David Wain knows a thing or two about comedy. For over 30 years, the Ohio transplant has been making people piss their pants laughing, whether it’s his close friends in a Shaker Heights basement or millions of moviegoers across the world. At 48, he’s working off a resume that’s as impressive as it is personable, littered with enviable projects that can all be dubbed with buzz words like “authentic” or “hip” or “edgy.”
Last August, he closed the gates of Camp Firewood with Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later (or did he?), and now he returns with another feature film, A Futile and Stupid Gesture. Based on Josh Karp’s book of the same name, the film captures the rise and fall of late National Lampoon founder Doug Kenney, who’s portrayed by an excellent Will Forte. It’s ambitious, it’s emotional, and it’s unlike anything Wain’s ever done.
That’s Wain, though — one surprise after another — and why he’s one of the most fascinating names working in the industry today. After all, there’s never been a dull moment in the guy’s entire career. To prove that notion, we spoke with Wain himself and had him revisit 10 essential years that all bring him back to today. So, grab some sloppy wet pizza, cue up some Rick Springfield, and enjoy this blast from the past below.
You and Craig Wedren went to summer camp together. What are your fondest memories? What are your worst?
We were 10 years old and a group of our friends from Shaker Heights, Ohio all went to this summer camp in Maine. It was a big deal to leave home for eight weeks. For me, I was homesick and lonely, even though I had a good time. My parents came halfway through the summer, and I begged them to take me home, because I had enough and I just wanted to be home. I was 10 years old.
They, to their immense credit, which I’m so thankful for, were like, “No, I’m sorry, but you have to stay.” I was devastated, but camp became such an important factor in my entire growing up, and, of course, who knew it would become such an important factor in my whole career into my late ’40’s. That’s one thing from that summer. The other thing that I remember is discovering just how horny someone can be at 10 years old.
Did you already have summer crushes at that age?
Well, basically every single girl at camp walked around in their t-shirts and shorts, and I was just like, “Oh god, oh god.” I was just discovering that whole notion. You’re with a group of kids and teenagers 24/7, hormones are raging.
What kind of pop culture were you into? Were you reading National Lampoon at all?
I was reading the one Playboy that the older counselor brought into camp. I remember we were listening to three records that summer on repeat on cassette, which were Glass Houses by Billy Joel, Emotional Rescue by The Rolling Stones, and Love Stinks by the J. Geils Band. I was into Mad Magazine more at the time. I don’t think I felt smart or intelligent enough to understand Lampoon at that age. By the time I was old enough to really get the Lampoon, they were no longer in their prime. But I certainly was affected by Animal House and Caddyshack and so on, which was all from [that era].
When we spoke to Craig, he said you two really found your respective voices in your family basement in Shaker Heights, singing and playing music. Was this a major formative time for you?
Yeah, it was huge. That particular time in my life was very formative in a very serious way. I spent a lot of time in the basement with a very primitive video camera, fooling around with my friends doing different sketches and skits and I’ve always said I never really stopped doing that to this day. That’s still what I do.
I wasn’t hanging out with girls a lot, I was basically spending a lot of time alone in the basement. My sisters were way, way older than me and my parents were a little older, and so I basically spent a lot of time either alone or with one or two friends in that basement just cooking up whatever, and I still have all these piles of VHS tapes of stuff that’s unwatchable that we did. It was definitely the starting point for a lot of what I still do.
Do you recall any particular sketch or video you made?
There are so many. My friend Stuart [Blumberg] and I, we called this one TV show, Fright on Hollywood Boulevard. Stuart has gone on to become a writer and director of feature films himself. It was the two of us as Latin gangs in Los Angeles, a place that we had never been to — we had never been outside the streets of Shaker Heights, Ohio — and we were like, “Oh man! The Nachos Tostitos gang! We’re going to fight you!”, and then we’d do a big fight scene.
