DVD Review: The State: The Complete Series
The State is a sketch-comedy show that aired on MTV in the mid-‘90s. I’d never seen it before, as at the time it originally ran MTV wasn’t available in Canada (much to my teenage frustration, believe me). Since then I’ve read about The State, usually in fairly glowing terms, usually in the context of the alums’ newer work – former State cast members populate Reno: 911! and many others made the criminally underseen 2001 satire of 1980s summer-camp movies, Wet Hot American Summer – so I was very interested to check it out for myself. It’s got a cult of fans and they’ve been screaming for a DVD of the show for years, and Paramount definitely made the wait worthwhile. The package is excellent, but the show itself is the main draw; while it’s certainly not to everyone’s tastes, I found The State to be the closest thing to a true successor to the absurdist brilliance of Monty Python’s Flying Circus that I’ve seen in a sketch show.
The first and most important thing to note about The State is that it’s funny. Really funny. I have a big weakness for self-referential humor, and The State is packed with it. The skits are all pretty out-there in terms of the style of comedy, and many sketches mock the conventions of comedy itself.
While there’s a definite mid-‘90s aesthetic to the show’s credits and titles – and the odd cast member decked out in ripped jeans and flannel – I was also struck by how not dated the show was. Contrasted with The Ben Stiller Show, another cult sketch-comedy show from that era (which I also very much enjoy), it’s positively timeless; sure, there’s the odd dated pop culture reference (Pearl Jam, The Spin Doctors, etc.), but the 11 folks in The State weren’t anywhere near as interested in spoofing celebrities and current cultural events as Stiller and company were. It’s a wise decision, and it proves these skits work on their own merits; they don’t rely on celebrity impressions and references the way The Ben Stiller Show did.
The show itself lasted four seasons, but each season only has five to seven episodes. Like any sketch show, The State has the advantage of pacing; if a particular skit doesn’t work for you, another will be along in a minute or two that may make you laugh. But make no mistake, the humor of The State is decidedly bizarre, with the men (and one woman) behind it more interested in sly meta-comedy than more traditional gags. There’s a joke about an ostensibly popular recurring character (who becomes an actual recurring character, appearing in several more sketches throughout the show’s run) who just runs out and repeats his hilariously crude catchphrase (“I wanna dip my balls in it!”) to the increasing cheers and guffaws of the crowd. It’s a pretty clear – and funny – shot at Saturday Night Live, which at the time was trying so hard to create new movie-friendly spinoff characters at the time that the show was quite often painful to watch. Several of the skits also feature the members of The State playing themselves to doing phony public service announcements, reading pretend fan-mail or promoting fake contests (my favorite being an invitation to sleep with any cast member just by writing a letter to the show, because with the exception of the hunky Ken Marino, they’re all just lonely). A lot of it is probably too consciously weird for some, but I personally found The State to be hilarious (and just the right amount of absurd) across each of its four seasons.
If you’re an old fan of The State (or subsequent projects from the gang, like Reno: 911! or Stella, the short-lived 2006 sketch show from alums Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black and David Wain), then this DVD package will definitely turn your crank. If you’re not, but your tastes in comedy run towards the decidedly odd (and meta), then I highly recommend The State. It’s great stuff.
Once again, Paramount has knocked it out of the park with a DVD collection of a cult show. The set for The State was created with the participation of the cast members, who do commentary on every episode (I think; I confess I didn't check out all the commentaries, as they're surprisingly subdued). Also, in a smart move, they divided the cast up for different episodes, as 11 people on one commentary track is obviously far too many.
The fifth disc of the five-disc set also contains the unaired pilot episode (which contains a few sketches used in later episodes), and there’s something like 90 minutes of unaired sketches (also with commentary). There’s also outtakes, a pile of promos the troupe made for MTV that are largely very funny, as well as an appearance from the gang on MTV’s short-lived Jon Stewart Show. This is a damn fine DVD set, about as comprehensive as even the hardest of hardcore fans of The State could ask for.
Labels: comedy, DVD review, TV on DVD