi), the vast number of parallels between The State and the Wu-Tang Clan make it a worthwhile exercise. Aside from their actual content, the only real difference between the groups is that while Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothing to fuck with, one could likely fuck with The State, as Marc Maron has proven time and again.

Just watch out for Marino.

Justin Geldzahler also believes that People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm is the Mr. Show with Bob and David of hip-hop. He will probably never write about it.

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  • James Rocker@twitter

    As a lover of both groups, I just want you to know, Justin, that I appreciate you.

  • http://www.twitter.com/pablogoldstein Pablo Goldstein

    Lennon/Ben Garant being Ghostface/Raekwon is perfect.

  • Cromptown

    Great article! One thing though, the picture you used for Inspectah Deck is actually a picture of Joe Budden.

  • Jessica Stephens@twitter

    I love this! Even 20 years later, The State can't possibly get too much coverage, and it's nice to see something that gives attention to each member.

  • Jessica Stephens@twitter

    … except for the guy who actually founded the group.

  • Steve Cavaligos@facebook

    exceptional article/comparison. Only issue is that Cappadonna made his recorded debut on the 36 chambers album not Only built for Cuban Linx, he had a verse on the song triumph.