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Gabriel Sunday’s ‘Dope State’ is the future of stoner comedy

“Marijuana will be legal some day,” comedy legend Lenny Bruce once predicted, “because the many law students who now smoke pot will someday become congressmen and legalize it in order to protect themselves.”

This YouTube series is the first great post-prohibition stoner comedy.

A legendarily fearless performer, Bruce was famously arrested numerous times in the 1960s for freely expressing himself on drugs, religion, politics, sex and other taboo topics of the day. He also wrote and self-published a satirical pamphlet called The Pot Smokers that coolly mocked the era’s hype and hysteria around cannabis.

As for his prediction of impending legalization, while it may have taken two generations longer than promised, it did come to pass—at least in most of the country.

But while stoner humor has certainly evolved since Lenny Bruce’s day, what Up in Smoke, Friday, Dazed and Confused, Harold and Kumar, Pineapple Express, Broad City, High Maintenance and other touchstones of the genre all share in common is prohibition.

Dope State is the first great post-prohibition stoner comedy.

It features performances from Dan Harmon, Adrian Grenier, Sam Jay, The Lucas Brothers, Dana Snyder, and Ron Lynch, and you can binge it for free on YouTube right now.

Roll one up and check out the trailer.

Years in the making

I first talked with Dope State creator Gabriel Sunday in 2015 when he contacted me as part of his earliest research into the life of a cannabis journalist. I spent a couple hours with him on the phone, sharing stories from my long run as a High Times editor and more recently as a columnist and video host/producer with VICE.

To be honest, I kinda never expected to hear from him again.

For me, watching Dope State was like screening Spinal Tap if you happened to be a roadie for Led Zeppelin.

Instead, he’d pop up every few months with a new question about his character or some aspect of weed culture. I could tell that he really wanted to do his homework rather than rely on tired old tropes and stereotypes. But nothing prepared me for the pleasure of watching a rough cut of Dope State for the first time.

I can only describe the experience as akin to screening Spinal Tap if you happened to be a roadie for Led Zeppelin or Best in Show if you’re a judge at the Westminster Kennel Club. It’s not just the quality of the humor, it’s the specificity of the characters and the commitment to making them real people in a surreal environment.

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To that end, Sunday plays not just intrepid reporter Tyler Gopnik but also many of the outlaws and entrepreneurs Gopnik encounters while hosting and producing a VICE-like guerrilla-style documentary (also called Dope State) focused on the world of legal weed in California.

In Episode One, he’s both Birdman—the ill-fated inventor of a THC-infused energy drink called Tree Jizz—and an over-the-top Instagram influencer known as TazzyDabzs.

Rick & Morty energy

Dope State is at its most insightful when profiling OG heads from the weed underground as they struggle to find a foothold in the new corporate cannabis economy.

In Episode 2, Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon pretty much nails it as Cooter, a longtime weed dealer who understands all too well that he’s being pushed out of the market by the predatory forces of late state capitalism.

“I’m a dinosaur, I know that,” Cooter says. “I’m not suffering any illusions.”

Psychoactive spider tech

What makes Dope State so special is that instead of punching down at Cooter as a bearded, disheveled relic, we come to see that his critique rings true. After years of facing arrest and imprisonment for growing and selling cannabis, the new threat to “legacy operators” comes from all the Silicon Valley investors and Wall Street d-bags angling to cash in on cannabis now that it’s legal.

Entourage star Adrian Grenier plays a tech titan cornering the market on nanotech cannabis spiders.

Like tech titan Elon Shparker—played with aplomb by Entourage star Adrian Grenier—who sees cannabis as just one more industry to dominate, specifically by cornering the market on nanotech robotic spiders as a next-level cannabinoid delivery system.

“My character is a tech innovator and a cannabis culture business magnate bro promising to revolutionize the industry, when really he’s concocting a plan for world domination.” Grenier says. “Gabe’s characters and the world he built are wild but it actually feels grounded to me. Yes, there are robot weed spiders in this show, but I’ve met a lot of folks in the cannabis industry and that’s not too far from reality. I have no doubt psychoactive spider tech is around the corner.”

Behind the redwood curtain

From start to finish, the most lovable characters in Dope State are the ones who come to it from a place of true love for the plant. One of the best of them is Martin, an old-school hippie (again played by Sunday) who’s trying to transition his unlicensed weed farm into a legit “Bud and Breakfast” to keep from going under.

Fighting corporate raiders by day and rippers out to steal his plants by night, Martin and his wife hope to find a place for mom-and-pops like them amid all the luxury brands and corporate consolidation.

Shot on location at a real Northern California cannabis farm, we’re taken “behind the redwood curtain” and given a glimpse of the idyllic world of the Emerald Triangle, where growing weed—with or without a license—remains a way of life.

‘A love letter to California’s cannabis culture’

It makes sense that Dope State roots so hard for the underdogs.

You wouldn’t know by looking, but the six-part series was shot on a shoestring. Sunday wrote, produced, directed and edited the series himself, in addition to playing seven different roles.

Dope State is a labor of love and also a love letter to California’s cannabis culture, which I grew up in and around.” Sunday says. “We shot independently all over the state, including on real weed farms, and always smoking real weed with real weed people. Everybody’s stuck at home right now, and we all miss getting high with our friends, so I hope people will get a kick out of meeting these characters. We definitely take some satirical jabs at the groundswell of excitement around the ‘green rush,’ but it’s all done out of love.”

David Bienenstock's Bio Image
David Bienenstock

Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of "How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High" (2016 - Penguin/Random House), and the co-host and co-creator of the podcast "Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean." Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.

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