At the height of MTV’s grip on ’90s youth culture, David Wain and his friends from New York University created The State, an MTV sketch-comedy show that, despite its short run, developed a vehement following and ignited the comedy careers of Wain and the group’s ten other members, including Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black, and Thomas Lennon.
In the twenty-two years since The State’s inception, Wain has oscillated between mediums—performing stand-up with the comedy trio Stella, writing screenplays, directing features, and acting, almost always in the role of the “aw, shucks” ham. Wain consistently distinguishes himself from his comedic contemporaries by eschewing the standard cynicism and examining the absurdity of social rituals, small talk, and the general silliness of history.
Recently, Wain has written, directed, and starred in thirty-two episodes of Wainy Days, a web series in which he plays a bumbling, hopeless romantic who falls in and tragically out of love with one fetching actress after another, all within the span of a five-minute episode. Wain also serves as writer, director, and producer of Adult Swim’s Childrens Hospital, a sort of darkly comedic version of Grey’s Anatomy in which sociopathic doctors feign morals and good intentions to ruin the healthy lives of their kid patients.
Wain continued to work with members of The State on films such as The Ten, Role Models, and the classic camp parody Wet Hot American Summer, all of which were cowritten and include appearances by various State members. At the time of this interview, Wain was editing the film Wanderlust, written with Ken Marino and produced by Judd Apatow along with Wain, Marino and Paul Rudd.
I spoke to Wain a few days before Christmas about the challenges of switching artistic formats, comedy spawned from happiness rather than pain, and whether or not comedic directors lose their fastball with age. Wain lives in New York with his wife and occasional costar, Zandy Hartig. This interview took place in L.A. over dinner.
I. PUBLIC THERAPY
THE BELIEVER: Can you talk about the process of screenwriting with a partner? Who starts it off? Whose idea do you begin with? How do you trade it back and forth?
DAVID WAIN: Well, in this case, Ken [Marino] and I did our movie The Ten together, and he also wrote Role Models with me. We also wrote a lot of other screenplays for hire in between those projects. But in the case of the two movies that we’ve sort of made that are our own movies, which were The Ten and this one, Wanderlust, we very deliberately decided to put ourselves in a room for a week, come up with something, and write it. We had nothing, and we sat there and said, Look, what do you want to make a movie about? And we came up with this idea, and we wrote a very, very, very rough first draft in that week. Because we live on separate coasts, we had to maximize our interpersonal time together.
BLVR: And then how does it follow from there? Do you trade off scenes? One person does a pass and the other cleans that up, or…?
DW: Every writing partnership is different, but ours is very much us both just sitting there together at the screen and doing it. We very rarely write by ourselves.
BLVR: Who types?
DW: I type—only because Ken is not a very fast typer. Most of it is over Skype. Mostly we’re on Skype, screen-sharing, so we’re both looking at the same screen, and we’re listening to each other’s voice. That’s the way we’ve written the majority of our work together.
BLVR: Looking through your work, I definitely feel as though there’s something about your personality or how you approach comedy that feels different than most of the people in your field or craft. You just so often see this dark underbelly to most comedians or comedic actors that subtly comes out in their performances, or even while they’re off camera. But with your stuff, it all just seems optimistic and happy and playful.
DW: Yeah, there seems to be. I think that is certainly characteristic of everyone in The State, which is my comedy family. And so there was a certain boisterousness that I was attracted to when I joined The State at NYU. I always responded to that notion of, if it looks like they’re having fun in an inclusive way, then the audience has fun. I think I was a little turned off in New York, in college, going to comedy clubs and seeing one depressed stand-up comedian after another who, especially the lesser ones, were more often than not just undergoing public therapy. Just listing off things that they’re upset about, problems in their lives. That’s not entertaining to me. However, I have great affection for all sorts of comedy—certainly a lot of it that’s sourced in darker places. But yes, it’s true, that’s not what I do, so far.
BLVR: Do you think, due to the expanding number of venues for displaying your work—whether increased TV channels or web shows and YouTube—that comedy has gotten better as a result? Or worse? Is it easier or harder to find the good stuff compared to maybe ten, fifteen years ago?
DW: I think it’s, in general, a very positive development. Because the Internet, while not living up to all of its promises, has definitely democratized a lot of things. And if you make a really funny short, it will get seen. And that’s just a movie, you know. You don’t need any connections at all; you don’t need any luck. I can put something on YouTube, accessible to many millions, and it gets seen based on its own merits and own word-of-mouth. And I think that’s great.
BLVR: Do you ever feel offended by or protective about the credit you receive? There’re so many projects created by one person, or written by another but then often attributed entirely to someone else, like an executive producer. Do you feel like you need to defend yourself? Do you feel that kind of rivalry? This is a terrible question.
