David Wain doesn’t want to be famous. Which is good, because he’s not, at least not by any standard definition. The writer-director-actor’s two-decade resume is littered with short-lived TV shows and movies that, almost without fail, premiered to miserable box office, critical lampooning, and full-on rejection from the public, then eventually found fervent cult followings. This peculiar but consistent pattern — which Wain himself appreciates, as it allows him to fly under the radar while following his bizarre muse — can be credited, in part, to his singular brand of comedy, a sort of straight-faced absurdism that roundly rejects logic and continuity, embraces chaos and joke repetition, and vastly improves upon repeat consumption.
That pattern was first established with The State, an alt sketch-comedy series featuring Wain and his NYU improv group that ran from 1993 to 1995 on MTV, reaped reviews like, “It’s so terrible it deserves to be studied,” died on the table after a sloppy transplant to CBS, and is now hailed as a comedic masterpiece. Stella, a surreal 2005 Comedy Central sitcom from Wain and frequent collaborators Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black, suffered a darker fate, lasting all of 10 episodes — and then, in keeping with Wain tradition, spawning a live show that still tours the country sporadically. (His current Adult Swim series with Rob Corddry, Childrens Hospital, is something of an anomaly within the Wain canon, approaching its seventh season with several Emmy nominations, critical plaudits, and solid viewership, though it, too, took a few years to find its late-night audience.) Despite starring the Rudds and the Anistons and the Poehlers of the world, films like 2007’s The Ten, 2012’s Wanderlust, and 2014’s They Came Together pulled in relatively paltry sums, but served to cement Wain’s status as a cult hero, a cipher for the misfits and the misunderstood. His only real mainstream hit, 2008’s Role Models, made $67 million but confused a portion of his rabid fandom, who saw the film as watered-down Wain.
And through it all there was 2001’s Wet Hot American Summer, Wain and Showalter’s utterly demented, anarchic, pitch-perfect genre parody chronicling camper-and-counselor shenanigans on the last day at a Jewish summer camp in 1981. Though it featured early performances from Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd, and Bradley Cooper; a wholly original, off-the-rails script; and multiple pairs of hairy man-legs stuffed into teensy shorts, Wet Hot divided critics and was all but ignored by the theatergoing public, pulling in less than $300,000.
Of course, being a David Wain movie, Wet Hot is today considered a magnum opus by an ever-expanding number of fans who flock to midnight screenings and spout its eminently quotable lines. Thanks to that scattered but devoted fan base — and a culture that’s suddenly Juicy-tracksuit-deep in early-aughts nostalgia — Netflix is now reviving Wet Hot, airing an eight-episode prequel to the original film that takes place on the first day at Camp Firewood.
This time around, with his first prequel, Wain’s completely skipped the “underappreciated genius” phase of the project. The July 31 arrival of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp has been heralded by everyone from The New York Times to, well, us. It certainly helps that it stars an embarrassment of comedic talent (Poehler, Cooper, Banks, and Rudd are returning, plus newcomers like Jon Hamm, Chris Pine, Lake Bell, and Kristen Wiig) and that the conceit — fortysomethings playing randy, sweaty teenagers — is delightfully insane. But First Day Of Camp also marks a real first for Wain: unadulterated, widespread attention and anticipation, a project that doesn’t need to hide out inside a musty cabin for several years, fondling its sweaters, to find an audience. We caught up with Wain a week before First Day Of Camp’s premiere to talk about what happens when the king of outsider comedy suddenly finds himself approaching the inside (and, naturally, all the women he made out with while making the original).
Why a prequel? It seems like the oddest and most unlikely choice you could make.
We always wanted to do some sort of follow-up, just because it seemed like it’d be fun to work with the same people and go back to that world. The more we thought about it, the more it seemed obvious that we should do a prequel — the actors were getting older and older and it was a ridiculous thing to do. We had to come up with all these backstories, figure out how all these details coalesce into the first movie, which was already obviously done and can’t be changed.
Zooming away from Wet Hot for just a second —
Let’s get the aerial view here.
Yes, let’s. Critics don’t always love or understand your work. Do you read all of your reviews? Does that negativity bug you — does any part of you crave critical approval?
I honestly don’t read a ton of the reviews. Not because I don’t want to read them, but because they all so often say the same thing over and over again, and I get so bored. [laughs] My whole history has always been a combination of really excited reviews and truly scathing, hostile reviews. I’m not saying what we do is perfect. Of course it’s not. But clearly, if you’re writing, “Wet Hot American Summer has not a single funny moment in it,” or, “It’s so bone-dry, so unfunny from top to bottom that it’s shocking,” the only conclusion one can make is that you didn’t get it. It’s hard to say, “You’re probably right. There’s just nothing funny in it. And the people who love it are wrong.”