I also had an ongoing show called Cleveland Rocks, where every day I’d go down and talk into the camera and people were listening and I’d be like, “Hey! Here’s what’s going on in the rock and roll scene in Cleveland.” Then I would introduce another correspondent, but just by going off for a second and putting on a costume and coming back. Then I would just do a character; I had no plan, I had no script, I would just literally be like, “…and now here’s John Krangerbob.” Then I would put on whatever was around and whatever came out of my mouth … that was the new character.
You were attending NYU’s film school when you joined Sterile Yak, which eventually became The New Group, which later became The State. Were there any hesitations to join a comedy troupe while you were studying?
No. It was the only thing I cared about from moment one. I picked film school because I was interested in it, and it seemed like a natural thing and I didn’t know what else I wanted to do. But I didn’t realize until I got to NYU that I was going to such a vocational program. It was very directed.
But within a few weeks of being there, I saw the Sterile Yak show, and I was like, “Oh my god! This is everything! There is absolutely nothing else I want to do except be on this tiny black box stage at NYU doing sketches with people laughing.” I found my holy grail. It defined college for me. I didn’t really care much about anything else. I only did that.
How did MTV get involved with The State?
It was a great sort of convergence of a lot of things which was very lucky. I had a friend from back home named Jon Bendis, who was a producer at MTV, which at the time was very much in the earliest stages of having any sort of programming other then music videos. He was a fan of what we were doing down at NYU. It’s sort of a longer story, but eventually I was doing a lot of work there as an intern, as a field producer, and writing on stuff.
So, I had a little in there, and they were looking for people to direct little segments on the show called, You Wrote It, You Watch It. When we heard about that, I went back to the group, and instead of just submitting my resume, the whole group got together and made three little shorts, like overnight, on our Hi8 camcorder and gave it to them as a demo. They were kind of blown away that we did that, and that was our entry into MTV.
What sketch are you most proud of?
There are so many. If I ever see [the series], I’m like, “Oh my god, I love that.” But I think the one that comes to mind most often would be “The Taco Man,” which is the taco mailman sketch. It was a tiny little thing that we shot in two seconds with a second unit, like a little piece of dialogue that we just thought was nothing. But somehow it really cracked me up.
It’s always the ones that happen last minute, or spur of the moment, or chaotically…
Totally. A lot of what I did on The State was direct these little second unit things where it was just me with a camera on my shoulder just off to the side when they were shooting a bigger sketch. We would go and shoot a little something else, and those turned out to be some of my favorite.
Will we ever see This American Sandwich?
Maybe. I think it would be great. You know, there’s always talk of another State something and we did pull off a whole new show with new material not so long ago. But coordinating 11 very busy people’s lives is often a Herculean task.
Was Stella born out of necessity after The State? Or were you, Michael Showalter, and Michael Ian Black just having fun screwing around together?
Well, we had been involved in the alternative comedy standup scene growing around New York at the time. The impetus was really that all these shows were like in the back of a bar and like a loose show where comedians could come up and try out experimental material, and we felt like this alternative comedy thing deserved a more full-blown, polished venue.
So, we got this fancy lounge, Fez Under Time Cafe, we had a house band, and we wore suits to sort of make it a classy thing with martinis. At the time, swing dancing was big, and that kind of thing was the impetus of how Stella started.
We originally just hosted it — like one person at a time would go up and introduce acts — but we realized that the interplay between the three of us was one of the highlights that really made it special. That eventually evolved into making the shorts, and then the series, and then the touring.
Some of those Stella Shorts are incredibly dark. Was the impetus always: How far can we take this?
Something about being in our late 20’s. It was definitely informed by the fact that we didn’t really think many people would ever see it. We thought you’d see it, and then we’d take it away, and then it was done.
Of course, there was some level of “how far can we go” — I hate to say it, for better or worse, it’s where our heads were at at the time — but it also just seemed like this is what was making us laugh.
I think part of what made the Stella Shorts so funny, or work the way they did, was the nature of what we were doing. There was no rewriting or over thinking or developing or discussion. It was literally like one of us would just spit out a page and we’d shoot it.
Online video was such a novelty back then. How do you think YouTube would have changed Stella? Do you think it would have tamed things in a way? Or maybe even made you strive for higher quality?
