The following is an expanded version of an interview with David Wain that's running in the June 9 issue.
Since the early '90s, writer-director-actor David Wain has been one of the premier ambassadors of absurdist, intelligent, and wonderfully random comedy on TV and in feature films.
A founding member of The State, whose comedy show aired on MTV from 1993 to 1995, he is also a member of the comedy troupe Stella (with fellow The State alums Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black), and is the director of the cult classic Wet Hot American Summer. He also helmed last year’s hilarious Paul Rudd comedy Role Models, and is the creative force behind the award-winning Web series Wainy Days.
On the eve of the long awaited release of The State on DVD, I talked to Wain about the groundbreaking show, his movies and future projects.
Hi David Wain. Do you remember the correspondence we had earlier this year?
I sure do not, but I love the fact that we had one.
I'm the dummy who wrote about the Stella guys being justifiably grouchy on the autograph line after their show. You wrote to us when you saw the article.
Oh, yes…of course I remember. Now I remember. It’s all good.
Actually, you are not supposed to read your own press. What are you doing?
Show me anyone who doesn’t.
It was online for, like, two minutes, and you caught me!
I heard you were on location ... are you OK ...
... to talk?
Oh, I thought you meant did you break a leg or something. No, I’m actually back at the office for a moment, so we’re in good shape.
OK. When was the last time The State was available in its entirety?
When it was last on TV in 1995. There’s never been any merchandising; there’s never been any version of it out except for one kind of really lame VHS compilation. It just had some random sketches thrown together. That’s literally all there ever was.
I didn’t see all of the episodes when they originally ran, so I’m seeing a lot of this stuff for the first time. This DVD set is like getting new material from my favorite comedy guys.
That’s very cool. Well, I’m glad you are getting a chance to see it, cause it definitely is the … uhhh … what’s the word … the … incubus? The incubation?
Where you guys started?
… the eczema, maybe?
Perfect! It is the eczema of The State? So …
The pod! The little sperm!
I think you guys were ahead of your time. Watching The State now, it seems like stuff that could’ve been written today. Yet, you are all strikingly younger on the DVD.
It was sort of amazing to me that we were so young now in retrospect. We were just out of college, and this crazy network MTV just let us do whatever the hell we wanted.
They kind of meddled with you a little bit at the beginning, but by Season Four, did they give you guys free reign?
Pretty much. … We didn’t realize how good we had it in a sense. We were left to our own devices by the end.
There were a lot of delays getting the DVD into stores. Did that have something to do with having to remove music by Smashing Pumpkins and other bands due to DVD licensing rights? Sort of like what held up the DVD release of WKRP In Cincinnati?
The delay actually had almost nothing to do with the music. The real answer to questions about the delay is a lot less sexy and less interesting. The DVD was simply caught up in random, bureaucratic paralysis for no particular reason for many years.
The music thing, and having to remove it for legal reasons, did that turn out to be kind of a blessing? The guy who did the replacement music is the guy you’ve been working with for a while now, right?
Yeah … Craig Wedren, who is sort of a rock star in his own right. He and I grew up together, and he’s gone on to do music for every movie and television show I’ve been involved in.
So, wait, he’s the guy who wrote the great Wet Hot American Summer soundtrack?
Yeah ... he’s also done music for Reno 911 and everything … the Wainy Days theme song. He helped us make the new music for the new The State DVD set. All of the music for The State was done by Craig and Teddy Shapiro, another composer that we’ve worked with over the years.
So getting to use Craig for new music on the new set is sort of a blessing?
You could say that. I would be lying to say we’re not disappointed that we couldn’t use some of the original music, because that is an element of what we were doing at the time. Incorporating current music of the time. As for the new DVD, it was either Craig’s new music, or nothing, so …
I think Craig is great. … I didn’t get to see a lot of the original versions of episodes with stuff like Smashing Pumpkins. The new music Craig has done, it’s like it’s all The State now. Sort of short The State films.
Now, I haven’t heard the commentaries…I’m scared to ask.
The DVD commentaries are great! Obviously, you’ve been compiling them for a while. At one point, I heard somebody on one of them comment that it was 2007.
We finished this project a while back, but they just wouldn’t release it for some reason.
I loved them!
I think you’re just being so nice 'cause you feel guilty for saying that thing about me being grouchy at the Stella show.
I want to say, I was riffing on that awkward feeling that guys get on the autograph line. You guys just had this crazy weird show, and you were clearly worn out. … I was just joking about how people shouldn’t try to be chatty on autograph lines. People should just get their stuff signed, shut up and move the fuck on. I feel bad about it.
It’s all good.
When you were writing for The State, was it like the Monty Python situation, where there were writing cliques? Or did you all just sort of throw ideas into the pot?
