The Rumpus Interview with David Wain

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3381653179_5f2b9fe4bbHere are a few things to know about David Wain that will help you get the most out of this interview:

- David Wain is (in no hierarchical order) a director, producer, writer, actor, mensch, and other important nouns.
- He directed and co-wrote (with Paul Rudd) Role Models, which is finally out on DVD.
- He directed, produced, and co-wrote (with Ken Marino) The Ten, based on the Ten Commandments.
- His first feature film was Wet Hot American Summer, which is the closest definition I have to “happiness.”
- He is one of the originators of the sketch comedy troupe The State, which premiered on MTV in 1992 and had a reunion show in San Francisco in 2009.
- He co-stars and co-writes Stella, with Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter. He directs it too.
- As an actor he has appeared in (just to name a few) Keeping the Faith, The Baxter, and I Love You, Man.
- He is one of the executive producers of the outstanding Web series Childrens’ Hospital.
- He created, writes, directs, stars, and gets rejected by women in Wainy Days. You can watch it on MyDamnChannel.com.

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And now, the interview:

The Rumpus: Where are you from originally?

David Wain: Shaker Heights, Ohio, until I came to New York for college.

Rumpus: When I interviewed Michael Showalter, I asked him this: “In Wet Hot American Summer, you played a Jewish person. Are you an observant Jewish person in real life? I ask because I am Jewish and need to know if I should find your Jewish humor funny or offensive.” He said this: “I am not an observant Jewish person in real life . . . David Wain is a practicing Jew: blame/praise him for the Jewish humor. I’m exempt.” Then I replied: “Let me know if David Wain is open to talking to me. Do you know how hard it is to find/blame/praise a nice, successful Jewish man these days?” And now here we are. It’s hard to know how we got here. Just kidding.

Rumpus (again): We all know Judaism is a hilarious religion. Jerry Seinfeld knows and Barbara Streisand knows and countless others know. Why is being Jewish funny to you, and why do you write about it as much as you do?wain

Wain: I think there’s just something funny about our very existence. It’s unlikely, unwieldy, awkward, and probably smothered with onions and lox. Jews like to make fun of themselves–it’s part of the DNA. I haven’t ever really explored my Jewish experience in my work. Might be a good idea one day.

Rumpus: You had one line in Keeping the Faith (“sexual perversion”). This is the movie I showed my Mom as evidence that if you date outside Judaism, you won’t become a leper. Which is to say, you’ve done a lot of work in the Jewish community, representing Us as funny, attractive, and even sometimes flawed People. How do you see your role in the Jewish community? As a follow-up, what advice would you give my Mom who believes it’s a “sexual perversion” to be single?

Wain: Growing up, I was active in the Jewish community because my family was (and still is). Living in New York, ironically, I became more assimilated into the largely non-religious community of the writers, actors, and directors that I work with. So I don’t identify myself so singularly as Jewish, I don’t think. And I certainly don’t try to be the representative voice of any Jewish experience. As for your Mom, tell her to relax and enjoy the many gifts she has and not to focus on her daughter’s singledom. It’s a waste of her energy.

Rumpus: Yeah, she probably won’t buy that, but thanks anyway. I consider Wainy Days to depict the fight against singledom in a series of vignettes of failed trysts. In fact, in much of your work, you, as in your character, are often searching for the love of your life or a hit-it-and-quit-it romp. Why do you portray yourself this way? Are you making a meta-comment that “you” is really “us,” and that humans are inherently romantic and lusting and floundering creatures, eternally pining, groping, and love-seeking-out-ing? Or are you just working something out?

Wain: I’m not making that meta-comment. Wainy Days is no more or less than an ongoing tickling of my memories of yearning for girls, for relationships, for making out, for sex . . . the period that dominated my real life from my pre-teens through my late ’30s. Wish fulfillment with tragic consequences.

Rumpus: I’ve been thinking for days about how to characterize your kind of comedy. It’s not “slapstick” or “romantic comedy” or like “Frasier.” In a word, I’d say it’s “absurdist.” In a metaphor, I’d say it’s what I want to do on a daily basis to eschew mundanity, but if I did it, I’d be arrested or committed. How would you classify your humor? Do you even believe it can be pigeonholed in such a way as I have done just now?

