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State of 'The State'? Funny

July 28, 2009|Jen Chaney | Jen Chaney writes for the Washington Post.

It's a question that has plagued sketch comedy lovers for at least half a decade: When will "The State" come to DVD? The answer -- finally, gloriously -- is right now.

After years of delays, "The State: The Complete Series," a five-disc set ($70) that contains every hilarious episode of MTV's early '90s celebration of the absurd, arrived this month. For those unfamiliar with the sensibility of the State, the 11-member comedy troupe that formed at New York University and generated four seasons of lunacy on MTV, imagine mixing the energy of the original "Saturday Night Live" 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 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 its band of offbeat twentysomethings, aware that their particular brand of inspired silliness -- and bizarre characters such as the allegedly rebellious teen Doug (catchphrase: "I'm outta heeeere") and funky, pudding-loving pair Levon and Barry -- had struck a quotable chord with the Nirvana crowd. (The show ended 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 such as "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.)

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 holdup 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 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 certainly does not skimp on extras, which include 43 unaired sketches, outtakes from each season, interviews and special appearances on other MTV series, including one on "The Jon Stewart Show." Best of all, there are commentary tracks recorded by select groupings of cast members for every 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.

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.

"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 since the premiere, and "The State" is as deliciously uproarious as it's ever been, which, finally, everyone can see for themselves on DVD.

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