10 sketches capture the highbrow-meets-lowbrow style of The State

10 sketches capture the highbrow-meets-lowbrow style of The State

Sketches to dip your balls in

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

If you don’t know The State, you probably know its members. Joe Lo Truglio fights crime on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Michael Ian Black and Kerri Kenney-Silver are playing a married couple in the upcoming sitcom Us & Them. Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant are writing another Night At The Museum sequel. Ken Marino stars in Childrens Hospital, which is sometimes written by Michael Showalter, is sometimes directed by Michael Patrick Jann, and always executive produced by David Wain. Kevin Allison and Todd Holoubek don’t do much on film anymore (the former hosts the popular story-sharing podcast RISK!), but they joined the rest of the troupe in Reno 911!: Miami and The Ten. And for a year and a half in the mid-1990s, the 11 members of The State wrote, performed, and often directed the best sketch comedy on the air.

It was a golden age for sketch on TV. As NBC’s Saturday Night Live embalmed itself into an institution and the rest of The Big Three wanted a piece of the action. CBS imported The Kids In The Hall from CBC, and ABC imported The Dana Carvey Show from SNL. But the real challengers were on the newer networks. All decade long, upstart Fox tried to cultivate its own sketch superpower in the irreverent vein of its sitcoms, The Simpsons and MarriedWith Children. First came the Wayans’ spiky In Living Color, then the snazzier Ben Stiller Show. Finally, the network figured out what longevity requires with its diet SNLMADtv. HBO also had Kids In The Hall, but Mr. Show With Bob And David was its homegrown dissident, a more abstract sketch show for the channel that purports to be “Not TV.” And from the end of 1993 to the summer of 1995, nestled between Ben Stiller and Dana Carvey, MTV broadcast The State

Peddling music videos in the ’80s and The Real World in the ’90s, the channel formerly known as Music Television was branching out during the run of The State. But it still courted a young audience, and The State fit in—to a point. Here was a group of funny, early twentysomethings with a breezy, segmented format. The tension arose between MTV’s vision of an SNL-style show with buzzy music, pop culture riffs, and recurring characters and The State’s conceptual ambitions. The result is 24 episodes that stretch from silly characters to silly ideas. 

To pick just 10 sketches is to whittle the series down to the running length of the average episode. The goal isn’t to anoint the funniest sketches, but to give as rich a survey of the show as possible. So this list covers all four seasons and makes time for runners, second-unit sketches, and “Hi, We’re The State” interludes. There are recurring characters and pop culture parodies, and then there are examples of pastiche. Each sketch was chosen to highlight a certain characteristic of The State, but each characteristic shows up in several of the sketches. The unity is a testament to show’s voice, fully formed from the start.  

“Hormones” (season one, episode one): “Hormones” visualizes the relative excitement of two lovers on a date with literal, color-coded hormones that dance around when the lovers are turned on. The sketch’s onstage origin makes this an early essential. Not only is it an example of what the group was doing before all the single-camera bits, but its jokes are rooted in theatricality. The State would attempt this kind of theatrical expressionism a few times in the early seasons, like when multiple actors play the same woman to represent her mood swings in “PMS.” “Hormones” is more representational: The hormones are just there to illustrate the state of the lovers’ libidos. They break into pairs themselves when the couple starts to make out. The blue hormones flex their muscles and perform repetitive motions, while the pink ones dance around them. When the guy finishes and the blue hormones fall to the floor exhausted, the girl quickly ushers him out, because she has to get up early. Then comes the punchline: As soon as they exit, the girl ducks behind the couch and the pink hormones start dancing around again. 

“Norwegian Cruise” (season two, episode two): Parody on The State includes an early fly-by where a mom praising a detergent is terrified by the detergent’s talking bear mascot and an almost shot-for-shot High Plains Drifter scene that trades the gunslingers for fairy princesses. Early parodies focused more on commercials, particularly MTV’s Free Your Mind ads or PSAs (“Talk to your children about commercial whaling”), but one of the funniest, weirdest parodies is a take on a contemporary cruise commercial in black and white. A couple on vacation musters gravitas and romance as they announce the increasingly ridiculous things they will do on their vacation. “I will break bottles,” says Kenney at her sultriest, “with my ass.” The camerawork adds to the joke, dramatizing a woman making out with a clown and panning across the scenes to preserve the punchlines. One shot begins with Jann’s smiling face, only revealing his collar once he says, “I will pretend I’m a priest,” and only cutting to a new angle when he finishes, “and expose myself to donkeys.” The sketch goes out with its best joke. As a new voice breaks in with the cruise line’s slogan, the couple we’ve been watching puts some kittens in a bag, tosses it into the sea, and kisses in perfect harmony. 

