Until last month, it seemed like The State—an early-’90s MTV sketch show starring most of the casts of Reno 911!, Stella, and Wet Hot American Summer—would be nothing more than a comedy legend; DVDs had yet to materialize, and available material was limited to stray YouTube clips and hard-to-nab VHS tapes. But after years of toil (and dealing with music-rights issues), a full-series DVD set has finally arrived. And it’s chockfull of extras, including extensive cast commentary and a ton of deleted scenes and outtakes. David Wain deserves most of the praise for making it happen: the director of Wet Hot, The Ten, and Role Models was the man who stepped up to work with the studio, walking the project through from start to finish. The 40-year-old comic has since co-created Stella, written for MADtv, and produced his own popular web series, Wainy Days. Just as the DVDs were being released, The A.V. Club called Wain during a busy day of meetings to discuss the history of The State, the group’s early cockiness, and why studios won’t ever make another Wet Hot American Summer.
The A.V. Club: Up until now, every interview with a State member has ended with, “When are The State DVDs coming out?”
David Wain: Every interview for 10 years, you’re right, ends with, “All right, now before I go, I just gotta ask…” so they gotta think up another question now.
AVC: Whenever anyone except you is asked, they always refer people back to you. What makes you the go-to responsible guy?
DW: It dates way back; somehow I was the geek who sort of took the organizational reins, starting back when they were 18 years old with The State. So I became the go-to guy for such. That’s part of the reason I became a director, is because people are just like, “I don’t know, ask David.” And then I would make something up.
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AVC: Was it just that people didn’t want to step up and take charge?
DW: Pretty much. I mean, when we were freshmen, sophomores in college, it was, “Oh, we have to get a theater space for, like, 50 people, and we’ve gotta make little tickets, and who’s gonna type up the program with the Macintosh computer?” So yeah, people just gravitate toward the things they like to do, and I sort of liked doing that busywork, for God knows what reason.
AVC: How did you get involved with the group?
DW: Well, I wasn’t in the original original group. The short story is that, when I got to NYU in the fall of ’87, I got very quickly involved with a sketch-comedy troupe run by a guy named Mo Willems who’s gone on to become one of the top children’s book writers in the world right now. But at the time, he was a sophomore at NYU and a self-styled comedy guru. He put together this sketch group, and I’d seen a show they had done, and I was so excited. It was the same kind of thing that The State turned out to be. When I became a sophomore—I’m sure this has been written about a million times—basically, the school required us to add new members to the group for it to be a college club, and we refused to do that. So we decided to start, like, a B-team of freshmen who could have their own group and do whatever they wanted. Todd Holoubek, who was in the first group, offered to leave and put together this B-team. And that was called The New Group, as opposed to The Original Group. I went to see their first show, and I was like, “Holy shit, these freshmen, there are guys who I was ready to make fun of for the next two weeks, who are in another league from what our group does.” I was completely embarrassed. I’m not sure our group did another show after that. We just sort of fell away. And I was friends with everybody anyway, because we all just kind of knew each other. And Ken Marino was my roommate. I’d met and become close friends with Ken Marino my first day of school.
AVC: Has that story been told a million times?
DW: That story is pretty much that I was rooming at NYU with my childhood friend who I grew up with, Craig Wedren, and this other guy named Ross. This story has not been told to death. Ross was from Long Island, and he had a high-school friend named Ken Marino who was also in the same dorm building. And when Ken came by the first day, Craig and Ken and I, all three, basically hit it off, and we’ve stayed friends until this very day. So when The New Group did their first show, I think I made their program for them and was kind of around, maybe helping them with a few things. But then I subsequently, quite literally, begged to be admitted into the group, and they let me in. We did a Christmas show, which was this whole story of being locked in a cabin, and I guess that was in early ’89 at the Brittany dorm at NYU. And that was my introduction. They were like, “It’s David Wain!” And that was my first show with The New Group.
AVC: The sketches on The State are really tight, even though the group is very young. What were those early rehearsals like? What kinds of skills did you drill?
DW: In the college days, we definitely worked and rehearsed a ton. It’s hard to believe now, because I don’t think I rehearse for anything like that anymore. But I definitely don’t know when we went to class, because all I really remember about college is sitting with The State and rehearsing all the time. And writing and thinking and working out our material. We would also do little exercises, like we would play freeze tag and little improv games, but we were much more of a writing-based group than an improv-based group. For whatever reason, we really inspired each other to be tireless about the work. We took it really, really seriously, which I’m grateful for.
AVC: You guys worked on You Wrote It, You Watch It right after school. How did you get noticed by MTV among the myriad sketch-comedy groups?