From a practical point of view, though, so many people have come up to me and said, “I saw Wet Hot American Summer and I hated it and somebody forced me to watch it a second time and by the end it was my favorite movie.” I think people don’t know what to make of it at first. But once they get their bearings, they tend to enjoy it. That’s nice to hear and it helps to explain why it never made any money or wasn’t a mainstream success.
And yet it really spoke to a particular group. Who are they?
I wouldn’t say that the group of people can be described in any particular demographic way, but it just seemed like there was a certain comedic wavelength that a lot of people were turned on by. I think [other] people saw this movie that was a failure, but had some actors that they knew in it, and checked it out. Then they passed it around and it became this thing that people had proprietary ownership over. One of the greatest compliments I get is that the movie is a litmus test for people to decide who they’re friends with or who they want to date.
Is it a litmus test for you?
It’s interesting. My family really loves it. Even my father, who’s 87, still watches it regularly and shows it to his friends. My father forced one of his friends to watch the movie, someone his age who I knew would hate it. I knew it. It was in the middle of the summer and my father made this poor old man come sit down and “watch my son’s movie.” And he sat there and just stone-faced from beginning to end. It was one of the most embarrassing experiences I’ve ever had.
What did he say when it was over?
He said, “Well. Everyone likes a love story.” [laughs]
One of the reasons for Wet Hot’s staying power is its popularity with millennials. And yet we’re too young to remember the movies or the particular period of time you’re parodying. How do you explain that appeal?
I think it comes much more from the nostalgia of being a teenager. The parody, if anything, is really just of movies and storytelling and genre, and not really at all about summer camp or summer-camp movies. I don’t even think I’ve really seen more than two or three summer-camp movies in my life. As for the time period, for a lot of younger people it doesn’t matter that you weren’t around then at all. I saw movies like Animal House and Diner that I just absolutely worshipped. They were the Rosetta Stones of my youth. And they took place in a time long before I was born. Or Happy Days, for that matter. Or Grease.
You tried to get First Day Of Camp off the ground for years, right?
We didn’t try very hard, really. [Co-writer] Michael [Showalter] and I were internally talking about it and writing and generating material, but we never really took the time to focus on it until recently, when we started really putting all of the pieces together creatively and sort of realized, “Hey, this feels more like a Netflix show. There’s so much ground we want to cover, so many more characters and story lines that we shouldn’t be butchering to cut it down to an hour and a half.” From that point forward, it went relatively fast.
Amy Poehler recently said she doesn’t even remember filming the original because it was a nonstop party — you guys were drunk the entire time. What do you remember?
I remember it being almost a surreal coming-of-age experience for me. It was the first feature film I’d ever worked on in any capacity, and it was the first really professional shoot I’d ever worked on. Certainly that I’d directed. And that was the same for a lot of the people in the cast and the crew. We were three hours away from the city at this summer camp, living in the bunks, eating the camp food, it was pouring rain all day every day, and all of that mixed together just created this crazy bonding experience for all of these people. It was 12 hours of shooting, and then 12 hours of drinking after that, then going back to shooting. It was a blast.
Any stories that are kosher to share?
One night, I remember we had a big 1980s dance party just for ourselves, and everybody ended up out on the camp dock in the pitch black, just laying there, looking at the stars all night. It was a crazy night. I think I made out with a lot of the girls.
So there were a lot of on-set flings?
Yes. Yep. [laughs]
Did you know back then that you had this cast on your hands? Did you anticipate this level of fame for any of them?
The core of the idea of making the movie was, “What’s something we can do where we can cast all of our favorite funny people who we know and we love to work with?” And, adding to that, people we didn’t know, but we loved, and adding to that, random people who were just starting out and just auditioning for roles, like Bradley Cooper and Elizabeth Banks. Yeah, we lucked out on all fronts. Those of them who became truly huge movie stars — who could have ever predicted?
Why doesn’t Paul Rudd age?
He’s got some long-term deal with the devil, or it’s possible that he just stopped aging sometime in his twenties. It is kind of remarkable. To a slightly lesser degree, so many of our cast members look pretty much the same.
I’m going to assume that Netflix gave you a slightly bigger budget.
I would tell you that your assumption is probably wrong. [laughs] We had to move faster than we did for the original movie. We needed to come up with outside-of-the-box solutions for the fact that we couldn’t afford much of what we set out to do. But that did make it really fun and really inspired, [and led to] things that wouldn’t have come up if we had just had an unlimited budget to do whatever we’d first thought of.
Did you have total creative freedom, then? Were they asking to see dailies or scripts?
Netflix was exactly what you’d want. They looked at things, they read the scripts, they were involved and supportive, but ultimately always deferred to our judgment and helping us do the best job we could. I think a good producer or a good network, that’s exactly what they should do, instead of trying to impose some outside person’s idea.
You’ve said that fame and money aren’t your goals, but clearly fame has found you, at least to a certain degree. Are you at all conflicted about that?
