The State: The Complete Series
Maybe I'm old fashioned, but the name a TV station chooses should be the one it sticks to. Live action game shows are now on Cartoon Network. The Learning Channel became TLC because instead of teaching, they throw money at the obese and women into overpopulation. Syfy? No clue. Anyway, the monster originator of this trend was MTV. You'd have to be too young not to remember non- country/western white people in televised videos. The very act of watching these videos even spawned a titular generation. But it had to stop! MTV started adding intentionally self-referential game shows, comedy, sports, and dance programs in order to entice music lovers without actually giving them any. From these, a few pop culture milestones did grow. Mike Judge and Beavis and Butthead. Jon Stewart. Dan Cortese?? Just after canceling the Stewart-hosted You Wrote It, You Watch It, MTV offered the show's comedy uber-troupe The State their own sketch show, and its members have been mainstays of quirky comedy ever since. The show followed the cult comedy route of initial obscurity, mis-managed time slots, cancellation, and finally fruitless bidding from other networks. At last, after a decade of thousands upon thousands of virtual picket signs, The State has finally arrived on DVD. Cue the fuzzy grunge guitar.
Sketch comedy is a polarizing sub-genre of comedy. Plot enthusiasts hate it, and ADHD sufferers need it to survive. (Dramatization.) Most groups combine SNL's character-centric obsession with Monty Python's leftist anarchy, sprinkled with SCTV's skewing of timeless pop culture. The State did not set out to change, but rather hone this craft while retaining a solidly individual edge. This may seem hard to do with eleven people, but the abundance of opinion worked for, rather than against them.
No jokes or sketches made it to air without everyone's agreement. (One disc has an entire season's worth of cutting room footage.) No scenes were allowed to run too long or miss the intended mark. This is the complete opposite of shows like the increasingly forgettable Little Britain, with its writing team of two to four. On one of this set's numerous interviews, show actor/director Michael Jann states there was always a focus on twisting endings, avoiding punchlines, and ignoring topical humor. This is least evident in season one, when MTV wanted scenes that spoofed or referenced other MTV programs. These choices may seem random to anyone born after 1988, but the material precisely mocks the channel's "in your face" presentation and superfluous attention to fluff. Sending up MTV's anti-drug and alcohol interstitials, Michael Ian Black as "Cpt. Monterey Jack" warns school children about the dangers of improper cheese storage, and not to leave lights on when exiting a room.
The show ran for three seasons, despite the back of the box saying four. The third season had more shows, but was split and aired incompletely. Way to go MTV, who also held on to the completed DVDs for two full years before releasing them, despite the influx of The Hills and Jackass sets. The delay was partially due to the lapse of copyrights that MTV had with most record labels during the 80's and 90's. Current popular music was used in the show because it was free, but it's no longer the case. To avoid paying millions for royalties, the show's composer had to create soundalikes for almost every single track, except where specifically mentioned in a joke. This wasn't as much of an issue as I'd feared, as a lot of early 90's music was crap, and the soundalikes easily evoke whatever spirit the original tune was going for. On a positive note, the episodes actually get longer per season from around 20 minutes to around 23 minutes.
Each episode follows the general sketch show table of contents. There is a cold open, sometimes a show's most memorable moments. Kerri Kenney performingThe Nutcracker inside a small closet is fifteen seconds of awesome. After the credits, there are about eight to ten sketches per show. They cover extensive subject matter, but their purpose is usually to turn ordinary aspects of life on their heads.
Take competitive sport. Normal. Take the Hokey-Pokey dance. Not normal, but still. Put these together. A Hokey-Pokey competition. Silly concept, but the real joke is when all of the heavily touted competitors are immediately eliminated, not one able to correctly "put their right foot in." Not exactly high-brow, but it works.
Some gags run throughout shows, often linking sketches thematically. The State often lampooned the use of recurring characters, as shown by Ken Marino's Louie, celebrated only for declaring "I wanna dip my balls in it!!", a catchphrase which he comes to resent. There's Michael Showalter's Doug, a teen whose rebellious efforts are confounded by the permissive nature of all authoritative figures around him. Barry and Le Von (Awww, yeahhh) are two swinging disco daddies who can show you exactly what to do with $240 worth of pudding. Not limited to specific characters. the show focused on broader citizen stereotypes and generalizations for humor, "The Jew, the Italian, and the Redheaded Gay" sketch non withstanding.
As stellar and fresh as the written material still is, the show's most impressive aspect is its performers. This cast takes up about 4% of IMDB's listings. There isn't an ounce of wasted or non-existent talent. Easily, the stand-outs are Thomas Lennon, Kerri Kenney, and Michael Ian Black, but it's like choosing the best pieces of pizza from the same scrumptious pie. Having started the troupe in college, everyone is clearly comfortable with each other, and inhibitions are nil. Some members are privy to certain character types, but for the most part, everyone's range is broad and wide-reaching. It's amazing the number of strange accents Thomas Lennon speaks in while never sounding forced.
The comedic timing is usually so dead on, it seems like all these guys would do is practice. It's said a few times that the shows were heavily scripted, with sparse ad-libbing. When compared to expertly improvised shows like Reno 911 (created by and starring half of this show's cast), it speaks that much more for the thought behind the writing. A basic cable presence actually aided this, in that the show skims the lines of depraved and vulgar comedy, but it can't (and probably still wouldn't) lazily use this as a glass ceiling, reveling in gross out gags like so many sophomoric comedies do.
The State/s approach and format vary. Static scenes are shot before live audiences. Things are filmed on location. Spur of the moment gags caught on video. As such, the visual quality is middling, but no humor is spoiled. The sound is better. Mics are well-placed and dialogue is pretty clear even when all eleven are talking at once, and it happens.
But quality schmality. What about the bonus shit? It's get giddy time. Each disc comes with a pair of interview features, reflecting on origins, critical reception, etc. All very good, as they were the original MTV promo footage, without the usual "looking back years later" angle. Coupled with the interviews are "Outtakes" that are really just extended and alternate takes. Every episode has a commentary track with a revolving door of cast members coming in and out. I only made it through two-thirds of them, but they are very amusing and insightful tracks. Each person stays interesting and doesn't stray off-topic.
These four discs are probably good enough, but luckily there's one solely dedicated to extras. It includes the original pilot, a selection of sketches that were re-recorded for the actual first season. All three seasons plus the pilot have an episode's worth of unaired scenes, and each collection has commentary tracks to listen to. There's another "Outtakes" feature, which is similar to the others. There are quite a few specially filmed promos that are pretty funny, but are mostly line-o-ramas. Also, previews of other MTV DVDs.
To round everything out, MTV culled together a number of appearances the cast made outside of the show. There's a visit to The Jon Stewart Show plugging the first season premiere. You can probably skip an "MTV Christmas Party video" featuring the cast fake-performing a pretty terrible song. But totally watch all of the "Spring Break Safety Tips" that ran during summer programming soon after the show began. They're short and silly, and made me remember I used to watch MTV's Spring Break. Ugh. Last but certainly not least, not by a long shot, is the troupe's 1996 performance at MTV's Shut Up and Laugh. It's a Shakespearean performance where the lines take second stage to the costumes. Each member is wearing a pair of brightly colored tights that show off a certain part of the male anatomy. I'll let you decide if they are of accurate sizes.
The State is really, really here. I tried my hardest to keep the one-liners and catchphrases to a minimum. I'll be too busy annoying my girlfriend with them out loud. Buy it, and if you don't find yourself giggling immensely, then apparently it costs forty dollars to find out you're boring. Oh, and don't watch it all in less than a week. It hurts...so good.
Reviewed By: Nick Venable