I have no idea. Maybe we would have gotten lost? I’ve always thought about that … if I grew up in a time of YouTube and stuff. Who knows? I’m sort of glad, in a way, that all the stuff I was dicking around with growing up didn’t get out there, and can’t still be seen.
I never showed it to anybody except my sister, or sometimes somebody would come over and I’d be like, “Hey, watch this.” But that was the extent of social sharing.
It’s obviously a completely different world. It’s hard to say. When we were doing The State and all that stuff, we were the only ones that we knew of that were doing that kind of thing. It was before there was UCB … it was a totally different world.
What’s the future of Stella?
Same thing with The State, really. It’s ironically just as difficult to get three people together. There’s always been an interest in doing more stuff and we do a live show every so often, but everything takes time.
How have you feelings about Wet Hot American Summer evolved over the years? It started out as a flop, became a cult classic, and has since turned into a genuine franchise for Netflix.
My feelings about the movie haven’t evolved because I always loved it. Basically, from when we wrote the script, I was like, “This is awesome. I’m so excited. This is the funniest thing ever,” all the way through making it. I was super excited about it, and when it tanked, I was still like, “These guys didn’t know we made the funniest movie ever. So there you go.”
What I certainly didn’t expect is that anything would happen after that. I assumed, like any movie like that at the time, it comes out, nobody sees it, that’s the end of it, and we move on. I was certainly depressed about that [initial reaction], but the fact that it then started this uphill climb years later … who could have ever known?
10 Years Later seemed to close the book on the story last year, but would you ever want to go back? A couple of years ago, Craig Wedren suggested a winter series, alluding to the times you’d go back and forth from New York to the Cleveland suburbs. Would that be something worth exploring?
There actually was a whole winter version that we developed at one time, that was about a New Year’s party, and there’s been lots of ideas about a lot of things to sort of expand the WHU, so to speak. So, my feeling is, we sort of ended the primary story at the end of 10 Years Later, but I think there’s a lot more we could explore at some time and place.
Has Netflix asking for more?
Frankly, we’ve been so busy with other things at the moment, but will perhaps circle back to that soon.
Was Wainy Days partly a reaction to Stella’s cancellation? To be back on your own terms?
The impetus was from this guy Rob Barnett, who was starting My Damn Channel, and he came to me and was like, “Hey, I’ll give you cash. Not a lot, but I’ll give you a little, a few bucks, every time you make a little short about whatever you want, and it’s all you.”
At the time, I was especially like, “Yeah, that’s awesome.” I thought about what I could do that would be an easy, ongoing thing: I could talk about all these not-quite completed attempts at trying to meet women I’ve had over the years. It was just great.
That clearly was, and probably still is, my comfort zone … just doing these funny, little shorts. It was a total blast, and it ended up becoming, for what it was, successful, and I ended up shooting Wainy Days — when I got a lot busier with Role Models and other things — on the weekends and it was insane.
Would you ever go back and do another season?
I feel like Wainy Days is probably complete, but I would definitely revisit that kind of format.
Role Models essentially fell into your lap. Was this a project you felt you had to do at this time in your career?
No. I was actually very conflicted about it — very conflicted at first. The call came out of the blue that there was this project with Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott. I read the script and I wasn’t really sure about it. I knew that if I stepped up to the majors and whiffed, it could be a tough road. So, I really wasn’t sure. I almost didn’t take the job.
When I had the first meeting with producer Mary Parent, I was like, “Okay, well let me think about it and you think about whether you want to hire me and stuff.” I went away on this rafting trip, and when I got back, she was like, “Okay, come one, we’re starting, let’s go.”
She never even asked me if I wanted the job. She was just like, “Come on, we’ve got pre-production to do. We’re shooting in six weeks. We have to re-write the whole script.”
You certainly managed to make it your own thing…
Me and Paul [Rudd] and Ken [Marino] ended up starting over with the script and writing it entirely again.
Did you have to make any concessions at all for Universal?
