David Wain: The _Heeb_ Interview

Text by Sam Smith

David Wain, director of hit feature film, Role Models, began crafting his unique style of humor at New York University over 20 years ago, forming a college troupe consisting of classmates who would later perform in legendary sketch groups such as The State and Stella, and on TV shows such as Comedy Central’s Reno 911. Wain has maintained a loyal fan base while branching out into other projects, creating the award-winning web series Wainy Days, touring with Stella, (with Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter) and fielding new, ambitious studio projects. The director recently talked with Heeb about Role Models and his rise from independent cult hero to successful studio player.

You formed a sketch group while attending New York University that became known as The State, which ran as a series for three seasons on MTV in the mid-‘90s. That must’ve been pretty exciting.

It was. Well, we didn’t have much to compare it to, but we kind of knew that it was a pretty rare opportunity. It was like being the kids in the classroom without the teacher.

Did MTV give you access to the beach house and parties and award shows and things like that?

No. And that was a huge point of contention with us. We even did some sketches about how we were the black sheep at MTV—not invited to the Video Music Awards. But we did get to go later on for our fair share of that stuff and we had a good time.

After that, you continued working with Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black in a group named Stella. So at this point, 10 years after that, you’ve been writing and performing together–it must come pretty naturally. Why do you think you guys have such a strong chemistry?

I think it’s largely because of that time we spent together. We learned how to do this stuff together [when] we were 18 years old. So now as we’re much older, we have a pretty long time to develop shorthand between each other, and it helps when we’re writing or when we’re performing to have that to fall back on.

It looks like you guys have a lot of fun performing together.

We do, and I always thought, when it looks fun and when we’re having fun on stage, it hopefully translates to the audience having fun.

Were there any memorable times when a crowd didn’t understand your innovative, alternative humor?

Too many to count. But one that comes to mind is when Michael Showalter and Michael Black and I did a standup, sort of early form of pre-Stella at a polytechnic college in Brooklyn, New York, and we were met with stone-faced glances. The magician who warmed up for us got a much better response.

But soon after, you had kind of a cult following, so that didn’t happen too often.

It happened less and less, thank God.

Did Stella ever get asked to do any private or corporate gigs?

Not really. We’d done some strange gigs. Like we did the New York Magazine 40th anniversary night. We usually don’t do well if the audience didn’t come to see us. They usually don’t respond too well to us.

I heard you say that you worked for David Letterman in 1990. What was that experience like?

I loved it. I mean, I was such a big fan and I was 20 years old, and I was interning there at Late Night when it was on NBC. And it was a real education to see real professional writers doing their thing, and seeing a show put together every night. And I loved working at 30 Rock. It was great.

Dave’s pretty infamous for not going out of his way to talk with guests or staff. Was that your experience, too?

Yes. I definitely did not, I don’t think, ever once, have a conversation with him. But I didn’t expect to because I had heard that before I had even got there.

It seems like you’ve got pretty much every option in entertainment business open to you. How do you determine where to go from here and what projects to do?

Well, movies are such big, giant, time-consuming projects that I’m kind of keeping my eye on what the next movie would be—which I’m not 100 percent sure yet what that would be—and then I try to do anything else I can in between that schedule. So I guess that’s how I’m going to do it. But this is the first time that I’ve been in that position. For many years I basically had no work and I planted a lot of seeds and they all happened to harvest around the same time.

There’s got to be a lot of pressure now to choose your next film, huh?

I guess so, but I try not to think about it that way or it would probably paralyze me. It seems to be a common theme.

You had to write on set a lot during the Stella TV series and were editing shows just a day or two before air—even while you were hearing tell of poor ratings. So I’m wondering what the mood on the set was.

Well, we never knew that the ratings were so bad that it was going be like a definite cancellation until after we were finished, and we were also working too hard on the show to worry too much about it. We just basically, as you said, were doing 10 things at once. It was a very memorably grueling, hot summer in Brooklyn making that show, and so it was just kind of burning the midnight oil, trying to get it all done. And then when it was all said and done with, then we had time to be upset about the [ratings].

Is that kind of standard fare for production or did something go wrong?

No, I think it was just a unique situation where we didn’t have any writers. And we were the writers, and we were acting in every scene, and I was directing some of it, and we were involved in the editing and the casting and, so, you know, it’s mostly because of our desire to have creative control over it and because of our low budget. We all three were wearing so many hats that that’s why it was so busy.

Was it hard to create that balance of the absurd, nonsensical humor but still have a cohesive plot for these episodes?

Yeah, it was kind of hard, but we just tried to follow what felt funny to us. We were never deliberately trying to make anything obscure or absurd. We were just trying to tell these stories while following our comedic instincts.

Absurdism seems to have become a bit of a trend in a lot of Internet comedy and TV, and a lot of it just doesn’t work. It seems like you have absurdism down, though. Do you know what the difference between comedy that works and comedy that doesn’t comes down to?

I don’t know that I can describe it. There’s a lot of work under the hood of these little, silly sketches. And, you know, it’s calling on hard work and experience, and not everyone necessarily does it that way. So I don’t know. ‘Absurdism,’ or whatever you want to call it, is maybe not as easy as it looks.

Well, you’ve pulled off a mainstream film successfully.

Well, the thing that happened to me with Role Models was: I had always said to myself I was very much more interested in making independent or left-of-center type movies, and I would look at those big, more formulaic Hollywood movies and say: ‘I could do that if I wanted to. I just don’t want to.’ So then this opportunity came along for me to do it and I had to put my money where my mouth is and try to make one of those kinds of movies, and make it as good as I could, and it was incredibly challenging.

Do you think it’s harder to use a more traditional model of comedy than the alternative form you were using before?

I don’t know. I don’t think there’s this hard line between them. I mean everything I’ve done is just comedy, and Role Models leans a little more towards the mainstream and Stella leans more toward something else, but it’s all just different versions of the same thing to me.

So you have a young boy now. How do you keep the healthy balance with personal time and your new burdensome, heavy schedule?

It’s hard. It’s really hard. I try. I am in a constant sort of effort to try to figure out how to carve out time for my personal life and my multi-projects, but I try to remind myself that this is a problem I should wish for.

And it’s also the nature of the business that—I mean you’ve been in it for 20 years, so it’s certainly not going to go away for you—but the idea of capitalizing on new opportunities as soon as possible, right?

Yeah, I mean, part of the challenge is that even in my least productive—the times when I was doing the least amount of stuff and having the least amount of luck getting my projects out there—I was still really, really busy because everything I’ve done, for the most part, is just self-generating. So I’m always busy doing my own things and getting things going, so I have to take my own aggressive initiative to take time off when I want it.

Can you relate the story of when you met New York Governor George Pataki during filming of a Stella short?

I don’t remember it too well, but we were filming the short that’s called Wiffle Ball in Peekskill, which is where Michael Ian Black lived at the time. And we were on a public sports field shooting this sketch, which involved, among other things, swastikas painted on our foreheads, and we saw—I guess either jogging or walking around the track of the field—Governor Pataki, and we were worried that he was going to, you know, take us into state prison, but he didn’t really notice us.

Being a comedian, you probably get a lot of questions like this: ‘Were you high when you did this?’ and stuff like that.

Well, the irony is that I’ve taken less drugs in my life than almost anyone in the world. I almost never drink. I never even had a sip of a drink until I was 27 years old. I’m very clean, and same with Michael Black and Michael Showalter. None of us drink or do drugs, [even though] a lot of people think that’s all we do.

Role Models is out now on DVD, and after years of delays, MTV will finally release the complete DVD series of The State on July 14th, 2009.

What do you think?

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