Unsolicited “The State” Review

If I knew what they were saying in the theme song, I’d type it here.

“The State” (Season One)
Starring: Kevin Allison, Michael Ian Black, Thomas Lennon, Kerri Kenney
Originally Aired: 1993
Available on “The State: The Complete Series” DVD (2009)

A great deal of “The State’s” cult success can probably be attributed to that old comedy mantra – timing. The anarchic d.i.y. sketch comedy show born from NYU landed on MTV in 1993, back when the music channel was still Middle America’s main incentive for picking up basic cable. Sketch comedy itself was in a period of flux that year; “SNL” was just cooling off from one of its hotter periods, “The Ben Stiller Show” had crashed and burned, Canada’s “Kids In The Hall” were still a relatively unknown entity in the States, and HBO had yet to unleash the brilliant “Mr. Show.” “The State” was basically the only game in town for that brief period (’93-’95), and thus made a large impact on the fussy Cobain generation.

Of course, this is not to say the members of “The State” weren’t talented. Lord knows they were, turning in performances and characters that are still regularly quoted by comedy nerds today. However, it’s abundantly clear when you place “The State” next to some of the shows mentioned above just how underwritten and low budget the program could be. Several ideas from their first season (the only season I watched last night on the “Complete Series” DVD because I’m lazy like that) were fleshed out in much richer ways elsewhere, and an embarrassing amount of the pre-taped stuff (such as Thomas Lennon’s “Old Fashioned Guy”) appears to have been shot on home video. I guess whatever money MTV gave this fledgling program didn’t go very far with eleven people in the cast.

On the other hand, it could be argued that the amateur nature of “The State’s” first season was part of its charm. Critics lambasted the show when it first aired (“historically bad,” “so bad it should be studied,” etc), instantly turning these nascent ’90s jesters into lovable underdogs. Also, you cannot argue with spirit and dedication that seemed to inhibit each cast member. They gave 110% and made themselves individually as identifiable as the Brady Kids. Michael Ian Black was the smarmy smart-ass; Ben Garant was the screechy wild child; Thomas Lennon, the suave (and disturbed) authority figure; Kevin Allison, the over-the-top everyman.

And who could forget Ken Marino, the resident hunk? Me-OW.

Much has been made of “The State” excising much of the show’s original pop music soundtrack on the DVD set for less costly generic sounds. It’s only in some skits that this matters, skits where “The State” was blatantly mocking the way MTV would underscore quasi-serious reality programming with the Smashing Pumpkins or Bob Mould. The “Pants?” sketch still works without that dopey bass line from “Cannonball” by the Breeders (mainly because Michael Ian Black is so good at prat falls), and the “Raging Hormones” from the first episode are just as endearing when they aren’t gettin’ down to Digital Underground.

One does wonder, though, if “State” members were serious when they claimed it would cost “several million dollars” to secure all this music for a home market release. How much could the Deal sisters possibly ask for “Cannonball?” I wouldn’t pay above $1,000 for that particular tune. I can see Shock G asking top dollar for “Humpty Dance,” though, because (like “The State”) there were about about a dozen people in Digital Underground at any given time. That’s probably why DU didn’t make it past “No Nosejob.”

These days, America knows most of these “State” faces from projects like “Reno 911,” “Stella,” Role Models, A Night At The Museum, and assorted VH-1/Internet ventures. This nutty Clinton-era show is where all that funny began, and it’s certainly a fun time capsule to spend a few hours with. You have to respect comedians who manage to mine laughs out of even the most dated 1990s youth culture reference. I barely remember those “Free Your Mind” MTV public awareness ads, but damned if Ken Marino’s clown shit-talking the pirate isn’t one of the funniest things I’ve seen in my entire life.

FINAL SCORE: Three and a half old fashioned guys (out of four).

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