DW: Well first of all, I think there were way less at that time; like, I don’t think there were a zillion sketch groups like there are now. The explosion of YouTube and [Upright Citizens Brigade] particularly have changed that landscape, and cable being bigger than it was then. We’re talking about the ’80s still, and the early ’90s. But the real answer is that I was interning at MTV, because I had already graduated, and I was working as a field producer and writer doing rock documentaries. They had also seen my short film “Aisle Six,” which had gotten some awards and gone to Sundance and stuff. So they were developing this You Wrote It, You Watch It show, and looking for people to come direct sketches, which would be like field pieces. They would get letters from viewers saying, “Here’s a funny story,” and the directors would go out and shoot this random group of actors acting out the stories. I’m going into so much more detail than is necessary, but I already started, so… Anyway, then I went back to the group because we were still doing the group stuff all the time, and I said, “They’re doing this show. What do you think?” We all thought it would be so much better to interview people on camera and intercut the re-enactments of their funny stories with the interviews. I pitched that to MTV, and they were like, “No, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re just this 21-year old kid.”
AVC: It takes a lot of guts for an intern to pitch something like that.
DW: At the time, it was more like I was one step above an intern; I was a field guy or whatever. But at MTV, the average age at the time of everybody there was like 24. So anyway, they were like, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” excepting that we went back that night and shot, like, three of these pieces on a Hi8 video camera. And then we, like, snuck into NYU and edited them with a little non-linear editing, and stole props from NYU and did these three pieces. Those pieces, as like a total spec demo overnight, ended up being on You Wrote It, You Watch It, and they hired us to do more. They hired us as a sketch group, and we insisted that we work entirely on our own; we didn’t want to interact with the rest of the show. We had this incredible cockiness from day one, which, I think, really did serve us. Really from day one. We had worked with ourselves for four years before that, and we were like, “We’re the best, we know what we’re doing, nobody else does. Fuck the world.” And so we had that attitude going in, and what we didn’t realize is that all the executives at MTV were like 25, 28, so they thought, “Oh, I guess these guys really know what they’re talking about.” They put us in a room for about 13 weeks, paid us nothing, and gave us no budget, and said, “Here, you deal with all these pieces.” And we ran around. We were our own crew and we did our own little videos for You Watch It. We got to know Jon Stewart at the time, because he was the host of it.
AVC: What did that show and The State teach you about working with the entertainment industry?
DW: Um, nothing. Well. I mean, we didn’t realize how good we had it, even though in some ways we did. We were completely protected from the industry. We had only dealt with each other and with our producer, Jim Sharp. It was very isolated—we were in New York’s MTV office building making The State, and didn’t feel like we were part of any industry, or interacting with any industry. We were just doing our show, but with a budget.
AVC: Seems like you guys had a unique experience.
DW: I guess every route is different, but ours did feel, in retrospect, pretty crazy; that we were handed the keys to a television show, not just as actors and writers, but really as producers, directors, and crew, right out of college.
AVC: Did that come from, as you were saying before, that cockiness?
DW: In my opinion, yes. I don’t know how to say this without sounding cocky now, but also, because it was really good. The pieces we did on You Wrote It, You Watch It were considered by them to be clearly the best part of that show. Then we did a pilot for MTV, and the pilot was well received, and they ordered six episodes at first, and it went from there.
AVC: In a previous interview with The A.V. Club, Tom Lennon mentioned you guys had gotten into fistfights. What were the issues that riled you guys up?
DW: One that I remember is that we were walking down the street one time, and Ken Marino, sort of purposely trying to bug me, pulled a little piece of hair out of my back. So I turned around without even a breath and smacked him on his back as hard as I possibly could. But as far as, like, the fights within the group… You know, it was just that we were 11 people working together incredibly intensely—24 hours, really, because if we weren’t working, we were out drinking together. Although I didn’t actually drink per se at that time. Everyone was really opinionated, and that brew was pretty contentious at times. We fought about everything, from the color of someone’s shirt to this line or that line, or choosing this sketch over that sketch—casting, whatever. And also we had an agreement that every major decision had to be agreed on by consensus of all 11. It was very tough. And we would talk it through to the wee hours if we had to.
AVC: It seems like, even back then, people tended to gravitate toward certain players and combinations that are around today: Tom, Ben Garant, and Kerri Kenney played a lot together, and you and the Michaels have a lot of shared scenes. Were those associations present in the early stages?
