Monday, July 20, 2009

Media I Have Consumed

The State (DVD)

For whatever reason I missed The State the first time around. I wasn't watching MTV during the mid-90s (actually, haven't regularly watched MTV since the mid-80s, although I did follow M2 religiously back in the late 90s before it was turned into a clone of the parent channel). So unlike a lot of people with my rough demographic background and cultural affinity, I have exactly zero nostalgia for or personal emotional investment in the show. Because when you start talking to people who like The State, they really like The State - as in, they're obsessed with the idea of The State and spend an inordinate amount of time eulogizing the show , reciting their favorite skits and lamenting the fact that it has never been released on DVD.

Well, this past week, it was released on DVD. And although my interest in the series is negligible, it made a great gift for Violet, who is one of those aforementioned State fanatics. She has pretty much the entirety of Skits & Stickers memorized, and even had a VHS recording of the rare-as-hens'-teeth CBS television special before it got ate by her machine. It's an odd thing: I was alive during the 90s and seemingly quite hep to the nascent "cult" culture that was just a'borning in those Pleistocene pre-Internet days, and yet the whole phenomena passed me by just like it never was.

And now I can't help but wonder whether or not they would have been better off just letting the show rest snugly in people's memories, because bringing it back to light really exposes the fact that it's not very good. I think it might be something you had to be there for, because without rose-tinted nostalgia it's pretty weak sauce. Even Violet recognized pretty quickly that despite a handful of still very funny skits, the large majority of the show was just not very funny. It's kind of sad, really, but I'd be surprised if her experience wasn't a common one among State fans this last week: now that you have the chance to sit down and experience it all again, it really doesn't hold a candle to the Platonic image which resides in your fondest memories.

Obviously, the show was influential. You can't watch it without marveling at just how much of the program was stolen and repurposed by later comedians and comedy troupes, sometimes shamelessly. Even if you didn't watch the show, every other comedian of this generation did. Some things which might have seemed revolutionary at the time are just lackluster in retrospect. (Sometimes even the best comedy can't escape being obviated by passing time - and comedy which wasn't strong to begin with dates faster than an overripe peach in the back of a Buick.) To be fair, they stole more than a dollop from the Kids in the Hall. But by and large the Kids were much stronger performers than most anyone on The State, even if their material wasn't that much better.

Because, wow, you've never seen anyone overselling a joke like the State oversells a joke. You've never seen so much wacky mugging and energetic flopping as on these DVDs. Here's a secret I'll let you in on: an enthusiastic performance will not save a weak premise, it really only makes things far more annoying. Because if there's one thing that isn't funny, it's hyperactive college students bellowing bad punchlines into each others' ears. And I was also surprised by just how genial the whole thing was: for a show held in such high regard, it's really quite tame - maybe it wasn't so tame at the time, but I'm not just talking about the occasional sex joke or reference to dipping one's balls into something or other. It's just way too nice - you get the feeling that at any moment they're going to break out of character and smile to the audience, "we're just kiddin', folks, just clownin' around!" There's never so much as a drop of blood spilled.

Sketch comedy is by nature horrible. It's true: in my own judgment I expect even a good sketch show to have a 70-30 crap ratio - as in, 70% crap to 30% good. As you might expect, based on this, I don't really like sketch comedy. The State doesn't do too well by this measure, managing at their best a 75-25 or 80-20 ratio. In seasons 2 and 4, whole episodes passed without so much as a cracked smile. Perhaps the show would be remembered far more fondly if they had just reissued the Skits & Stickers collection on DVD - that had a high percentage of the really good skits with relatively little of the dross. And that makes sense: pretty much everyone I've talked to who has bothered to sit down with any of the vintage SNL season boxsets that have appeared in recent years has agreed that the vast majority the show, even in its supposed "prime", was crap; watching some old Monty Pythons recently, I was startled at just how crap a lot of those were, too. (How many fake BBC interview programs can you do before it starts to get old?) I haven't even bothered to watch any SCTV in decades simply because I used to think it was hilarious, and I'm sure it wouldn't hold up any better.

At its absolute worst, sketch comedy is like spending time with some people who you sort of know but not really, who have a huge pile of inherited in-jokes and wacky schticks which they think are fuckin' hilarious but which are steadfastly opaque to everyone who wasn't actually present the first time, oh, George did his Principle McMillan impression. There is nothing worse than watching a bunch of otherwise well-intentioned people have an awesome time being painfully unfunny - not merely is it boring but it's downright embarrassing for all concerned.

(Plus, it's worth mentioning that I think Michael Ian Black is not merely unfunny but painfully, aggressively unfunny in the manner of a quickly metastasizing tumor in your mother's breast. Seeing his smarmy asshole face on the TV makes me want to change the channel - which is problematic when you're watching a DVD.)

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