DW: I understand the question, I think. There are always egos involved in people’s work. No one is without some drive to look out for their own reputation. I’m certainly aware of what you’re talking about. My only hope is to get credited fairly. So if I was the director and executive producer, and that’s the job I did, then I want to get that credit. And when I work as a director or producer, a lot of writing is part of the process. Anyway, my goal is to keep the priority on the product, and then try not to get caught up in the perception of who did what, because I think that can be a losing battle on every side. I think we learned that during the first seven years of my career in The State, where every sketch, every single word we wrote, was credited to The State, and we never divided up individually who wrote what, or talked about or acknowledged it, or had any concern for it. I think that inspires freer collaboration.
BLVR: Do you miss that? Back then you had… ten?
BLVR: Eleven people to bounce ideas off, and I bet you were all mostly in the same room. And now it’s probably a much smaller group, and I don’t how or whom you bounce things off of… but probably a smaller number. Do you have a nostalgia for that time?
DW: Totally, of course. But it’s synonymous with my nostalgia for college, which is when that was, and just afterward. I don’t yearn to go back to it, exactly, but I certainly think fondly about it and I’m proud that I’m still friends with everybody and that we all still work together in different ways. We have actually worked together recently: we wrote a whole new set of sketch comedy and performed it together last year in San Francisco. But I think as an ongoing thing, as each of our eleven brains started to form in different ways and we each became leaders in our own way, there’s no way we could keep eleven people together the way we had it. You know, we were exclusive to the group. All we did was The State for many years, which I loved.
II. BEING A COMEDIC WRITER/DIRECTOR IS LIKE RUNNING TRACK.
YOU DO IT FOR A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF TIME AND THEN YOU HAVE TO STOP.
BLVR: What kind of changes to your style do you have to make when you move up to a mainstream studio film? Is it dictated by people above you, or do feel you have an innate need to change your style because of the audience you have to reach?
DW: I try to serve what it is the best I can, but hopefully keep the doors wide open for my sensibility to be a part of it. Certainly with Role Models I was very worried that I was getting into a project that had no place for my voice. Why should I direct this? I have nothing really to bring to the table, you know? The last thing I would ever have thought I’d be interested in is a “bromance” for Universal Studios. But, luckily for me, that project was in enough disarray that they kind of, as a last ditch, said to me, Do something. They allowed myself and Ken and Paul [Rudd] to pretty dramatically rewrite the script and infuse our sense of humor, and sort of start over with it and make our movie. That’s a really boring way of saying that. The answer is, I don’t really try to change my style; I don’t think of it that way, I just try to serve whatever it is. We wrote some screenplays for Adam Sandler’s company, and so we tried to create a marriage of what our style is and what we know their sensibility is. And I think it worked.
BLVR: I don’t know if you think about things this way, but are you almost secretly glad some of your projects have had shorter runs, because that freed you up to—
DW: —do more stuff?
BLVR: Yeah. Then you get a chance to change up your style once again, reboot, and use an entirely different approach. Do you think that’s almost a blessing? It seems like you’ve managed to copy the Ricky Gervais short-perfect-comedic-run, get-out-before-it-gets-stale model.
DW: Yeah, I kind of do feel that way. Sometime I wish, like Ricky Gervais, I just got a second season with something, like Stella. But yes, I do think there’s a real upside to it, so everything feels like a project and a thing that has an end instead of just being endless. I love the Ricky Gervais model. I love Ricky Gervais. I love that idea of things having a finite nature to them. So you can say, as a consumer, as a fan, I want you to watch the show Extras, and here’s the whole set, and that’s it.
BLVR: Not, Skip this season.
BLVR: Or, It gets bad at this point. Yeah. You watch some of these sitcom shows with people who are really funny and you respect, and then they go five, six seasons, and then you almost feel bad for them. It’s almost like they’re trapped.
DW: I was just thinking about that. Even the greatest show, The Simpsons, which I just watched again recently, it’s still—though the episode I saw was as funny as any that they’ve done in their past—it’s just impossible for the larger world to care anymore. Even the successful TV show these days doesn’t go that long. But if that’s my biggest fear, that I’m going to keep getting renewed… then life is good.
