David Wain is one funny guy. Busy as all hell and supremely funny. Taking time out of his rigorous schedule of breaking out into song and dance, donning fake mustaches with his buds in Stella and seeking romance across New York City in his web series, the director of the oft-heralded Wet Hot American Summer discussed the finer points his work with Scene. He also touched on the initial stirrings of his childlike absurdism, which all started right here in Northeast Ohio.
Eric Sandy: So you've got a handful of projects you're currently working on, including They Came Together. One thing I'm curious about is how you're co-writing it with Michael Showalter and how collaboration has become a bit of theme in your career.
David Wain: I feel like in movies and TV, it's by necessity of the form. It's very collaborative, whether you're actually credited as co-writing the script or not. I guess I've done that to an even greater degree because I started out in college with Michael Showalter and all the other guys from The State and all of us working as, like, an 11-man beast. And we were learning how to give and take and collaborate and work together for so many years. As we get older and as we get more experience, we learn how to defer and how to trust each other on certain things more. There are a lot of times and places when I know that Showalter and I both know in our brain what we want to do, so one or the other of us can just do it without having to be sitting in the same room all the time.
Speaking of the old gang, how about the supposed Wet Hot American Summer prequel?
We're still working on that. It's definitely an active project that we're in the process of on the script and getting all the elements together. It's a big undertaking, because we intend on reuniting the whole cast. That'll be challenging to say the least.
I'd imagine. And what's your take on the film's cult-following mentality? Does that bring an inherent freedom or do you find it restrictive at all?
It's a nice thing because it allows us to do certain things or keep in contact with certain projects. The fact that there's an ongoing interest in things like Wet Hot American Summer or Stella years later allows us to consider doing new projects or related projects as we go along. And that's very fortunate. And just for it's own sake, it's really nice. It's such a rewarding feeling. It's very rare that a little indie film made for under $2 million 12 years ago is still talked about all the time like Wet Hot American Summer. So for it's own sake it's very nice. We've never had a huge—excuse me, sorry, I'm in New York and it is so cold in my home.
Sounds like Cleveland. The wind is kinda insane here right now.
(Laughs) Same here! Well... We've never had gigantic financial success, which in a way might have helped us keep moving. It's nice to have the chance to keep doing more work.
It seems to me that through all these projects, your sense of humor and your style of comedy has this way of creating almost an alternate world where humor is different and jokes run in opposite directions from where a joke might normally run. Has that been a style of yours from childhood onward?
I think so. I guess I just had a certain sense of humor. I was influenced by Steve Martin a lot growing up and Woody Allen. It's definitely not a conscious thing, like: "Now let's go to the Bizarro World where we all like to play!" But it's evolved in some ways to that - sometimes to my detriment commercially, because there's a certain layer of absurdism that I naturally go to that is often off-putting to a mainstream audience, but I can't help it.
An interesting characteristic I see a lot, especially when you perform with the guys in Stella, is just pushing a joke as far as it can be pushed to the point where it becomes unfunny for a moment. But then it's being pushed so far that it becomes hilarious again.
For some people, it goes so far that it's unfunny and then it just stays unfunny. That's why there's so much hostility toward a lot of our work from people who aren't into it. What I found was interesting in the reviews and feedback for things like Wet Hot American Summer and Stella is that those who didn't like it didn't just not like it; they were truly to-the-core hostile and upset about it. They were like, "Not only do I hate this, I don't understand why anyone likes this. What is going on here? This is so unfunny I can't believe it." It's sort of interesting. For those who aren't into it, it's really brutal. People have come up to me over the years and said, "Your work is my litmus test for who I'm friends with." I was like, "Wow, that's weird, but kind of flattering."
Forming friendships everyday! In terms of this alternate world your humor creates, it seems like that dates back to this video tour of Shaker Heights you put together in 1978. It's fantastic and it's very funny to see the bombast and the idiosyncrasies that still remain a big part of your repertoire. Did you do a lot of video work growing up?
I have a vault of just hundreds of little skits and bits and shows I did on VHS during my formative years. A lot of them I'm literally just standing in front of the camera and rambling on and on, just entertaining myself. I don't know if anyone's ever watched them. It was almost like a reversal: As I went to college and started to consciously write comedy, I often would just revert to my childhood self because I found it creative somehow to take on my more childish points of view. I continue to do that to this day. I often will just default to the same jokes i was making when I was 5 or 10. It's entertaining to me.
Were there any stories growing up in Cleveland or maybe some influences in this town that still sort of hold true in your work?
I was there from when I was born to when I was 18, so yeah, for sure. My family is still there in Shaker. I'm there all the time. Cleveland is everything, my whole upbringing, my entire experience at Shaker Heights High School and before. What's funny is that when you get so busy working, you start lessening your number of life experiences, so you have to keep looking back to before you were writing. I'm trying to think of something specific and entertaining to say about that, but, yes, growing up in Cleveland is the entirety of my identity.
You mentioned Steve Martin, but was there any sort of moment or memory that suddenly piqued your interest in filmmaking or comedy? Or was that just always the plan?
It wasn't even the plan until I got to college. I went to NYU more because I wanted to be in New York and less because I wanted to be in film school. But I remember being very excited about Steve Martin. My sisters brought home his records - and I remember going to Peaches Records on Richmond and chickening out at the last minute but almost doing the Steve Martin Act-Alike contest at age 8 or something. And same thing with the Woody Allen movies that a friend of ours brought home on fourth-generation VHS tapes -- or BetaMax tapes at the time. But I was definitely the class clown and the family clown. I was always making weird jokes. As early as I could, from 11 or 12, my dad brought home this very old video camera that had to attach to two giant machines just to turn on. I started making little skits and tapes with my friends and I just never stopped. One day I'll have to release The Cleveland Tapes.
We're eagerly awaiting. I have one thing to clear up before we run: Who the fuck is Marcus?
I know, right?! I completely, completely 100 percent agree.