The State both helped and mocked MTV in its quest to make itself a go-to culture-pit for kids who were either older than me, or whose parents had somehow allowed them to discover recent music during the great grunge and alternative platinum-rush. The show would’ve been lost on me during its 1993-95 run, and it didn’t come out on DVD until this past summer. Having heard a few of my thirtysomething editors talk it up, and then getting some inspiration from David Wolinsky’s recent Better Late Than Never? column on Mr. Show, I finally binged my way through The State’s three seasons.
One reason I never bothered before was that I have trouble believing there can be any great sketch shows beyond The Kids In The Hall, Mr. Show, and various Saturday Night Live periods. No art form can exist in a perfectionist void all the time, and that seems especially true for TV shows—big bodies of work produced under pressure, by many levels of committee. In other words, I’m an impatient bastard, and I want my TV, of all things, to be low on fat and fluff. And, well, The State had a central cast of 11 members, and (as I recently learned) featured a talking sandwich on at least two occasions. Good fucking luck to me, right?
Even if The State missed my age group, many of the cast members’ after-projects pitched in on my sense of humor’s upbringing, in the manner of super-cool distant uncles you only see once every couple of years. For ages now, I’ve been watching Thomas Lennon prance about in shorts on Reno 911!, alongside Robert Ben Garant, Kerri Kenney-Silver, and occasionally Joe Lo Truglio. I’ve indulged in the surgery-like comedy hypnosis of Stella with Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain. And I encountered Black for the first time as the ridiculous (yes, even for a character played by Black) Johnny Bluejeans on Viva Variety, on which he co-starred with Lennon and Kenney-Silver. So unlike some of the TV critics of the time, who just couldn’t see anything to The State but juvenile splatter, I came to it with an affection for its members’ absurd, ironic, outburst-riddled approach to comedy.
Had I not, I might now be caught up wondering whether all these different people really belonged in one room together. The 11 different sensibilities at work in The State sometimes seem to align themselves in small groups or pairs (Lennon and Kenney-Silver, Black and Showalter), but never gel into one unanimous voice. I’d be at a loss to tell you exactly what defines The State’s humor on the whole, beyond a healthy embrace of chaos and variety.
I’m glad for the show’s non-homogenized feel: Watching it has taught me to appreciate the members I’d previously noticed the least, if at all. If there’s one star in this big, messy ensemble, it’s Thomas Lennon. Much like Bob Odenkirk in Mr. Show, Lennon is clearly the one The State called upon when it needed a genuinely nice face, or a pitiful or tragic figure, because that little ache of contrast makes the smart-assery funnier. Every few episodes, there’s a sketch that makes me marvel at how well Lennon pulls off his role, from the “Old-Fashioned Guy” from season one (“Call me old-fashioned, but it seems to me that when the giant that holds up the Earth dies, we are screeewed!”) to later appearances as an Italian matriarch who rallies her family to go see monkeys have sex at the zoo. I’m not saying Lennon is the only funny or distinct member of The State, just beyond a doubt the most versatile.
The State makes the media’s invasion of youth culture in the ’90s seem almost harmless compared to what it’s like now. Even at that strong point in MTV’s reign, the targets of satire were relatively easy and wide-open, not so insidiously clever. At the very least, the clumsy attempts at motivational teen-speak made by Black character Captain Monterey Jack weren’t near as sinister as, say, viral marketing. “Piggy Shoes,” a commercial for shoes that make pig sounds as you bounce around the basketball court, reminded me of a ’90s footwear fad I temporarily fell for: L.A. Lights, sneakers with crappy little LED lights in the heels. (Shut up. I was 9.)
One thing I learned from watching Stella is that the puzzling, non-uproarious, or even irredeemably stupid moments in a sketch can matter just as much (to the creators, at least) as the laughs. Maybe that’s conceptual bullshit, but I adore The State’s willingness to subject me to it. Am I even meant to laugh as Ken Marino and Robert Ben Garant actually take advantage of a men’s-room attendant’s free shaving cream, soap, condoms, and cologne, or just bask in the surreal imagery of Marino shaving his legs in the sink? Well, I did laugh at that sketch, but I can see why this show would’ve alienated people at the time. There’s plenty of subtlety and craft here, but it’s always second to screaming Italians, games of strip Battleship, and smug fourth-wall breaks like the “Sleep With The State Essay Contest.” It’s like a perfectly good car with an oversized, flamboyant hood ornament.
Then again, some of The State’s most purely ridiculous ideas had me laughing in spite of myself, for reasons that differed from case to case. I’m helpless against the “Pope’s-A Visit” sketch, which combines base ethnic humor with a food-fight, just embracing its stupid premise (a bunch of Italians prepare for a visit from the Pope, but end up getting tomato sauce and waste oil all over themselves first) without reservation or even much elaboration. “Mime Crash,” on the other hand, takes the time to find some nuance in an equally silly idea. A group of mimes are pretending they’re on a crashing plane, and an outside pilot (Lennon) comes in to talk them through the scenario as if it’s real, resulting in such deadpan beauties as: “Where’s the pilot?” “Trapped in a box.” Similarly, a sketch about hunting and eating Muppets at a dinner party works because it digs into the details: “Try for a blue one,” Kenney-Silver says. “We only have red wine.”
My absolute favorite sketch here would have to be “Bookworm,” in which a hyper-articulate jock (Lo Truglio) searches for an elusive word to describe a student who loves books. In a killer moment that comes and goes as abruptly as the show’s weaker points, the varsity-jacketed Lo Truglio rhapsodizes: “By the wrinkles in his brow, one can imagine the giant word-party going on in his overactive brain… to that guy, every paragraph is a warm embrace.” The State is even funny when it blatantly lapses into self-referential territory, as when Louie (Ken Marino), a recurring character who always shows up to yell, “I wanna dip my balls in it!” intrudes upon The Last Supper during the third season. Still, I’d almost rather have less of that and more left-field yet fleshed-out sketches like “Talk, You,” a talk show hosted by Michael Ian Black as a surly Raymond Chandler-style private eye.
It’s also a credit to the troupe’s versatility that they jammed so much absurd experimentation into the show while also creating the kinds of recurring characters that all sketch-show viewers are suckers for. Leisurely funk-masters Barry And Levon (Black and Lennon) not only love to rub their butts in pudding, they also got the jump on Austin Powers and the entrance of the “pimp” stereotype into the suburban-white-kid vocab. I tired of Michael Showalter’s petulant teenager Doug pretty quickly, but still thought the basic idea around the character held up under multiple uses: He pits the kid against parents and authority figures who turn out to be understanding and laid-back no matter how hard he tries to rebel.
I’m not going to pretend my first run through The State didn’t frustrate or exhaust me at times. Clearly, consistency isn’t the point. The important thing is that the show’s flaws and unwieldy flow result from a surplus of ideas rather than a lack of them. I even think it’d be condescending to say most of the young cast members were merely in their formative years: If anything, it’s a case of too many well-formed artists jammed together. But mostly for the better. The State proves that comedic voices who collectively mean a ton to people my age and younger had a lot to offer even before we were old enough to appreciate them.