By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 17, 2009
It's a question that has plagued sketch-comedy-loving Gen-Xers for at least half a decade: When will "The State," MTV's early '90s celebration of the absurd, be released on DVD?
After years of false-alarm announcements and delays, "The State: The Complete Series," a five-disc set ($79.99) that contains every hilarious episode, has finally arrived this week. To say that longtime fans are more than a little excited 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."
For those unfamiliar with the sensibility of the 11-member comedy troupe, called the State, that formed at New York University and generated three 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.
The mainstream media didn't exactly embrace the bunch in the beginning; the New York Post went so far as to give "The State" negative-two stars. Still, MTV stuck by the band of offbeat 20-somethings, aware that its particular brand of inspired silliness -- and such bizarre characters as the allegedly rebellious teen Doug (catch phrase: "I'm outta heeeere") and the funky, pudding-loving pair Levon and Barry -- had struck a quotable chord with the Nirvana crowd. (The show ended its run in 1995, after a move to CBS.)
The network's loyalty seems particularly prescient since 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 such Comedy Central shows as "Reno 911!" and "Stella," and in such movies as "Wet Hot American Summer," "The Ten" and "Role Models." (Lennon and Garant also wrote both "Night at the Museum" movies.)
So why the delay to release "The State"? Like so many television shows that take their sweet, maddening time to make it to DVD, the holdup involved music rights. Confronted with the hefty costs to obtain the pop and alt-rock hits that peppered the show's soundtrack, Paramount Home Entertainment ultimately resolved the issue by piping in substitute tunes. 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 does not skimp on extras. There are 43 unaired sketches, outtakes, interviews, special appearances on other MTV series, including one on "The Jon Stewart Show" in which the host looks like he's about 12 years old, and, best of all, commentary tracks by select groupings of cast members for every episode.
The audio tracks not only prove that the cast's camaraderie still thrives, but also allow the guys (and, ahem, the one gal) to share fascinating tidbits about working for the suits at MTV, who begged them 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 about a bit in which a couple realize that their house has been invaded by Slash from Guns N' Roses.)
Yes, there are a few moments that seem dated, but on the whole, the humor remains fresh. Even 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.
It doesn't sound stupid at all. Sixteen years have passed, and "The State" is as deliciously uproarious as ever, which, at last, everyone can see for themselves.