Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon—founding members of the State—reflect on drugs, comedy, crime, and NYU in the Eighties
Thomas Lennon: My parents drove me to New York from Chicago in a station wagon in the fall of 1988. I knew Kerri Kenney — who would go on to help form the State and was also going to NYU — and I said, “What do you think is the best dorm?” She said “Brittany.” In hindsight, as a person who’s worked hard in Los Angeles for many years now, I could never afford to live at the intersection where I lived when I was eighteen. But I still work every single day with people I met in August of 1988 in the lobby of Brittany, which is pretty cool.
Robert Ben Garant: Almost the entire State lived in Brittany, which was on 10th Street and Broadway. One of the guys in the old comedy troupe at NYU had put up flyers to see if people wanted to start a new sketch group, and at that very first meeting about twenty people showed up, including nine of the original eleven State members [Garant, Lennon, Kenney, Michael Jann, Michael Showalter, David Wain, Michael Ian Black, Ken Marino, and Joe Lo Truglio — ed.]. And I’ve worked with them now for almost thirty years.
TL: At NYU, it was sort of like the alpha from every theater department across the country showed up — like every single person who had played Danny Zuko at their high school all came to NYU. And it was a weird mix. Ben Garant had dyed-green hair and looked like an even skinnier version of Sid Vicious.
RBG: I was from Tennessee, and really wanted to get out. But I only applied to one school. I had no backup plan. And it was because Woody Allen would always make jokes about NYU, and because David Naughton in American Werewolf in London wore an NYU T-shirt. I didn’t move to New York to be, like, a sketch comedian. I moved to New York to move to New York.
TL: I don’t think people understand how different and dangerous New York was in the late Eighties. I remember when I was coming to New York I was listening to Lou Reed’s New York to psych myself up: “There’s blacks with knives and whites with guns fighting in Howard Beach.” And I was like, “It’s obviously not that bad.” And then I got to New York, and it was.
RBG: Yeah, in ’88 New York was still very dangerous. The idea of going to Times Square was a joke; it was just porno theaters and peep booths and junkies on the street. It was like Robocop — really, really awful. In our group, Mike Jann got mugged two nights in a row freshman year. After the first time, I loaned him the knife that I carried for protection, and the very next night he got mugged again. He pulled the knife, and the guy pulled a gun. And Tom was beaten up so badly he had to wear an eye patch for his whole freshman year.
TL: There used to be a restaurant called Pizza Piazza on 10th and Broadway. It was probably about 3:30 in the morning, and I was coming home from a girlfriend’s house when two dudes jumped me. One of them put me in a chokehold and the other guy just punched me in the face over and over again. Of course, I peed my pants. I remember I was wearing a yellow bowtie, like a Midwestern musical-theater kid, so basically I was frolicking in from a production of Pippin and I ended up in The Warriors. Now, I should also point out that we stayed out very late and went to terrible places quite a bit, so that was part of the fun.
RBG: We were together all the time. We had rehearsals two or three days a week, and we would drink together almost every night, talking and pitching jokes and trying to write sketches. And we talked about the future. We all loved Saturday Night Live in the beginning, but we thought the current SNL was garbage and wanted to take it down. We wanted to do another show that people would watch instead of SNL, a show not written by old, old men in their thirties and forties.
TL: As soon as we were together you could feel an electricity that everybody was really, really passionate. We didn’t think of the State as some goofy little hobby; we thought of it like we were a punk band and that we were going to change the comedy world. We were unbelievably cocky, and I think people around us at the time were like, “Who are those assholes?” But I think if we hadn’t had that level of overconfidence, we wouldn’t have made it.
RBG: By sophomore year we were like a weird cult. Whenever we took long, all-night walks, which we would sometimes do, we would walk down to the World Trade Center to hang out and drink beer. And if you lay on the ground with your feet on the World Trade Center, it looked like it was a big ramp leading up to the sky. Needless to say, we did drugs as we did this.
TL: If I had seen me and Joe Lo Truglio and Ben and Mike Jann when we were doing cocaine in the basement of 7B at four in the morning, I don’t think I would’ve been like, “Every one of you is going to own a giant house with a big pool in Los Angeles twenty-five years from now.” I would’ve said we’d be dead by thirty. Look at us. What are we doing? We’re doing cocaine in the basement of 7B! I’m sure kids who went to, like, Iowa State weren’t having quite the same experience.