It really wasn’t so “cliquey.” We would divide up in different ways, depending on what the topic was. We certainly bickered and fought constantly, but it was just part of our process. It was only after The State split up in ’97 that there was the group that went off and did Reno 911 and the group that did Stella. But we still all work together in different ways all of the time.
So, there’s no acrimony? I noticed that the cast stayed the same throughout its four seasons. That’s a minor miracle.
The State formed four years before we got a TV show. We were at NYU, and we knew that if we were going to get anything done with this, we needed to stay committed. It’s a large group, and it’s amazing that we did it. The same exact 11 people from the beginning of The State just did a live show in San Francisco this past January.
Yes, your reunion at Sketchfest … will The State do something like that again?
I certainly hope so … as with Stella, it’s just a matter of scheduling.
You cut your teeth directing second-unit stuff for The State?
Basically, we had three units on The State. The live, in-front-of-the-audience stuff was about a third of what we did. Then we had the large scale location shoots shot on film or Beta, which Michael Jann would direct. I did the things we called second unit, but what it really meant was that we would go out with our own home-video camera without a crew … just by ourselves. We would shoot these sketches on Hi8, basically doing YouTube a decade before there was a YouTube. It was always a lot of fun to do the “run and gun” kind of sketches, and that was my thing. I was the director, the cameraman and the producer of those pieces.
The State members like Joe Lo Truglio, Kerri Kenney and Ken Marino are ever present in your movies. Speaking of Marino, I just want to give a shout out to Diggers, a very fine film he wrote and starred in with Paul Rudd.
I think it’s too bad that most people haven’t heard of Diggers. It’s a fabulous performance by Paul Rudd and an incredible ensemble. Ken Marino was great in it.
It was a dramatic effort, and something sort of off the map for you and your cohorts from The State.
It was a story from the heart that Ken wrote and, originally, I was going to direct the film. The movie came to fruition at the exact same time as our Stella series on Comedy Central, so I couldn’t do it, but I stayed on as producer.
I did see your Stella show in Berkeley, Calif. Please tell me that wasn’t some kind of farewell tour. Will we get some more Stella in the future? Perhaps the rumored live DVD?
I hope so. My Stella partners (Showalter and Black) are doing their Comedy Central show (Michael and Michael Have Issues), which debuts on July 15, and I’m currently directing a pilot for Fox. We all stay busy, but then we always like to get together when we can and do Stella. Who knows? Maybe we’ll do a tour this winter.
I remember originally seeing Wet Hot American Summer in a theater, and thinking “Gosh, that was pretty funny.” Then, about a week later, I was driving around, thinking of random stuff in the film, and just started laughing. I’ve since gone back to watch it many, many times, and now regard it as one of the five funniest films I’ve ever seen.
That’s nice … thank you! I love it … I’m a big fan of my own work as it is, because I’m self involved. I’m very pleased, and couldn’t be happier, that Wet Hot has sort of lived on and is part of the comedy canon for so many people, and that so many people have watched it so many times over the years.
Have you heard of others having this sort of delayed reaction to your work?
I’m both happy and sad to say that seems to be what happens with most of my work. The average viewer tends to think anything I’ve done is good-to-not-so-great when they first see it. And then the second and third time they see it, they start to get really excited about it. It’s like keying into fine wine or something.
Wainy Days, your Internet show (davidwain.com), is the funniest show anywhere right now. I’m rather impressed with your “Sunday Bloody Sunday” drumming during episode 30. I had to watch it multiple times to confirm that it was you.
I can confirm that it was me playing. I’ve always been a hobbyist musician. I’m definitely a frustrated wannabe rock star; there’s no question about it. I played in bands growing up and in college and stuff. And then, obviously, I became a comedian, or whatever I am. But I’ve always kind of wanted to—and still want to be—a rock star. The one thing I’m probably better at than anything else musically is the piano. But, again, I’m really just a hobbyist. In fact, I’m actually redesigning my Web site as we speak, and I’m going to put up some very embarrassing music recordings that I did.
There were rumors of you directing the next Fockers movie with Ben Stiller. Were any of those rumors founded in truth?
There was some talk about it, but I don’t think there ever was a real possibility that I was going to do that. I am currently directing a pilot for Fox called The Station, and Stiller is the producer. It’s a pilot, and who knows if it will ever be seen? I also have quite a few possible features on the way … not quite sure what will be the next one to shoot, but a lot of things are in the hopper.
Do you have any parting words regarding this new DVD set for The State?
The only thing that anyone has ever asked me when I’m out among the fans over the years is, “When is The State coming out on DVD?” So I feel like a part of my identity is going away now that that’s not something I’m going to get asked everyday. We all worked hard on the DVD, and I really hope the fans enjoy seeing all of the extras. I think it’s a nice DVD. Do you have it?
I sure do!
(Sadly) I don’t.
POST INTERVIEW UPDATE
According to his Twitter page, David Wain got his copy of The State on DVD the morning of July 6. Judging by the photo, he was elated.