Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Froggy Jamboree

By ned * Other ned Posts

The past decade has included its fair share of high profile legal entanglements. Big Tobacco went down. The OJ civil trail showed that if it doesn’t fit then you must owe the Brown and Goldman families damages. The law even decided the Presidency. But, for those fans of 1990s sketch comedy, we can finally put one set of legal issues behind us. The entirety of MTV’s sketch comedy show the State – which was unavailable for release due to matters of the rights to songs aired during episodes – is out now in stores on DVD.

Surrounded by the programming of Liquid Television and 120 minutes, the show is in part a product of the aesthetic of the times. Your televisions starts by blasting you with loud edgy grimy distorted music in the background to a grittily shot intro. The cast members wear their fair amount of flannel. Appealing to teens and twenty-somethings, characters of angst make their share of appearances in sketches. However, although certainly a part of the feel, the serious nature of anti-establishment, anti-selling-out, Gen-X culture is not the only characteristic that defines the show.

The State is absurd. For example, one of the shows most critically acclaimed skits is Porcupine Race Track. Perhaps the State's largest production, a string of music numbers parody My Fair Lady and dozens of other musicals around the setting of watching – as the name suggests – porcupines race. Others skits have less of a semblance of a plot or spin a few minutes around simple, innocent premises – such as a teen dealing with fact that he grew up in a barn.

Following in the tradition of Monty Python, delight in the silly was a defining characteristic of other mid-90’s comedy. Perhaps most prominently and profitably, you can cite the rise of Jim Carrey and his slaphappy Ace Ventura. With characters such as the Chicken Lady and Bellini, the Kids in the Hall drew its audience in part from being over-the-top and outlandish. To a certain extent, Mr. Show did as well from clever and sometimes wacky premises.

Goofiness though has proven to be a fad. Perhaps the change was due to 9/11 bringing a sense of reality to the zeitgeist or just a matter of trends running their course. In any case lighthearted stupidity in comedy does not garner the same appreciation as before. In the Daily Show era realism rules the day. The staged sitcom is in decline. Shot with a realistic feel, the Office, Arrested Development, and Reno 911! obscure the lines between reality and the television screen; the last of these is the current project of many of the former cast members and creative forces behind The State.

Despite this swing of the pendulum, I feel much of the comedy of the State’s time will be enduring. Along with clever wit, the absurdity when coupled with the counter-culture, Gen-X aesthetic is what makes the State and much mid-nineties comedy so intriguing. When discussing architecture Robert Venturi in the book Complexity & Contradiction in Architecture delights in spaces that put two seemingly contradictory elements together. This combination to him creates ambiguity, movement and intrigue.

The comedy of the 90’s is appealing in much the same way. Perhaps a result of the financial boom times and lack of war, the lightheartedness and carefree spirit in some of the States sketches are somehow coupled with an angst and desire to reject the status quo that grew out of Grunge and other movements. That’s why I think shows such as the State, Kids in the Hall, and Mr. Show will have staying power. That’s also why I’m crushing your head.


  1. Did you just listen to Terry Gross interview Michael Ian Black and Michael Showwalter? (not sure how to spell his name). They have a new show out and they were just interviewed on Fresh Air.

  2. i will take a listen. indeed.

  3. Interesting stuff, Ned. I'm curious though, what generation do you consider yourself to be a part of? Do you see yourself as Gen-Xer? Do you feel that Nirvana is the relevant band of your generation?

  4. although perhaps at the edge of what might be termed my cultural upbringing, i would consider nirvana an influence on my generation. just like hannah montana is for yours.