“Kabuki Doug” (season three, episode two): The State’s most prominent recurring character, Louie, was a joke about the mechanical comedy of recurring characters. Yet the show established a number of returning players in 24 episodes: There was Barry and Levon, two soul men in velvet suits, not to be confused with Barry Toink, a high school jock. All four show up in “Kabuki Doug,” anchored by the title teenager who keeps mistaking cool authority figures for harsh enforcers. Ostensibly based on The Love Suicides At Sonezaki, “Kabuki Doug” chronicles the forbidden marriage of Doug and Karen, whose love is so tragically moving that Toink commits suicide in their honor and Barry and Levon renounce grooviness. The characters hit their familiar beats—Doug’s hesitant vocals, Louie’s obnoxious greeting, the burnout friends being a little late to the party—but the actors are also speaking in their best Japanese and moving presentationally. When Marino spots Doug and Karen in profile, he announces them while facing the audience, then makes a big deal of pointing with his thumb. The stylized background and traditional music add to the atmosphere. The subject matter is a ribbing, but they’re not making fun of kabuki—they’re using it to rediscover the comedy in their old characters. 

“The Restaurant Sketch” (season three, episode three): Every so often a sketch would come with an introductory warning where a cast member, usually Lennon, would say how the network/the other members of The State/concerned parties thought the following sketch wasn’t funny, but that they’re airing it anyway. “The Restaurant Sketch” isn’t that exactly, but it’s in a similar vein, because it’s explicitly interested in what’s funny and why. In this case, Wain goes in and out of character at a restaurant/church/bedroom where the premise keeps changing, and all the while he talks to the audience about how the changing premise reveals whether or not prior jokes were funny. His contention is that things that are untrue are funny, which isn’t exactly true, which is in turn funny. He’s taking comedy seriously, while making fun of taking it seriously, but what makes it a State essential is simply that it’s funny.

“Kerri’s Day” (season three, episode five): It wouldn’t be representative of The State not to include a sketch where the actors address the audience as themselves, usually a framework for divulging details about the actors’ real lives. (“We didn’t try Special K at a party in Greenwich Village,” says Allison in one veiled confession, “and it wasn’t really cool”). The best of these sets out to correct the misperception that Kenney, the only woman in the cast, is mistreated. So she walks us through a typical day. She wakes up and cooks the guys breakfast, she gabs on the phone with her girlfriends while the guys write, she gets called in to decide on costumes. The whole time she’s just excited to be in their presence. “Today I get to act in a skit! I’m playing Joe’s girlfriend, and we get to kiss! Tomorrow I’m playing a hooker. I love the challenging roles the guys write for me.” 

“Dreamboy” (season three, episode five): While the majority of the cast was off shooting a main sketch, the others would sometimes shoot quick, cheap second-unit sketches. The best is “Free Market Economy,” a mock talk show set in a recently Westernized Eastern-bloc country where three ex-Soviets talk about the incredible success of capitalism despite an obviously devastated landscape. (Showalter shows off his American-style Adidams shoes. “They have four stripes instead of three, so for less money, I was able to get extra stripe.”) But it’s such a well-produced sketch—with five cast members, a set, and location work—that it misses the spirit of this category. To get a feel for The State requires at least one sketch with just two people and a cameraman riffing. Hence, “Dreamboy,” the story of a cross-country carpool between Kenney’s dreamy narrator and Allison’s jerk, George. The footage is just George finding elaborate ways to insult her (think “Monkey Torture” but with a human), and the narration is about Kenney’s character resisting, but ultimately falling in love. The tension between two narratives is hilarious, and the ending wraps up both, the perfect little bow on a bizarre B-sketch. 

“Porcupine Racetrack” (season three, episode six): Plenty of sketch comedy is theatrical, especially when the performers cut their teeth. But as “Kabuki Doug” shows, the gesture and physicality of The State is a cut above. The cast also has a knack for theatrical subjects like mime and musicals, and the prime example of the show’s theatricality is “Porcupine Racetrack.” Here’s another sketch with a Lennon intro about how the network purportedly doesn’t want them to air it, and you can see why: It’s funny in a different way from usual. Not that it’s abstract; it’s literally a musical about all the lost souls gambling at the porcupine racetrack. It’s a little bit My Fair Lady, a little bit West Side Story, a little bit The Sting. Almost everyone gets a solo spotlight, the camera grooves to their emotions, and it builds to a collective expression of hope before a smash cut to the screeching credits. It’s funny all right, but it’s also quintessential The State.