Wain: Labeling is always hard, but I guess “absurdist” is fair and sounds kind of cool. Like I’m part of a movement in Paris or something. I don’t think that word covers a whole voice, but no word could. My kind of comedy is just the alchemy of all my particular tastes, interests, thoughts, and experiences.

stellaposterRumpus: And how about getting it out there? Some say that print media is dying because of the fucking Internet. Is the opposite true for shows like Stella, Wainy Days, and Childrens’ Hospital?

Wain: Definitely Wainy Days and Childrens’ Hospital are not dying because of the Internet, because that’s the only medium they’ve ever existed on.

Rumpus: Wainy Days is on MyDamnChannel.com. This Web site seems to be doing what regular television can’t; empower artists and be good. Is this the future of television?

Wain: Hard to know exactly where it’s all going. One reason MDC can empower artists is because of the small scale on which it works. Budgets are low; the experiment is new. But as soon as something starts really bringing in bucks–no matter what the medium–you can be sure there will be pressure to tailor it to a wider demographic.

Rumpus: Perhaps one day we’ll achieve a symbiotic relationship between content and demographic (that doesn’t sacrifice quality); I believe your work is getting us closer. That’s just my uncalled for opinion. Moving on. This is a stupid question, but there are no stupid questions, so I’ll ask anyway: why weren’t you in Wet Hot American Summer?

Wain: I did have a part–a scene with Kerri Kenney, which you can see on the DVD. It was my first time directing a feature, so I didn’t feel comfortable doing a larger role. As for why my scene got cut out? Just one too many tangents that didn’t move to the story forward so late in the film.

Rumpus: In the interest of tangents, in an episode of Wainy Days, you say, “Just look at me, I’m wearing glasses. She’s gonna think I’m hideous.” I wear glasses too. Do you assume I’m hideous?

Wain: I find women with glasses to be almost always more sexy. In fact it’s something of a fetish. When my girlfriend got laser surgery to fix her eyesight, I bought her clear lenses for her glasses so she could keep wearing them. She never does.

Rumpus: I feel like we just experienced a moment of unfettered passion. But I’ll respect that you have a significant other and ask a legitimate question that will sublimate our connection. In the corpus of your work, I’ve noticed you’ve insulted Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. I’m assuming you’ve insulted other great men of words, and I haven’t yet noticed. This isn’t a question. I just think it’s funny.

Wain: :)

Rumpus: :)

Rumpus (again): Much of your career seems to be centered around being a writer/director of film and television. You’ve also contributed to such books as Bar Mitzvah Disco: The Music May Have Stopped, but the Party’s Never Over, Things I’ve Learned from Women Who’ve Dumped Me, and Rejected: Tales of the Failed, Dumped, and Canceled. Are you interested in writing an important memoir or novel?

Wain: Maybe someday–I suppose though that I’d first have to read one.

Rumpus: You should read Michael Showalter’s important memoir when he writes it. Regarding your own writing, in Things I’ve Learned from Women Who’ve Dumped Me, you say “Persistence Is for Suckers.” Is it possible to learn something from the bastards who have dumped us? Because really, fuck them.

Wain: Every breakup comes with a lesson. That’s true!

Rumpus: A part of me would like to sit down in a café with you (a real “hole in the wall” with a beatnik clientele, a few too many copies of The Da Vinci Code toppling over on graveyard shelves, and board-game tops strewn about on mismatching chairs), you drinking coffee, me drinking non-caffeinated tea, and the two of us just talking about all the lessons we’ve learned about heartbreak. Another larger part of me wants to change the subject. When I looked at your Wikipedia page, it says you “dabbled in theatre”; then I clicked on the “theatre” link and it brought me to the Wikipedia page about theatre, but it didn’t tell me anything about you. Don’t you think that’s annoying? Second part of the question: SEX, a.k.a. Weiners and Boobs marks your foray into musicals and live theatre; what does live action offer that film does not?

Rob Cordry in The Children's Hospital

Rob Cordry in Childrens' Hospital

Wain: Well, all forms of live performance (for me, Stella on stage, The State live, playing in a band, and doing a play) offer that immediate feedback from an audience that is irreplaceable. There’s nothing like the thrill of going out there and doing it . . . a movie is a fifteen-month-long process, and there really is no one MOMENT where it all comes together. In live performance it does all culminate in one time.

Rumpus: With regard to The Ten, which you wrote (with Ken Marino) and directed, you said: “I have no pretensions that this movie will change the world; my only expectation is that it will change the way everyone on this planet thinks and behaves.” Expectation is a harlot that can suck the marrow out of bones, or something. Were your expectations met on this one?

