When one sketch flopped, two words saved The State: “monkey torture”

When one sketch flopped, two words saved The State: “monkey torture”

In SketcHistory, The A.V. Club gets the story behind some of our favorite comedy sketches from the people who made them.

The sketch: “The Barry Lutz Show” (a.k.a “Monkey Torture”) from the second-season premiere of The State

The story: In conversation with talk show host Barry Lutz (Michael Ian Black), zoologist Dr. Martin Crank (Thomas Lennon) details the process he lovingly calls “monkey torture”: a battery of psychological torment breaking new ground in the field of torturing monkeys. When Dr. Crank’s subject Little Ricky is brought in for a live demonstration of monkey torture, Ricky and Barry get a surprise from Crank’s friend Terry (Michael Patrick Jann).

The people:

Thomas Lennon, actor, screenwriter, director; performer and writer on The State

Michael Ian Black, actor, screenwriter, director, TV host; performer and writer on The State

Michael Patrick Jann, director; segment director, writer, and occasional performer on The State

Thomas Lennon: We were a great lesson about writing for deadlines. Every day at 3 p.m., we would meet and pitch material. Ben Garant would pitch four or five sketches sometimes. Usually I would have, hopefully, one or two. It was a fiercely competitive situation. We also fought all the time. Our main default setting was fighting. We’ve remained very, very good friends for about a quarter century, and now our kids are friends. We’re literally as close as a family, for all the better and worse aspects of that—lots of them are sometimes worse.

As 3 p.m. was looming every day, you could feel everybody getting stressed out. You could just feel the tension of, “Oh my God, I have to have some amazing stuff to pitch.” A lot of my stuff was written very, very fast. Like “Porcupine Racetrack” was written in the 30 minutes before a pitch meeting. I think that’s also true of “$240 Worth Of Pudding” and “The Barry Lutz Show.” Once in a while when you absolutely have to have something ready in a half-hour, it’s great and you’ll do it. It won’t be perfect, it may not even be good, but it might be interesting.

Monkey Torture” was a sketch that did not make the cut. And I was really, really proud of it. It just never really flew with the group. You could feel it when you pitched something to the group and it didn’t go over. It’s a really terrible feeling. Nobody could hurt each others’ feelings more than each other. Ken Marino can look at you so mad—and he can still do it to this day—with so much vitriol for what you just pitched that it’s kind of hard to recover, and sometimes it takes you a day or two to get back into the game. The reaction to “The Barry Lutz Show” was not that great, because there’s really not that much to it other than the way I say “monkey torture.” I just emphasize the words in a weird place.

We had put up our live show—we would tape a dozen or 15 sketches a night at Metropolis Studios in New York. And something had failed really badly. I can’t remember what it was. I don’t think it was a sketch of mine, but something in the run-through had flopped so badly that we just couldn’t do it that night.

Michael Ian Black: The thing that got cut was the sketch that I wrote, which seemed so funny when we read it in the room and so not funny when we put it on its feet. It was about baseball. I don’t recall what more than that.

TL: We needed a sketch that required nothing. Because we couldn’t build a set, we couldn’t do anything. I very sneakily was like, “Hey man: ‘Monkey Torture.’ The Barry Lutz Show.’”

MIB: “Monkey Torture” was the same set and setup and probably the only reason I got to play Barry Lutz was because Tom and I were the two baseball guys. I had cast him in the baseball thing and he just said, “All right, you’ll be Barry Lutz in ‘Monkey Torture.’” So, easy to do—there was no preparation necessary, because it’s not like we really spent any time researching characters or really thinking about characters particularly. We just went full steam ahead and followed our impulses.

TL: The funny thing about working in New York is when you call and you’re like, “Well, we need a monkey,” the answer is, “Yeah, you can have it in an hour, and what kind do you want? Because we have every kind.” So literally, like less than an hour later, there was a guy there with a monkey.

MIB: I could not have been more excited to have an actual monkey on set. Nothing’s more exciting than monkeys. If you have an opportunity to work with a monkey, the answer’s always going to be yes, because it’s a monkey.

TL: On Viva Variety, we did a sketch called “Monkey Sports” where Johnny Blue Jeans, Michael Ian Black’s character, would do different kinds of sports with a chimpanzee. And I’ll tell you right now, if you’re going to do sketches with any kind of primate, do it with monkeys and not chimps. A chimpanzee will kill you. Chimpanzees are the only other animals, other than humans, that murder their own kind just for sport. That chimpanzee once in a while would grab your forearm and you just felt, “Oh, I think you’re going to snap me like a twig, aren’t you?”

