Monday, August 17, 2009

How was The State so funny?

We've been watching The State, the sketch comedy show that was on MTV in the '90s and has finally been released on DVD.

A lot of fans have been grumbling that the release was delayed for years, apparently because of haggling over the rights to the background music, which often consisted of popular MTV-friendly songs. Most of the music has been changed to avoid needing to pay royalties. I'm dreading watching the skit where Michael Ian Black walks down the street in his underwear to some song other than the Breeders' "Cannonball" — I might need to mute the TV and listen to it on my iPod for that skit. It was one of the first things that got me interested in rock music.

The show has held up surprisingly well; in fact, it's almost more enjoyable to watch after all these years. It has a special quality that Saturday Night Live doesn't have. (And I don't mean the cast's embarrassing lack of diversity.) The skits on SNL seem more like earnest attempts to be as funny as possible within the limited format. Thus, you watch it and appreciate the skits more or less depending on how funny they are. This might sound so obvious it's not even worth saying — isn't it a truism that any comedy is going to more or less successful depending on how effective the creators were at being funny?

Normally, I would think so. But something different seems to be happening with The State. I'm still not sure if I've pinpointed what it is, but it seems like the 11 cast members simultaneously (1) didn't try as hard as they could at writing hilarious material but (2) tried harder than most SNL actors at performing hilariously. For instance, you'll often find that if you stop and think about the premise of a skit, you could easily say, "That's not very funny!" But you still get a kick out of it.

Why? Often it's because of the actors engaging in bizarre antics when they aren't speaking. (If you have the DVDs, I recommend closely watching the people in the background.) Or the one outburst in the skit that's utterly out of place.

I generally think of humor as being not mere incongruity (as it's often defined), but incongruity that nevertheless "makes sense" on some important level. If this theory is correct, then using pure silliness or wackiness as a comedic device shouldn't be effective. When I find myself laughing at the coda at the end of "The Jew, the Italian, and the Redhead Gay," I question whether my own theory is correct.


beckett said...

They all live together on Avenue A. Each looks at life in his own way.