Of all the television sketch comedies to develop a cult after their mid-’90s cancellation, The State might be the most instructive, if the least anticipated on DVD by the general public. The reasons for the show’s longstanding obscurity even to skit aficionados are clear at a cursory glance: The program’s humor too often veered toward the gratingly puerile, offering the sort of college dada guffaws MTV audiences at the time might have felt they could accomplish themselves if they smoked enough weed, and while the talent of its contemporaries—The Ben Stiller Show, The Dana Carvey Show—were later harvested by projects with more respectable budgets and better street cred, the cast of The State has largely floundered post-disbandment in an unforgiving SoCal wasteland of missed opportunities, unstroked egos, and unanswered phone calls. Screening the show now via Paramount’s Complete Series box set gives one the funereal impression of watching rising stars distended with promise that would prove still-born due to a mixture of unwieldy ambition and studio douchebaggery.
In fact, the most satisfying element about the set is that it tells a cohesive story, albeit one with a disillusioned denouement. The State was MTV’s maiden voyage into comedy territory: A producer scouted the 11-member performer/writer team—consisting of 10 rambunctious twentysomething boys and one girl, Kerri Kenny—straight out of the New York underground college scene and more or less gave each artist breathing room to develop their own style. The result was hopelessly fissured (particularly in the first two seasons, one can feel the “lesser” members grasp ham-handedly at fleeting weirdness or, in David Wain’s case, move behind the camera, as the truly gifted comedians eclipse their efforts), but in spite of the plethora of amateur devices and the inevitable tonal conflicts, it’s astounding how much of the show still works without feeling derivative or facile.
Eschewing topical humor for more scatterbrained surrealism—such as a stuffy panel discussion on art that abruptly ends when one expert describes the topic du jour as “paintings and stuff”—alienated audiences weaned on Phil Hartman’s Bill Clinton caricature, but the approach now seems like a tame forerunner to the Marx-Brothers-on-acid concepts of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. Even reoccurring characters on The State, developed as network-sanctioned stabs at SNL mainstays like the Church Lady and Matt Foley, are all the funnier now that their meta-significance has weakened. Michael Showalter’s Doug, a ne’er-do-well teen perpetually attempting, and failing, to rebel against the magisterially recalcitrant ’60s-’70s generation of his guardians sums up the snowballing Generation Y malaise with succinct perversity: It’s as if these kids knew that Monty Python and Lenny Bruce already had them beat, so why not acknowledge it?
Python and Bruce, among other postmodern golden idols, provided The State with a structure that Mr. Show would later emulate: A stream-of-consciousness trajectory for each episode where dissonant sketches bleed into one another by borrowing characters or repeating lines in new contexts. This allowed the team to effectively mix live-before-a-studio-audience footage with pet projects compiled from second-unit absurdity (i.e. Thomas Lennon’s “Froggy Jamboree,” featuring himself dressed in an amphibious wetsuit, standing in an inflatable pool and playing hammerclaw banjo), as well as appropriating unfinished ideas as comedic spackle. In one particularly off-kilter three-minute sketch led by the muggy paisano Ken Marino, a middle-American family continually interrupts their dinner with spontaneous shrieks of “Where’s the mousey?” But where SNL and MADtv would dilute such a misfire of a concept into 10 excruciating minutes, The State wrings what laughs it can out of 90 feverish seconds, punctuating the contumacious inanity with a flurry of rubber rats from the studio ceiling. Constantly self-referential and self-deprecating (the troupe even smarmily quoted negative press in their advertisements), watching The State is a bit like being inside the mind of a subversively funny but quite intimidated young adult poised reluctantly before the booming, tech-minded gluttony of the ’90s workforce.
In retrospect, some of the gang’s most famous pieces, such as the ill-executed faux-sitcom The Jew, the Italian, and the Red-Headed Gay, seem too much like decent ideas that traveled straight from the hand-scrawled notebook margin to the teleprompter sans further development, but the lack of polish is often easily forgiven in the spirit of the show’s jovial showcase of talent. One can hear these guys professionally busting up at their own jokes from behind their dead-on characterizations of hipsters, waiters, high school students, and newly free-market Polish citizens, and the audience can’t help but conspiratorially join the fun. What other response is warranted to a pair of soulful white boys who get their jollies from frottage with a mound of vanilla pudding? Or a sadistic hobo hired to entertain at a children’s birthday party like a clown?
And yet, lurking in the shadows of every vinyl costume and every VHS tape glitch is a caveat to young comedians. In 1995, the members of The State rejected an offer from MTV to renew their series for another four seasons, instead crusading to Los Angeles and CBS—where they were canned after a single special. The group splintered, some eventually returning to the sketch format with Viva Variety! and the brilliant but short-lived Stella while others drifted into non-entertainment fields. Subsequent attempts at reunions were mostly flat affairs: Wet Hot American Summer was insipidly jejune where The State had been mockingly immature, though the film did foreshadow David Wain’s career as a comedy director (c.f. Role Models). The most flagrantly funny member of the troupe, Thomas Lennon, went on to create and star in the intermittently hilarious Reno 911 with fellow State alums Ben Garant and Kerri Kenny, but even he has paid his dues as the writer of high concept, commercial family films. Primetime television hopefuls everywhere should be required to watch The State as a reminder that not all knee-slapping roads lead to stardom: Some lead to Night at The Museum.
Early ’90s television was not produced with posterity in mind, and The State suffers from clear deterioration of its original Betacam and VHS (!) sources; it’s also easy to tell the latter from the former by the abrupt shift in color temperature and the emergence of scan lines at the bottom of the screen. That said, it’s hard to imagine this set looking any better given the limitations of the show’s crew. I don’t know how Paramount’s team managed to "restore" old VHS tapes, but somehow they digitized copies of even the most lo-fi sketches that are not only highly watchable on an LCD screen meant for 1080p inputs, but free from artifacting, pixilation, and interlacing errors that plague DVD releases of programs with much higher budgets. That any corporate manpower at all was used to preserve these episodes is a triumph in itself. The Dolby Digital sound has also held up fairly well, though a number of sketches using popular music had to be redubbed due to licensing issues. Still, the original cast members lend their voices to these few instances of ADR that are hard to recognize without prior knowledge of their existence.
Is it silly to fault a DVD set for an over-abundance of supplements? There’s no question that this is the definitive State collection, and fans will have a difficult time brainstorming how it might have been improved upon. Every episode of the show features commentary with all 11 troupe members. I won’t pretend to have sat through all of these as of yet, but a sampling from each season revealed rather insightful vocal annotations from the cast (especially Thomas Lennon, who seems to have remembered on-set stories from nearly every sketch), with only a few instances of intentional pandemonium. There’s also a glut of interviews and outtakes, the latter of which are rather superfluous viewing but offer perspective on the show’s shooting and editing process by way of scenes that were trimmed for time or quality. But the real boon here is disc five, which features the show’s pilot and unaired skits from every season-including the infamous "Drag Dad" piece that was alluded to pejoratively during the show’s fourth year. The extra disc also features original promos from MTV and reunion appearances on The Daily Show and elsewhere, effectively rounding up more or less every instance that this gang performed under the State banner. Casual viewers who just want to see Doug again are likely to sputter "I’m outta here!" when faced with this robust collection of material, but die-hard fans who have clamored for this box for years will require loved ones to stand at the ready with smelling salts.
This set has been lovingly designed for The State fanatics who, at the current price point, will want to dip their balls in it.