MIB: It doesn’t matter that they basically can’t be trained—or that, in the case of a chimpanzee, they’re like super-strong 5-year-olds with learning disabilities. You work with a monkey. And you don’t say boo about that. Monkey on set, fantastic. More please.

TL: The only problem is every time you bring in an animal, it’s a fortune, because the animals have handlers, and then the handler has like a trailer. It ends up being a bigger kerfuffle than you would ever expect.

The one thing [from “The Barry Lutz Show”] that I’m really proud of is, “That’s my friend Terry calling from backstage.” Terry is a name that has been used in my sketch work my whole life and will probably continue to be, but I think that’s Mike Jann’s favorite performance in The State.

Michael Patrick Jann: I remember choosing a costume for it. Going through all sorts of things and deciding I should wear things that were a few sizes too small. I think it’s a woman’s leather jacket. Very flattering. That just seemed like a guy who needed extra bucks, but also wanted to look good for the ladies.

I’m primarily not an actor, so when I would play little roles like that, it was like, “Well there’s Tom and Mike—and they’re hilarious all the time—and then the camera’s going to cut to me… don’t fuck this up. Just do something. Just do this right, would you?” So there is that little bit of pressure, because I’m not a natural actor and I never really wanted to be one. It was just a function of being in the group. I don’t have a grand desire to be stared at by lots of people.

TL: We were very much reacting to loooong Saturday Night Live sketches that just overstayed their welcome and laid there for a while. SNL has amazing people right now and they do some very funny stuff, but there was an era where that show was not that strong, and I think we were definitely reacting to it with our short, sharp, absurd policy.

We were also a very impatient group. You could win with a State sketch if it was like two or three pages. I don’t think there are any State sketches that people wrote down that would be over three pages long. Maybe a start to the beginning of a fourth page, but very unlikely. There was nothing in the world we wanted to be more than Monty Python and Python would cut to something for four or five seconds sometimes. And sometimes that was the absolute best thing. It would be the most amazing thing, when you would cut to something and you’d be like, “Oh wow!” and then it was over. I never even had time to think about it.

MPJ: I’m holding a drink in my hand—something coconut-y about that. I have a cigarette in my mouth, and I think there’s more than one take, and on one of the takes—it’s the one we cut in—I was able to ash the cigarette into the drink, while it was still in my mouth. It was on take two, and I was like, “I’ve get this thing in this hand and the cigarette in my mouth—I wonder if I could make this stupid face plus ash my cigarette into the drink at the same time.” [Laughs.] Just increasing the degree of difficulty.

I specialized in weird-looking guys who didn’t do much.

TL: My doctor from that could also just be the same doctor that’s in The Dark Knight Rises. Totally by accident somehow, everyone found their niche in that sketch. [Laughs.] I am a slightly condescending doctor and Michael Ian Black is a smarmy chat show host, which by the way, years later Mike tried out for The Late Late Show after Kilborn left. I guess I was destined to play a slightly effete doctor, and he was destined to be a talk show host at some point.

MIB: Honestly, I hate my performance in that sketch. I can’t even watch the sketch, because it’s so over the top and preening and mugging. I didn’t trust myself enough to just, like, chill out and turn in an actual performance. I think Tom’s hilarious in it and subtle and doing it exactly right, and I think I’m doing it the exact opposite. I wasn’t even consciously trying to be a smarmy talk show host. I was just looking for any angle for the talk show host, as opposed to just being a talk show host, which is what the sketch really demanded.

TL: The other thing about “Monkey Torture” that I look back on is, it’s not that amazing. [Laughs.] It struck a chord with people. I think just saying the words “monkey torture”—and of course the monkey is really, really cute. But I watch it and I’m like, “Wow, is that all there is to this? It seems like there should maybe be something more.” I’m a little baffled by the zen simplicity of the sketch, where nothing really happens. Also, by the chubbiness of my cheeks, because I was pretty doughy at the time.

MIB: It seemed very funny at the time, so I thought it was a successful sketch when we shot it, and part of me was [Pauses.] a tiny part of me was rooting for it to fail, because my own sketch had been cut to make room for it. But I think I’m a better person now, and I’m grateful that we cut my sketch, because it wasn’t good.

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