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"The State's 43rd Annual All-Star Halloween Special" on CBS

Color photo of the cast, with caption "They Died Laughing"
Photo from a 1996 post-mortem in Details magazine.

As The State prepared to make the perilous leap from MTV to CBS, they faced a dilemma:  How does a program coming from basic cable retain the edge that made it popular and, at the same time, create a comedic sensibility appropriate for a broadcast audience?  In June 1995—a full month before production for their final cycle of MTV episodes had wrapped—Starr broached the subject with head of CBS late-night programming John Pike, noting that "Our MTV show, as good as it looks, needs to look better if we are going to attract and impress a network audience." 

In addition to wanting to create a successful Halloween special, Starr was intent on building the long-term viability of The State as "a franchise that will serve all parties for years."  By August, production for the special was already well underway, yet Starr and Bendis felt neglected and underserved by the considerable financial and promotional resources at CBS's disposal.  They sought to build upon and carry over the momentum generated from their MTV run; Pike and CBS, meanwhile, were reluctant to commit to a series for the following year.

The documents in Starr's collection do not detail the exact nature of these exchanges with CBS executives, but we might infer more about the network's thinking by examining television's broader industrial climate at the time.  According to television historian Ron Becker, the 1995-1996 season represented an important shift in programming practice by CBS that sought to replicate NBC's success in winning the key 18-49 year old demographic.  These socially-liberal, urban-minded professionals--or "slumpies" as Becker calls them--gravitated toward edgy content that was not the stock-in-trade of CBS hits like Murder, She Wrote.  After leading the broadcast networks in overall viewers in the 1993-1994 season, CBS tumbled in the ratings the following year and initiated a high-profile effort to court the slumpy audience for the 1995-1996 season.  Its efforts were primarily focused on prime-time with the likes of Cybill and New York News, but one can easily see how the cutting-edge humor of a late-night program such as The State fit into this new demographically-driven model.

While these issues and others played out on one level, the troupe members set to the onerous task of producing a one-time special that would ostensibly decide their collective future on broadcast television.  In a 1996 post-mortem article for Details, journalist David Lipsky described the uncomfortable feelings shared among members of The State and how it began to wear on their democratic decision-making processes.  In one infamous anecdote, Pike stressed to the all-white troupe the importance of black audiences for late-night because, among other reasons, they had "no place to go in the morning—no jobs—so they can stay up as late as they like."  The cast members voted themselves a pay cut and put the savings toward production expenses.  Comments in production memos pair the cockiness of their MTV success with the uneasiness of knowing the support they had there was no more.

The producers and troupe brainstormed a list of celebrities to give tongue-in-cheek testimonials, as well as ways to lampoon The State's feelings of not belonging at CBS.  Despite these behind-the-scenes tensions, however, "The State's 43rd Annual All-Star Halloween Special" largely remained true to the group's edgy sense of humor, a trait that may have spelled doom for any chance of The State as a regular network series on CBS.  The cast rejected the icy embrace of their new broadcast-network parents with characteristic irony from the very beginning of the special:

Many moments throughout the special also play up the troupe's unease at the network, especially a sketch in which two cast members mockingly pay "tribute" to Desi Arnaz of I Love Lucy, one of CBS's earliest hits. 

Even the presence of musical guest Sonic Youth speaks to The State's Gen-X sensibilities and how they seemed simultaneously to bolster and undermine CBS's attempts to reach a youth audience.  The network initially suggested pop-group Hootie and the Blowfish for the special and eventually booked Blues Traveler, only to have the latter cancel suddenly that week to play the season premiere of Saturday Night Live.  Starr hurriedly nabbed Sonic Youth to fill in, a band that hip slumpies embraced, but one that Pike misunderstood as being too obscure.

Upon seeing Sonic Youth at the show's taping, Pike attempted to call his daughter, according to Lipsky, "Not to see if she likes them. To see if she's heard of them."

The special aired on Friday, October 27, 1995 with virtually no promotion from CBS and earned a six share.  In fact, none of CBS's new, slumpy-courting programs succeeded, and Pike ended the network's relationship with The State that week.  CBS's audience share dropped to an all-time low, and in September 1996, it initiated a "Welcome Home" campaign to win conservative and rural audiences. more >>

 


For a detailed account of network television's pursuit of the slumpy audience, see Becker, Ron Gay TV and Straight America.  New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2006, pp. 80-107.

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