“Tenement” (season four, episode one): Here’s the gold. The State has such a way with absurdism that you could make a top 10 list out of “Tenement” alternates. On The State, an elevator contains a chase scene, and two hours is more than enough time for a coma patient’s wife to move on. Space and time mold to the best joke. Meanwhile the show collapses culture, having Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe tell sex jokes and framing a teenage girl’s notebook drawings as museum art. The State’s take on Lincoln is like a more murderous Jordan Belfort. When a servant walks in on him denigrating America, Lincoln shouts, “John Wilkes Booth! I’ll kill you for what you’ve seen here!” The State takes mime, dance, and performance art as subjects, and then it has a sketch where the letter “H” has been replaced with the letter “M.” (“Merbert Moover!”)

One of the funniest sketches in this vein, “Tenement,” is a short kitchen-sink stage play by the name of “Tenement.” The only catch is that some of the dialogue has been cleaned up for broadcast. (Think “Yippee-ki-yay, mister falcon.”) In a dim, dingy one-room apartment, Marino’s down-on-his-luck dockworker, his wife (Kenney), and his father (Garant) get into it. For example, “I’m not taking any more of your fudging bull-pucky, you cock-eyed fellow!” The script crams a bunch of euphemisms into a few lines and gets out while it’s still funny, and the performances knock it out of the park. The tweak on miserabilism is funny, too, and the last-second slide into outright goofiness is great. “Come on. Let’s get milk-faced and hum like rabbits.” They take that one literally. 

“Cutlery Barn” (season four, episode three): It wouldn’t be The State without some barely classifiable sketch that’s all weird voices and strange performances. “Cutlery Barn” portrays a scene where two customers go to a restaurant, have a problem with their service, and speak with the manager. But it’s one static shot of heads moving into frame against a black backdrop and staying put. The actors have huge wigs, they all look in exactly one direction and hold it the whole time, and they speak in high, sticky voices with lowered energy. So there is a certain grounding consistency, but don’t let that fool you. Eventually a sandwich pops up and joins the table. He asks for the fried bumblebee special, and it isn’t clear he’s joking until everyone responds with polite staccato laughter.

“Great Moments” (season four, episode five): For a while, the series tried to connect all the sketches in an episode, breaking from the fluid Mr. Show model with quick segments where characters would pass the baton. The better alternative is a comedic runner. The first sketch in the first episode, for instance, is about a child afraid of the boogeyman under his bed, and when his mom looks under the bed to prove to him nothing’s there, we find out she’s in cahoots with the boogeyman. The sketch recurs throughout the episode with different twists. But the “Great Moments” runner has the same punchline with different setups. The first is a pan across peasants in a field as a narrator gravely says, “England, 1348. The Black Death sweeps across Europe with powerhouse speed... but then, in a crucial fourth-down play, all-star receiver Willie Noble of the ’69 Colts slips past the free safety for a spectacular, game-winning touchdown.” Right on cue a football player bursts onto the scene and makes a run to the apparent end zone as the narrator reveals himself to be a commentator and the music goes triumphant for “Great Moments In The Black Plague.” A follow-up goes on about an old factory town and builds to most of the cast on the streets together, setting up something like a “Free Market Economy” sketch, the perfect distraction for MVP Willie Noble to run the ball for another touchdown. 

And if you like those, here are 10 more:  “Boogeyman” (season one, episode one); “Captain Monterey Jack (Lights)” (season one, episode two); “PMS” (season two, episode four); “Talk, You” (season two, episode five); “In The Bathroom” (season three, episode one); “Asides” (season three, episode four); H’s & M’s” (season four, episode one); “Fragments” (season four, episode four); “Prom” (season four, episode five); “High Plains Magic Fairy” (season four, episode six)

Availability: The complete series is streaming on Hulu Plus, out on DVD, and available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes, although several sketches feature censored background images or changed music due to rights issues.

In two weeks: Sonia Saraiya will travel down the road and back again to deliver 10 representative episodes of The Golden Girls.

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