The State may not be the most influential sketch-comedy troupe, but it’s certainly the most sketch-comedy troupe. Clocking in at 11 members, the group is almost double the size of some of its obvious influences, like Monty Python (six members) or the Kids in the Hall (five members). (Successor the Upright Citizens Brigade had to make do with just four people.)
Yet the show still managed to assemble all of its moving parts very quickly: The series lasted three “seasons” on MTV—which, granted, only consisted of a couple dozen episodes—and aired them all between 1994 and 1995, thereafter launching the members into the comedy world at large. And, though many former Staters went on to divide and conquer, finding success in smaller combos with projects like Wet Hot American Summer, Role Models, Reno 911, and Stella, it still took more than a decade to bring the series to DVD.
At least the boxed set doesn’t do fans any further injury after already making them wait more than a decade for its release. The DVDs come with every episode, every sketch, and then some—it offers 90-minutes of unaired sketches. All 11 comedians return to do the commentaries (though, thankfully, not all at once—different cast members do different episodes), and there are also bonus materials such as MTV News interviews done back when the show was airing. It truly contains anything a fan could want, except, as a note in the DVD explains, some of the original music cues.
But does the comedy hold up after all of that time? Some of the sketches seem firmly rooted in the ‘90s. Doug, a popular recurring character, is a perfect encapsulation of the struggle between the Baby Boomers and Generation X. He continually tries to rebel against authority figures who are too progressive and permissive to really be upset by it.
The sketches themselves are funny but, with the Generation Xers now turning 40, somewhat hard to relate to. Other bits parody parts of popular culture that no longer exist, such as the parental warnings in front of Beavis and Butthead that, even after seeing them skewered on The State, are pretty hard to remember.
But for the most part, the series is as great as its fans remember. Fortunately, most of the sketches aren’t rooted in the happenings of the ‘90s. Instead, they take on a more absurdist, more Monty Python-like humor. (One sketch, in which a customer pays a clerk at a copy shop only to have the clerk ape his motions and speech, seems directly out of the Python playbook.)
With such a big ensemble, the cast is able to play to a lot of different strengths. Some sketches, like Ken Marino’s Louie, a guy who like to say the catchphrase “I wanna dip my balls in it”, succeeds on the sheer charisma an enthusiasm of its delivery.
Other sketches rely more on a strange concepts or situations, like monkey torture (“They hate it!”) or hunting Muppets. Still others go even further, such as one that found the cast members donning either pink or blue swim caps and jumpsuits while somehow giving physical representation to male and female teenage hormones.
“The State was not afraid to be insanely big,” the commentary notes in somewhat of an understatement. Even when the jokes fall flat, the cast maintains a frenzied energy that at least keeps them moving along quickly.
The cast is not only diverse in its strengths, but also truly talented. Part of the appeal of re-watching The State is seeing all of these Comedy Central staples—including Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, Kerri Kenney-Silver (the only female cast member), Thomas Lennon, and David Wain—at the start of their careers, looking like they were just hired out of their college sketch troupe (which is not too different from how it actually happened).
Watching the series, you can see what came naturally to the cast members’ personas and what was honed or discarded over time. (Michael Ian Black was always sort of smug.)
Even at their roughest, though, The State is still one of the strongest sketch shows to make it to air—never really deserving, as one interview admitted, the “negative two stars” that their toughest critic gave the show when it debuted—and fans should be pleased that they no longer have to rely on just their memories to enjoy it.