DW: I suppose they must have been. But it didn’t feel like that to me. It really didn’t. I felt like I wrote at least one thing with every member of the group, at one point or another. The associations changed depending on the topic at hand. Everybody was mixing and matching all the time. And oftentimes when we’d get into a fight about something, the group would split in half, but sometimes it would be hard to predict who would be on each side. But yes, of course, I guess in retrospect, the sort of Reno group eventually started to work more closely together than maybe the Stella side. Who knows?
AVC: Is Stella a natural progression from The State?
DW: It was pretty natural, I guess. I feel like everything I’ve done has sort of been a natural progression from one to the other. It’s clearly like all part of a whole, which makes me happy. And I’m glad to say that the work I do has a certain voice.
AVC: You’ve mentioned that often movie execs will say to you, “Oh, I love Wet Hot American Summer. What a great movie. Can you please make a completely different movie?”
AVC: Where does that aversion come from?
DW: From the movie executives. Their thing is, they watch it, and either they’re completely lying, or, they watch it and they really laugh. Or they don’t get it and someone else watches it and tells them it’s really hip and cool to like Wet Hot American Summer, but then they look it up and say, “Oh, it only grossed $300,000, so…”
AVC: Wow. Really?
DW: In theaters, yeah. And so there’s no way that they’re going to be like, “Let’s have that in our company.” But it’s also classic movie-executive think, which is, “What we really want you to do is recreate last year’s hit.” So if I had that meeting today, they would say, “Oh man, Wet Hot American Summer is my favorite movie. Now can you make The Hangover?”
AVC: Did you feel that kind of pressure when you were working on Role Models?
DW: Role Models was a different situation, and a lucky one for me, because this was a movie that had been in crisis; they had lost a director, and had a shoot-start date, but the script wasn’t ready. They needed someone to come in, take charge, and make it happen. And they weren’t so picky. In a way, I think they were saying that someone just needed to get the thing shot, and then they’d be happy enough. So that was the expectation.
AVC: At what phase did you come in?
DW: There had been numerous drafts of the script, done by numerous writers, but none that the combined team was completely happy with. So Paul Rudd and Ken Marino and myself stripped it down to five index cards on a wall, and just wrote a script pretty much from scratch. But we used broad strokes of the story that Timothy Dowling developed over a couple years of having worked on the project. Which is why Timothy Dowling has a story credit.
AVC: How did you meet Paul Rudd? Wet Hot American Summer?
DW: It was a little before. It was the late ’90s. I had first met him because he came to see the play that [Michael] Showalter and Joe Lo Truglio and I wrote, Sex, A.k.a. Weiners And Boobs, and he thought it was funny. He had been friends with Zak Orth, because they had worked together on the Romeo+Juliet movie. And Zak, I think, knew Showalter from something, and he started to get to know Stella, and eventually being very, very loosely acquainted with him and then mutual fans, we asked him to do this Wet Hot American Summer thing, which was nothing more than a silly script we’d written at the time.
AVC: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you haven’t had a chance to watch the State DVDs all the way through.
DW: Yeah, in fact, I still haven’t. You know, it’s one of those things where on one hand, I haven’t seen them in so many years, and it’s just sort of a mind-blowing experience to see them, and almost in the same breath, we worked so hard on those things, and I was particularly involved in the editing, that I wonder if there’s any inch of it that I don’t still remember. I could recite those episodes by the time we finished them. But I would very much like to watch them.
AVC: Going back and revisiting the material, did you encounter any surprises?
DW: It was really neat to see how much time has gone by, and how much older we are now. I only saw the stuff that we needed to work on, like music or sound, or the selected episodes that I did commentary on. So I have not even seen in any form, in any of this time, many of the episodes. But it’s been a long time. And the fact that we’re all still friends and still work together… It’s just a cool thing. And yet the other thing I was struck by in some of it is, the stronger stuff that we did back then is as good as anything. I don’t know that I’ve done so much better since then, as I’ve gone into my 20s, 30s, and 40s.
AVC: What do you think that ensemble familiarity brings to the comedy?
DW: When a friend and I really, really get the humor of a joke, then we can take it to another level without having to worry about the first level. Part of what I like about, for example, Stella—which many people didn’t like—was how there’s this joke going on that only the three of us seemed to get. I love it, I think of it as a band. But it can be very off-putting, like, “Obviously these guys find each other hysterical, but I’m not in on the joke.” You know?
AVC: Shows today still try to bring funny people together who don’t necessarily know each other, and hope for the best.
DW: And sometimes it works and often it doesn’t. When I was working at MADtv as a writer in the late ’90s, after having done The State, all the people there were very nice, very talented, and good at what they did. But it just didn’t seem like the right way to do it, for me, because there’s no organic assembly of this group. And that’s what I was so used to with The State—there’s a chemistry you have before you throw in all the cameras.