BLVR: A lot of your work could be categorized as “cult-following” works or cult movies—
DW: “Cult failure” is another. I’ve always tried to stick to my guns; I always try to follow my heart and do what I respond to, always, and often at the expense of moving things forward in my career and up the ranks and getting wealthier and supporting myself. For me, that worked out. I lucked out in that, at a certain point, that trajectory and the commercial trajectory crossed paths. Basically because Paul Rudd called me and said he was involved in this project Role Models and needed a director. And suddenly I had enough of a history and developed sensibility to come into that situation and have something to say and not just, What do you want me to do? I’m fresh out of film school, you know? And had I had those breaks, or pursued those breaks, earlier on, I would have had a very different career. Maybe better, maybe worse.
BLVR: How do you manage Childrens Hospital, with all those people, all those shorelines and sets, on Adult Swim’s semi-bare minimum-type budget? What’s the trick that I’m not getting there?
DW: Essentially, is the question how do we get it done so quickly and so cheaply?
DW: The answer is, we really call on the third partner in Childrens Hospital, Jon Stern. And Jon is a guy that I met in New York who is a producer who did The Ten with us. And he and I both come from the indie-film, New York world. And the line-producer of the show, Franny Baldwin, was also from that same world. We all went to NYU and brought that student/indie-film way of working to it. And so it’s really, really done cleverly and craftily for no money at all. We have four-day shooting blocks when we finish two episodes every four days. It’s incredibly fast. We have a great director of photography, who knows how to make it look like a fancy network drama. Very, very, very quickly. And nobody gets paid that much. People just give their extra 10 percent because they’re enjoying it. We don’t have any real staff writers. Everything is kind of a piecemeal, Internet-based, get-it-done-somehow operation. Certainly Rob and Jon and I each wear a lot of hats. And we have a lot of good people. I’m much less involved this season than I was last season, because I have to edit this feature.
BLVR: Could something weirder, like that film, or even Wet Hot American Summer, get made today, or do you feel that feature comedies have taken a turn for the broad and safe?
DW: I think it has less to do with comedy and more to do with the nature of independent film. All manner of outsider work in feature films was readily made, I think, in the time when indie films could actually get financed. I think that whole business has shifted and, in many ways, dried up. At the time of Wet Hot, I think pretty much any script that had one or two names you’ve heard of involved in the cast, somebody would probably finance it. Now I don’t think that’s the case. There’s a part of me that says I got out of the scene just in time. It’s just cyclical.
BLVR: Do you have any aspirations to switch to more serious content? Do you feel like there’s a huge barrier for you in how Hollywood pigeonholes directors by genre?
DW: No. I couldn’t honestly say there’s a barrier, because I haven’t heavily pursued anything like that yet. But I hope I don’t just do the exact same thing my whole life. I also feel like it’s really hard to make comedy. It’s almost impossible for comedy filmmakers and directors to stay relevant as they get older. That just doesn’t happen, for whatever reason. And so you name any of the great comedy directors of any era, they just don’t stay good.
BLVR: Isn’t that kind of sad when you see a movie directed by someone who you grew up watching, and it’s their first movie in a decade, and you see them… kind of losing it? And no one ever tells them. Isn’t there, like, a deep, fundamental sadness to that?
DW: There’s a sadness. But I’ve come to the possible conclusion that being a comedic writer/director is like running track. You do it for a certain amount of time and then you have to stop. Or you at least have to accept that you’re not going to be at the top of your game. And that’s OK.
BLVR: Do you think you can ever tell yourself that, or does it have to be someone else? Because it doesn’t seem like people come to that conclusion themselves that often.
DW: I don’t know. I think it also has to do with living in a bubble and nobody’s telling you no. I think that if you keep trying to do the same thing, any pursuit, it’s going to feel old after a while. But feature films, especially, they take so much effort and time and creative output that maybe there is just a set number that one can make. But then you look at somebody like Almodóvar or Mike Leigh. There are models. I’m going to study that on my sabbatical.
BLVR: But they don’t do comedy. I think there is something to that. Something about… the bubble also plays a part. They do a finite number of comedies, whereas drama you don’t.
DW: Could be. Tastes changes and lives change. But then again, a lot of the comedies that I grew up on that are my favorite movies of all time, that are from the ’80s or the ’70s, are still great today. They’re awesome. They still hold up.
III. AN ERA OF DVD
BLVR: Do you feel you have a standard well that you go to that you try to avoid? Like, oh, I’m doing this again. A little hole you keep slipping down?
DW: It’s a double-edged sword. Because part of what I love is to go to the same well over and over. It’s one of my favorite tropes—to keep doing the same kinds of jokes sometimes, or hitting the same note, on purpose. But yes, I do also try not to repeat myself, and there’s just a subjective line of when is it going to the well, and when is it your motif, your signature, trademark?
BLVR: Do you have a standard process or a set group of people you go to every time for feedback?
