By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 14, 2009 12:00 AM
It's a question that has plagued sketch comedy-loving Gen Xers for at least half a decade: when will "The State" come to DVD? The answer -- finally, gloriously -- is right now.
After years of false-alarm announcements and delays, "The State: The Complete Series," a five-disc set ($69.99) that contains every hilarious episode of MTV's early '90s celebration of the absurd, arrives today. To say that longtime fans of "The State" are more than a little excited about this news might be a slight understatement. When news of the release date was shared on The A.V. Club's Web site a few months ago, one commenter wrote: "This DVD set being out at all is a benchmark moment in the history of Western civilization." Cultural historians, I do hope you're taking notes.
For those unfamiliar with the sensibility of The State, the 11-member comedy troupe that formed at NYU and generated four seasons of lunacy on MTV, imagine mixing the energy of "Saturday Night Live's" original Not Ready for Primetime Players, the irreverence of Monty Python's Flying Circus and the do-it-yourself ethos behind Funnyordie.com, but of course, years before Funnyordie.com existed.
Strangely, the mainstream media didn't exactly embrace the bunch in the beginning; in its initial review, the New York Post went so far as to give "The State" negative-two stars. Still, MTV stuck by their band of offbeat twenty-somethings, aware that their particular brand of inspired silliness -- and bizarre characters like the allegedly rebellious teen Doug (catch phrase: "I'm outta heeeere") and funky, pudding-loving pair LeVon and Barry -- had struck a quotable chord with the Nirvana crowd. (The show ended its run in 1995, only after the cast collectively decided to bail in an ill-advised move to CBS that never took off.)
The network's loyalty seems particularly prescient since so many members of The State -- including Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black, Thomas Lennon, David Wain, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Joe Lo Truglio and Robert Ben Garant -- have gone on to find success, often together, on Comedy Central shows like "Reno 911!" and "Stella," and in movies such as "Wet Hot American Summer," "The Ten" and "Role Models." (Lennon and Garant also co-wrote both "Night at the Museum" movies.) In other words, you can't always believe what you read in the press. Except in this review, which is 100-percent accurate and true.
So why the delay to release "The State"? Like so many TV shows that take their sweet, maddening time to make it to DVD, the hold-up involved music rights. Confronted with the hefty costs involved in obtaining the pop and alt-rock hits that originally peppered the show's soundtrack, Paramount Home Entertainment ultimately resolved the issue by piping in substitute tuneage. Which means that during certain skits and video montages, you'll hear songs that sound a lot like the Smashing Pumpkins without actually being the Smashing Pumpkins.
The 24 sublimely ridiculous episodes may act as the DVD's primary attraction, but the box set certainly does not skimp on extras, which include 43 unaired sketches; outtakes from each season; interviews; special appearances on other MTV series, including one on "The Jon Stewart Show" in which the host looks like he's, roughly, 12-years-old; and, best of all, commentary tracks recorded by select groupings of cast members -- including Black, Showalter, Lennon, Wain, Michael Patrick Jann and Ken Marino -- for every single episode.
Those audio tracks not only prove that the camaraderie among the cast still thrives, but also allow the guys (and, ahem, the one girl) to share fascinating tidbits about working for the suits at MTV, who begged the group to incorporate as many youth-friendly musical and pop cultural homages as possible. ("See if you can spot the MTV reference in this sketch," Jann deadpans while watching a bit in which a couple realizes their house has been invaded by Slash from Guns N' Roses.)
Yes, there are a few moments here -- like a parody of the frenetically edited "MTV Sports," hosted by Dan Cortese -- that seem permanently intertwined with the Clinton era. But on the whole, the humor in "The State" remains surprisingly fresh and timeless. Even a sketch that might have been dated at the time -- a riff on Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video in which MJ and a street gang attempt to dance-battle with a posse of Amish people -- now seems oddly relevant in light of Jackson's death.
"This may sound stupid, but maybe in 10 years you could still watch these shows and they'd still be funny because they deal with themes that are sort of universal," Jann says during one of the archival interviews in this collection.
Actually, it doesn't sound stupid at all. Sixteen years have gone by, and "The State" is as deliciously uproarious as it's ever been, which, finally, everyone can see for themselves on DVD.