It’s so, so relative. Among members of my immediate family, I would say I’m famous. But I know very famous people, and none of the downsides of being famous have ever come into my universe. Which is to say, you get stopped on the street so often that it becomes an annoyance, or people are bothering you about things — my level of fame is so, so tiny that I just have a certain recognition within my peer group or my industry or among a small but loyal group of fans. To me, that’s perfect. I’d be thrilled if it didn’t go too much further.
Really? You wouldn’t want it to go any further?
There’s certainly a practical business benefit to being famous. If you’re sitting down as a writer-director to pitch a project to a financier, and they already know your face and your personality from seeing you onscreen or in an interview, then that’s a benefit. But fame is a really weird thing. You could go really nutsy.
Has what makes you laugh changed, 14 years later?
I’m 45, and I feel like my sense of humor pretty much locked in somewhere around age 10 or 11. For better or worse, I don’t know that it’s changed all that much. The things that have evolved or changed are more just very subtle gradations of taste. More than that, it’s how to get the sense of humor out onto screens more consistently, or more efficiently. That’s about the best I can say for my “evolution.” I’m always trying to better myself or push myself or do better or improve. I’m one of those guys that’s weirdly — I’m a big fan of everything I’ve done. [laughs] I’ll look at Wet Hot or The State or The Ten and think, “I don’t know that anything I’ve done recently is better than those.” Or any worse, either. I just think it’s all part of a big soup. I’m proud to put it all together. If somebody sat down and watched all this stuff together, I think it does feel like a body of work.
There was this great line on your Wikipedia page that made me laugh because it’s so Wikipedia-y. “Showalter credits Wain with being an active and observant Jew who infused the movie with an authentically Jewish sense of humor.” Is that true? How much does your Judaism inform your comedy?
For what it’s worth, I have no idea if anything that you just said is true. [laughs] But, no, I’m not an observant Jew. In my twenties, I flirted with the idea of being more deeply observant and/or more active in my New York community, but it never really took.
But in the prequel, you play the best fake Israeli I’ve ever seen [Yaron, a new camp counselor who’s not in the original film].
Well, I do have very strong, specific memories about what Israeli counselors were like at my camp. I can’t speak for Israelis in general, but that was what they were like.
What’s the most common misunderstanding of your sense of humor?
That it’s all about raunch. Certainly in Hollywood. After Role Models, which was my one real success story, I got sent dozens and dozens of scripts that were all those sort of common-denominator, bromance, misogynist, horrible movies. Dick jokes that were not funny. There’s this misconception that because there’s a certain kind of bathroom humor in my movies, that’s the point of them. People come up to me on the street, and they’re like, “Dave, suck my dick!” And it’s like, “Dude. Also, I’m a person.” By the way, it would be futile to deny that there’s tons of really infantile, very poopy-doody humor throughout all of what I do. But in my own head, there’s something different about it.
You were in the running for Ant-Man, too. I feel like that would have changed the scope of your career pretty drastically.
As a director in Hollywood, you’ll get a phone call or have a meeting or a script sent to you for any number of reasons. I’ve taken a meeting or had a conversation or two about many types of movies that would have probably, at least at that time, shifted the direction of my career pretty drastically. But so far, nothing like that has happened. Ant-Man being an example.
But are you open to blockbuster, big-budget projects like that?
Definitely. I’m open to anything. I try not to just say no immediately to anything in particular. But certainly so far, it seems anything I’ve done that’s been of any worth have been things where I’ve been a part of the initial conception and been heavily involved from the beginning. To come on as a director-for-hire for a completed script would be a different experience for me, which I think would only work if it’s the right script and they wanted me, which hasn’t happened yet. I’ve read some great scripts that I wanted to direct and I didn’t get the job.
You’ve had some very low points in your career, which you’ve previously described as “living on couches in the Valley.” Now that you’ve reached this particular level, is there still a fear of falling back to that place? Does that fear ever motivate you?
I know it’s very common for people in my business, especially comedians, to be driven by fear. I don’t think it’s my main driver. I don’t live in fear of never working again. Maybe I should more than I do, because I do have a family to support. I think every career has an arc. I just hope mine will be long enough. I’ve so far been very lucky — just doing what I feel like means something to me, is personal to me, and letting the money take care of itself. Sometimes that’s resulted in bigger projects with bigger visibility and bigger salaries, and sometimes it’s smaller projects with smaller visibility and smaller salaries. But in every case I’ve been part of the team that’s in charge of making it, and haven’t had to kowtow to somebody else’s vision or some network’s mandates. That, for me, is the formula for a film, for happiness, for a career. I’ve almost taken jobs where I’d be making a lot more money, but I know I’d be sitting there going to work every day being miserable for 12, 14, 16 hours a day. And if the only reward for that is if I can open up a bank statement and see all these high numbers on there? That’s utterly meaningless.
Rachel Handler is freelancer who obsesses over movies, TV, pop culture, and Mandy Patinkin’s facial hair. This is her first piece for Grantland.