David Wain Is the Low-Key God of Comedy

The main behind 'Wet Hot American Summer' deserves more credit than he's got.

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Complex Original

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Judd Apatow's latest movie, the Amy Schumer-starring Trainwreck, is the most successful comedy of the summer. With an opening weekend of $30 million, the movie blew past expectations and might have won the weekend had it not been up against a Marvel movie (Ant-Man) and a movie about yellow, foreign-speaking villain-servants with a surprisingly built-in audience (Minions). But if we're being honest, Trainwreck runs into a lot of the same problems Apatow's previous flops, Funny People and This Is 40, did—it's unnecessarily muddled at points, it hunts for jokes instead of letting them happen naturally (right, Marv Albert?), and it's much longer than it needs to be. After accelerating to the top with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up—both unassailable greats—and introducing us to every comedic star ever, Judd's game has been a little weak. Which is to say that while he struggles to reignite the man-child magic he had in the early 2000s, there's been another director plugging away with his own very specific brand of comedy, churning out classics under the radar—David Wain. 

Now listen, I don't mean to throw Judd Apatow under the bus. Clearly he knows what he's doing—his movies make bank, and aside from directing he's also been behind a ton of great 21st century comedies like Step BrothersSuperbadPineapple Express and Bridesmaids. Apatow's successful and smart, if a little stagnate—and he's just a perfect jumping off point for us in this case because David Wain is basically bizarro him.

As Apatow is the spiritual leader for a group of now-huge stars like Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, James Franco, Jason Segel, and Paul Rudd, David Wain is the leader to off-beat but hilarious actors like Michael Ian Black, Ken Marino, Michael Showalter, and... Paul Rudd. Both directors largely stick with their squads, which give their movies a similar sense of camaraderie and continuity. But their brands of comedy are by no means the same.

After graduating from NYU in the late '80s, Wain co-founded The State, a comedy troupe that featured the aforementioned Black, Showalter and Marino, as well as recognizable stars like Thomas Lennon (Reno 911!) and Joe Lo Truglio (Brooklyn Nine-Nine). The State landed their own show on MTV (because MTV was alt-ish and cool back then), where they showcased an absurd style of comedy that was equal parts self-aware and zany a la Monty Python. They produced skits like "Louie and the Last Supper," where Jesus is super disappointed in Judas for inviting Louie, that guy who won't stop saying his catchphrase, "I'm gonna dip my balls in it." Or "Bologna Foot," a sketch about a guy who has it really hard and is totally misunderstood because he has bologna sandwiches for feet. After The State, Wain re-teamed with Black and Showalter to make up Stella. The comedy trio made a pilot for VH1 before landing a Comedy Central Presents special in 2004, and then a full-fledged series in 2005. Stella featured more of the same absurdist humor, though it was more focused on lampooning modern-day society and masculinity. Take the episode "Meeting Girls," which featured the three guys cruising for girls like a bunch of cheesy bros on a Friday night, only to fall into comically ridiculous and exponentially escalating relationships the day after.

But by the time Stella was being criminally underappreciated (more or less an underlying theme through Wain's career), he had already dropped his big-screen opus, Wet Hot American Summer. The 2001 indie comedy cost only $1.8 million and basically set the stage for the future of comedy, featuring alums from The State and now-icons like Rudd, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, H. Jon Benjamin, and even Bradley Cooper. It's insane to watch the movie now and try to comprehend how it didn't blow up, not only because of its star power, but because it's one of the funniest movies ever made. The quotables—from "Oh, fuck my cock" to "You taste like a burger. I don't like you anymore."—are endless, and there are too many iconic scenes, led by the epic bender a few of the characters go on when they take only an hour-long trip into town. What starts with a couple ice cream cones devolves into Michael Showalter doing heroin, and then a scene later everything's okay again. It's a singular movie that belongs in the all-time conversation with movies like Animal HouseCaddyshack, and The Holy Grail

Wain strung his comedy through the rest of the 2000s with another indie (the also underrated experimental film, The Ten) and a couple big studio projects, Role Models and Wanderlust, but still never really hit it big. That fact, and the fact that the studio movies—especially Wanderlust—are lesser films, isn't too surprising though. David Wain's style isn't exactly made for mainstream tastes, a point made extremely obvious by 2014's They Came Together, a rom-com parody that's SO self-aware it can be painful. It's a movie where Wain might've been too indulgent with his beat-you-over-the-head absurdism, but some of its scenes were funnier than anything else that came out last year.

The eight-episode miniseries Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, which hit Netflix today, might be the peak of David Wain. It affirms the importance of the original movie while also proving the clout he has as a director and an influencer—aside from getting all the original stars to come back, he added Jon Hamm, Michael Cera, Jason Schwartzman, Kristen Wiig and Chris Pine, among others. And of course it's a prequel. Having the characters meet up ten years later, as they discuss in the movie ("Why don't we say 9:30 and then make it your beeswax to be here by 9:30?"), would be too obvious—of course it's funnier to Wain to have actors who have aged 14 years play younger versions of themselves. And he's right—just look at younger Michael Showalter and older Michael Showalter:

That's gold.

So no, David Wain may not have as much name recognition as Judd Apatow; he may not be able to singlehandedly spawn a Lena Dunham into the world. But if we're talking about modern-day comedy, you're wrong if you think Wain hasn't made as large a mark as Apatow, from "Bologna Foot" to "You taste like a burger."

Now go burn through First Day of Camp as fast as the rest of us.

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