DW: No. It’s haphazard. I have friends, and I have certain… the people that I’m working with on the project—producers and collaborators and cowriters. And my wife, Zandy. There isn’t a systemized thing like The State was. It was very cool and interesting to work with somebody like Judd Apatow, who was a very strong voice, and who is a writer/director himself. We purposefully went to him because we wanted someone who was really going to push back. We wanted someone to make us defend our material and ask the questions and put it through the paces and not just say, Oh, it’s great! Let’s shoot it! And that’s what we got.
BLVR: Did you do the table-read process with him? Can you explain what that’s like?
DW: I think this is what he does on all his movies. He’ll have a big table read with an audience, early during the writing process, during the preproduction time, where he’ll then get feedback from a ton of writers and other people. And you’ll hear that a lot. So it’s like doing a table read for anything. And that’s what we did on this.
BLVR: What was good or bad about that process?
DW: I think our table read might have happened at the wrong time. We were just still getting to know Judd and incorporating some of his ideas into the script, and we hadn’t really gelled yet, and so the script we read was a little bit of a hybrid. For me, it was a frustrating process to have done it at that time. I see the value in doing it, of course. In developing the script just on our own, Ken and I had two table reads, with just a few actors and ourselves.
BLVR: Judd has really pushed the comedy-feature world toward a looser, improv-heavy style of comedy, advocating finding jokes that way. Do you normally do much improv? Was that pushed on you with Wanderlust?
DW: My normal way that we’ve developed is to do that less than Judd. His process and his way of making films stresses far more improv than ours. And so this project was a little bit of a marriage, a combination.
BLVR: What about on Childrens Hospital?
DW: Childrens Hospital is a little closer to the stuff that I’d done in the past, like Wet Hot and Stella, where you just don’t have the time to stray too far off the page. You know, we’ll have a little bit of improv around the scene or within the scene. Whereas with a Judd movie, you’ll improv a whole other scene, shooting way off in all directions. But you need enough time—and film—to be able to do that.
BLVR: There’s that notion, or debate, between those two schools. I’ve always wondered whether or not something that’s maybe funny at that moment doesn’t always have the foresight of something you thought of six months ago and that you’ve sat with in script form for so long.
DW: That’s the debate, right? Because, coming from my background—sketch comedy, writing—my way of thinking of things is that you think about it, work on it, talk about it. You meticulously craft something. And then when you get to set, you may change it in a way, but there at least should be an acknowledgement that this piece of paper has… that thought has been put into it. And that there is probably something there that should be looked at. Whereas sometimes there’s this trend in comedy that is less and less concerned with the written word. There is a value that you get with the immediacy of the jokes. Things come up that could never have been figured out in an office, on a computer. The mix is probably good.
BLVR: And yet that might strike people as strange to hear, because, in a way, all your work seems so improv-y. Or it has a calculated looseness to it.
DW: That’s correct. People saw Wet Hot American Summer and they assumed it was mostly improvised, which I’m proud of, because it was mostly not. Same with when we toured with Stella around the country, we did a show that was 95 percent scripted but seemed 95 percent unscripted. It was really just the three of us just coming out and kind of chatting with each other. It’s just our way of process. Like, do that ahead of time and it’ll probably be tighter than if you just wing it.
BLVR: What’s your experience with live shows, in terms of different audiences across the country and where your stuff works or doesn’t?
DW: Well, touring with Stella was always a blast because we made sure to book clubs where we weren’t ever on a bill with somebody else. We made sure that we would go to places where people were there to see us. And so we usually had pretty good audiences. But any time we were on a bill with other acts, or where people were forced to see us for some reason, it was a disaster. Most people who weren’t fans were just like, What the hell is this?
BLVR: I feel like your type of comedy is specifically more “people come to you.”
DW: It’s just nice that a movie like Wet Hot American Summer never made a lot of money, or never was a hit, but for those who wanted to find it, they found it. They have it and they watch it and it lives on. And that is only possible in an era of DVD.
BLVR: And it means that much more to people than a typical comedy.
DW: The cult-failure aspect only enhances the image. People feel more ownership over it because it’s not something that everybody knows.
BLVR: It must feel great. It’s almost like you have, like, a bunch of James Deans out there that people grip tightly as these true, pure works of art that never got their time. It’s like how people hold Arrested Development in such esteem, and you’ve got six things like that.
DW: I feel better about it now that I make a living for myself. Before, often people would be like, I’m such a big fan of your work. I think you’re amazing. I want to have a career like yours. And I’m like, Great, can you buy me a slice of pizza? Can you please give me a ride somewhere? Either way, ironically, can you give me a ride, like, two minutes away, after this? I don’t have a car.
DW: Thank you.