There’s one thing I miss about the way I watched television and movies in high school: discovery. Look, I love having any and every show at my disposal every minute of the day through Netflix or Amazon or HBO Go or even just a line or two from a youtube clip. What’s gone is the sense of finding your tribe by really liking a television show or movie.
It’s like television used to be a flea market with bins that you had to search through in order to find something cool. Now it’s a jewelry store with everything up front in a display case.
Patton Oswalt touched on this phenomenon when he wrote about the death of geek culture. Geeking out on something used to be harder. You had to go to the comic book shop, hang out with like minded people, track down copies of copies of copies of VHS tapes of a show you heard about through a friend (ever watch a bootleg copy of The Spirit of Christmas? I just found it on youtube in ten seconds). It took time and only those who were afforded that time through lack of friends, athleticism, and sex could do it. Now, as disorienting as high school was, I still hovered above the D & D set in the high school hierarchy, so, I won’t claim outcast status out of respect for those who truly had it. But I was a geek about a couple of things and the ways in which I discovered them have gone the way of the mix tape.
I loved The State. The only sketch comedy that I had watched up until that point was Saturday Night Live. That was on NBC. It was an institution. But The State was on MTV whose television shows were either weird and underground enough to only have a place on MTV (Liquid Television) or just kind of crappy (Dead at 21). The State, at first, seemed like a bit of both and that’s why I loved it. Most of my beloved nineties entertainment, e.g. Clerks and Slanted and Enchanted, is great because it’s unpolished. The State seemed like some college kids (in reality, they were a few years older) sort of getting away with something. This was before it became standard for a twenty-something in New York to give improv and sketch comedy a shot, before you could shoot and edit a sketch with someone’s camera and a laptop.
But the thing that I loved the most about The State was that it was mine. My parents didn’t know about it. Only a few people at school talked about it. When someone said “I’m outta here” or “I want to dip my balls in it”, that person was cool with me. In college, while pledging my fraternity (yeah, my fraternity – again, just above the D & D set), I had a cagey relationship with a fellow pledge, Chris, until we found out that we both liked The State. We were good friends from then on.
I watched the re-runs and best-of’s over and over again, memorizing lines from sketches.
“Call me old fashioned but I think fire is magic and it scares me a lot.”
“Not only do I risk impregnating my underage partners but I risk a bunch of nasty STD’s – ouch!”
“Adios-ay, ladies, I must seek knowledge and its bastard son, truth.”
“The only thing we do that’s illegal – and I don’t even know if it is – is sell babies on the black market.”
“Dear State, I want to sleep with The State. Great, you win.”
It took years before I realized that Louie saying “I want to dip my balls in it” was actually a comment on stupid catchphrases but I didn’t care. I genuinely thought “I want to dip my balls in it” was funny.
Their sketches were full of popular songs made available to them by working at MTV. Those songs have since been stripped from the sketches preventing The State from being truly resurrected online. When I try to explain it to people who didn’t watch it in high school, they don’t really get it. They know it’s the Wet Hot American Summer, Reno 911! guys but it’s not the same. You had to be there and by “there” I mean on my couch watching Barry and Levon for the thirty-eighth time.
I often have nostalgia for experiences that I didn’t enjoy at the time, for example, wandering around Blockbuster Video looking for a movie.
For those who don’t remember, Blockbuster video had racks and racks of empty VHS boxes, placeholders for each movie. Behind those boxes were the actual videos in the beige Blockbuster case that you would take up to the counter for rent. So, you would often see a movie that you and your friends wanted to see but then realize there were no actual videos for rent, probably because all of the other kids who are just like you had gotten there earlier. So, maybe you’d follow the guy with the stack of videos to re-stock and ask if he had Happy Gilmore or Reservoir Dogs. He rarely did. The cruelest blow was finding a video behind the box of the movie you wanted to see that had been re-stocked wrong. We were this close to watching Commando, but this is Steel Magnolias. Now we’re screwed. We have to start all over again. So, you go back to wandering, rejecting each other’s video suggestions. “Seen it.” “Wanna see it again?” “Nah.” “Ugh, that? No.” “What are you in the mood for?” “I don’t know, just not that.”
One night, my friends and I were in a mood where we would be okay with a disappointment. We just had to get a damn video. So, we rented So, I Married an Axe Murderer. It had come out a year or so prior. My friends and I all loved Mike Myers and Wayne’s World but there was something about that movie that seemed off, it was hard to put your finger on. Actually, no it wasn’t. It was the title. The title sounded stupid.
From the first scene in the coffee shop, “excuse me, I believe I ordered the large cappuccino.” We were in.
“That boy’s head’s like Sputnik, spherical but quite pointy in parts. Oh, that was offside, wasn’t it? He’ll be cryin’ himself to sleep tonight on his huge pillow.”
Cameos from Steven Wright and Charles Grodin, Phil Hartman’s speech in Alcatraz about Machine Gun Kelly’s bitch, Alan Arkin as the gentle police chief, how the hell did people not love this in the theater?
It became one of our favorite movies in no small part because we felt like we had discovered it.
This phenomenon is perilously close to liking something before it’s cool, which is textbook hipster douchebaggery. But it’s actually different; it’s liking something that never becomes cool. It’s liking something that stays not even underground but just not universally regarded as great. So, when you meet someone who also likes it, you know they’re in the club.
It only took a week after it became available on Netflix before Buzzfeed listed all of the best jokes from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. There was a time when that would have taken the twelve weeks of the show’s run and at least a few days of VHS review to happen.
I can still find my people online and a lot faster, too. But the rewards of pop culture fandom are just a little sweeter when you earn them.