[6 October 2010]
Last year’s DVD release of MTV series The State marked the end of a decade-plus wait by fans and followers of the show and its 11 comic players (also known as The State). Regarded as a cult favorite during its original 1993-1995 run, the show grew in status in the years following its conclusion. Bootlegs fueled the mythology. The official release revealed the series to have aged well. Like Alexei Sayle’s Stuff and Absolutely!, The State’s sketch comedy made incisive use of the popular and political cultures of the late 1980s and early 1990s but also holds up well in present-day DVD viewing.
One piece of The State’s mythology that was never officially released or broadcast is Comedy for Gracious Living, an album recorded for Warner Bros. in the Bahamas in January 1996. By all accounts, the recording sessions were rife with island revelry. This scenario brings to mind Factory Records’ disastrous decision to send Shaun Ryder and the Happy Mondays to the islands to record Yes Please! in 1992, but The State’s alcohol-soaked antics were tame by comparison. The exclusive 2010 release of Comedy for Gracious Living by Rhino Handmade is a window into the freewheeling, improvisational side of the troupe.
MTV is popularly perceived as the antagonist in the story of The State. It is easy to blame a massive, wealthy corporate network that appears to be preventing the home video release of a beloved program. However, to set aside the behind-the-scenes maneuvers that took The State from MTV to CBS and then out of circulation is to recognize an important contribution of the network that gave the comedy group a home in the first place. The “constraints” of a written, performed, directed, shot, edited and cleared for broadcast television program seem (in retrospect) to be essential components of the show’s brilliance. Removed from that context and those boundaries, the freed State is surprisingly uneven.
As televised sketch comedy, The State unexpectedly and uproariously combined juvenile humor and intellect. Sketches such as “Hormones” and “Tenement” were great examples of this style, and “Hi Brow/Low Brow” directly confronted critics’ comments about the polarity. State members David Wain, Michael Showalter, and Michael Ian Black—collectively known as Stella—continued in this fashion after The State ended, defining their approach as, “Dumb comedy dressed up in a suit.” Unfortunately, Comedy for Gracious Living is heavy with dumb comedy and a bit too lacking in suit.
Tracks like “Barbershop Tourettes”, “The Koo-Koo Koach In ‘Half-Time Hilarity’ ”, and “Which Would You Rather Do?” use language that would not have been allowed on MTV in 1996, but the group fails to capitalize on the chance to go blue. Although the comedians seem to enjoy cursing indiscriminately (indeed, making it the very basis for “Barbershop Tourettes”), they sacrifice wit for shock. There are traces of the group’s grasp of irony in “Koo-Koo Koach…” and “Which Would You Rather Do?” but the bits sink under the weight of their coarseness.
Other material fares much better but would clearly benefit from a visual counterpart. “Jailbreak”, “The Kendalpants Manor Affair: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery”, and “Stadium Seats” play like televised pieces with the images removed. The quite funny and distinctive characters of “Jailbreak” would be particularly successful on screen, so their humor on record is entertaining yet also seems like a missed opportunity.
The best tracks on Comedy for Gracious Living utilize clever structures for improvisation and maximize the audio-only format to generate hilarious characters and aural images. “The Late Mr. & Mrs. Balloon” is ingenious—a one-minute tragicomedy about Mr. Balloon’s perilous decision to shave. “Laurie Anderson Song” and “Houston” tweak familiar sonic structures (experimental music and mission control communication, respectively) with content that transforms the listener’s associations with those otherwise serious forms.
Some of these routines reinforce the comedians’ reputations for being influential and ahead of their time. “Zucchini Bread” mines territory that Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish would define a decade later as “surprise willy slipper paranoia”. The outrageous “Animal Sounds”, a kid’s song featuring dreadful animal noises, is even more uncompromising than Maria Bamford’s similar “Old MacDonald”/pterodactyl bit.
Finally, while the improvisation doesn’t always highlight the group’s strengths (and in the case of “Skip This Track (They Were Drunk)”, completely derails them), there are some moments of spontaneity that justify the approach. The best of these is “Goin’ Off”, in which an admissions interview for Kingston College unearths the enthusiasm of two meat-head applicants/white rappers who are partial to the phrase “goin’ off” and the SAT vocabulary word “unctuous”. Michael Showalter makes a valiant attempt to keep his composure, but the exchange is so aggressive and ridiculous that he bursts into laughter around the same time the listener likely will.
The members of The State have continued to produce inspired works of film, television, web, and theatrical comedy in the years since their MTV heyday and the sessions for Comedy for Gracious Living. Their success in the past couple of decades has doubtlessly resulted in the release of this album. The exclusive release by Rhino Handmade honors the group’s comedic legacy by presenting the CD in an extensive foldout package that includes fanciful remembrances by the cast. Some of this written material is funnier than what appears on the disc, and in a certain way, that legitimizes the physical release. Though only about half of the tracks on the album live up to the reputation of The State, it is worthwhile to have access to the group’s Bahamas bacchanalia, which might be called the final missing piece of their 1990s juvenilia.