Not really. Role Models worked out really well, I thought, because we didn’t have to make concessions, that’s what we were doing. We knew from the get-go it wasn’t like we created something and had to change it. Us coming into a project and trying to embrace and honor exactly what it is, while also layering in our sensibility, and I feel like that’s what we did.
Upon release, They Came Together felt like the end-all, be-all of that great wave of meta humor. Do you feel that’s the case? Had you been building towards this film?
I would say it was fun to let go and allow ourselves to say, full on, this is a spoof. Like a lot of what we’ve done, there’s somewhat spoofy elements to it, but we like to say it’s not really a spoof because you always think of it as a lower form of entertainment somehow.
It was a turning point for me, making They Came Together, where we were like, “Let’s just embrace this, this is awesome,” and also just the fun of knowing that this is a movie that really lives or dies by the jokes, just all about how funny can you make every moment. It was a blast to just push the comedy in every way we could.
We had a little bit of another revelation in doing the post-production editing on They Came Together where we had a much different version of the movie that wasn’t working quite as well. We realized that we just needed to literally cut out every single thing that’s not funny — regardless of story.
We literally just cut out a third of the movie and just put in the sweet stuff. The framing device of the couple talking with the other couple is how we tied everything together. That’s what made the movie sing for me.
Have you ever noticed a decrease in some of the cinematic trends you’ve subverted?
No, not really. I still hear people all the time saying, “You know, New York City is really just like one of the characters,” and I’m like, “Really?” I appreciate that people who saw it really enjoyed it, but it’s certainly not a movie that most people saw. Ninety-nine percent of the people have never heard of it. We could change that, though. We could change that with this article.
With A Futile and Stupid Gesture, it’s surprisingly earnest. It feels like we’re seeing a new kind of David Wain, and it made me wonder if you would ever want to move into dramas?
I’m so glad. What we always thought about this one was that it really is a drama about comedy. It’s not really a comedy as much. It’s a drama about funny people and the notion of comedy … and the answer is yes! I feel like drama is comedy — not to be too weird about that — but I feel like the best genres are still carried by their humor.
The short answer is, basically, that I’ve always guided my career based on what I feel speaks to me and what seems interesting. I’m going to continue to do that, whatever that is, without having to say, “I only do this genre or comedy.” I mean, I certainly have no intention of stopping comedy either, but I’m interested in widening as well.
Would the movie have fared differently had you written it?
Well, no I don’t know. The truth is that we really worked collaboratively from the get-go, and even though John Aboud and Michael Colton wrote the script brilliantly, we were all working on it together since before they wrote the first draft.
If I had been the one that had actually wrote it, it would have come out different in some ways, but I think that ultimately any movie is a collaboration.
All the movies I’ve done up until now have been partnerships with either Michael Showalter or Ken Marino; this one was just a partnership with Colton and Aboud, and [Peter] Principato and [Jonathan] Stern.
It really moves like a musical too — kind of like La La Land. Were musicals at all an influence on this?
My brain is always thinking musically, anyway. I’m always trying to work with Craig [Wedren] on how we can up the integration of the music of the movie literally, and the music in general. I’m always interested in taking that in different ways and to different levels.
I don’t know if I was thinking of specifically a musical like La La Land, but I was definitely thinking about the feeling of the flow of this particular story. The mood of his brain was in my mind when I was trying to design some of these things.
Also, the more practical aspect of trying to tell a story that has so many different chapters and segments, and trying to make it feel like it’s more cohesive and on a straight track.
Who was the hardest icon to cast?
Honestly, all of them. The Chevy Chases of the world, that was really hard to think about. But, I just feel like we had the most insane luck. It was like, “Oh! Here’s Joel McHale who channels Chevy Chase in a way that’s kind of otherworldly…”
He really does. It’s scary, actually.
Allison Jones did an incredible job. We knew it was going to be a massive cast.
So, what’s next?
I’m developing three different TV projects right now, and one of them is with the Stella crew called Moon Cruise, which is Love Boat in space. The TV show that I’m on, Another Period, comes out next week. We have a lot of projects that have been brewing that are about to get announced.
In other words, business as usual.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture hits Netflix this Friday, January 26th.