Wain: I’m pleased to say that, yes, The Ten has changed the world in many ways. For example, the housing crisis.

Rumpus: Good point. In Finishing the Novel, a 1997 short film staring you and Amanda Peet, you finish a novel and then burn it (repeatedly). In “Novel,” an episode of Stella guest-starring Janeane Garofalo, you write a novel, finish it, get it stolen, write a second, burn it, and then are almost killed over the original. What are you trying to say about novels?

Wain: Honestly, I’ve read maybe five novels in my life. Maybe this is me wanting to make up for something. The truth is also that the Stella episode you refer to was inspired by the short film.

Rumpus: Oh. I didn’t mean to be redundant. But being repetitive is nice: in “Novel,” Janeane Garofalo’s character suggests getting out of a rut by writing a novel. But I think writing a novel puts you into a rut. Can you explain this paradox?

Wain: All things have two sides! Look at nuclear power.

Rumpus: I hadn’t thought of it like that. But I’m still fixated on something. In “Novel,” you portray writers as erudite, elite, and full of shit. Are you channeling your real attitude toward writers through your art? What have writers ever done to you?

Wain: The only novelists I’ve ever met are nice, sweet, cool people. The portrayal really comes from other portrayals from movies and TV.

Rumpus: Those other portrayals are slanderous and not nice. Aside from that, in the article “Three Men and an Abortion,” Tim Bracy and Elizabeth Nelson create a canon of “vanguard artists” that includes Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, and Stella. You are thrown together not only for your departure from the mainstream, but for taking what is mainstream and exploding it in melodramatic and stylized gestures. Regarding Stella alone (although I would argue this applies in a more universal way), Bracy and Nelson claim you, Michael Showalter, and Michael Ian Black attempt “to imagine the flagrantly mad form of the ’70s and ’80s era sitcom played out to its logical and often disturbing extremes.” Would you say you all, in fact, imagined that? Or do penis-and-vagina jokes just make you laugh?

Wain: Both are true. In some ways what we do is just playing things out to their logical conclusion in a way that’s normally not done. And yes penis jokes can be funny!

Rumpus: There was an article about Stella in Penthouse magazine. Why weren’t you topless? And in a general sense, why don’t you pose topless ever? And in a less general sense, do you prefer to be respected for your mind instead of your body?

Wain: I’ve posed topless many times! Mademoiselle magazine did a spread of the whole State naked once, I recall. [Rumpus intrusion: scroll to the bottom of The State's Web site to see the spread.] I’d love to be respected for my body first, my mind second.

Rumpus: Wouldn’t we all. Which leads me to Role Models (which is out on DVD!). The movie follows irreverent characters, but these characters are maybe 47 percent as anomalous and idiosyncratic as characters in Stella, Wet Hot American Summer, The State, Wainy Days, etc. Why the shift to seriousness?

Wain: It’s a studio movie and therefore a different animal. It needs to connect to a larger number of people in order to be profitable. I chose not to fight against that but to try to work within that structure and still bring my voice.

Rumpus: I don’t know one person who didn’t see Role Models and love it, and I don’t know one person who didn’t see it; all of this is to say, you were successful re: above. Re: success, where would you place yourself in the canon of comedy? You’re such a contributor to what I think of as “smart comedy” that rescues audiences from the banal/the unoriginal/the trite and played-out; how do you see yourself in the role as niche/genre creator?

Wain: I know this sounds pretentious, but I really just try to do my thing and what feels funny or right or has integrity TO ME. And try to find situations where I’m allowed to do that and can also earn a living. I know that in different ways The State and Stella and Wet Hot have been influential on others, and that’s great. As to what’s in the canon, in general . . . who can say?

Rumpus: Is your work really just a manifestation of chaos theory?heffstella1841450

Wain: I wouldn’t know.

Rumpus: Yeah, that was a pretty stupid question. Do you want to talk about any current or upcoming projects?

Wain: Role Models DVD came out March 10th, Wainy Days new episodes coming soon, and all updates always at www.davidwain.com

Rumpus: This is my second interview ever. Would you say I’m getting better or worse?

Wain: Better!


Elissa Bassist edits the Funny Women column. Follow her on Twitter, and visit elissabassist.com for more literary, feminist, and personal criticism. More from this author →