Interview with David Wain about his work on the Stella TV Sitcom

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It is hard to believe anyone who enjoys comedy wouldn’t know about David Wain. He is an incredibly talented individual who has worked screenwriting, directing, and producing on various movies & TV shows. A short list of projects include Wet Hot American Summer, The State, and more recently Childrens Hospital which airs on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.

Stella is the comedy trio of Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain. The group first started by performing stand-up comedy which gained a tremendous fan following over time. Eventually the guys filmed a small collection of Stella Shorts which ended up on YouTube and other video streaming websites. As popularity grew the guys eventually landed a short-lived TV sitcom on Comedy Central.

Although the show only ran for one season, it is still one of my top 3 absolute favorite sitcoms of all time. Stella fans around the world would agree that their writing style is unmatched and exceptionally unique. I got a chance to bounce some questions off David regarding the Stella television show and his ideas surrounding the creative process.

Jake: What were some of the biggest changes going from a web series to a show on Comedy Central?

David: We knew that they were two different animals and the goal was not to re-create the web series on TV. Also for the record we didn’t think of Stella Shorts as a web series. The shorts were made primarily to be shown at our live nightclub show in New York, one time each. The fact that they went up on the Internet was something of an afterthought. This might have formed how free we let ourselves be, really not thinking many people would ever see them.

So in the shorts we knew that part of it was pushing the boundaries of taste as far as we could. For the TV show we decided that instead of doing a watered-down version of the shorts, we’d go for a different variation still inspired by the same sensibility. So the characters would have a home base, neighbors etc, but still no particular explanation of who they are or why they live together. And we went the opposite direction in terms of visual style, going for something more slick and specific.

Jake: What would be a typical walkthrough for writing an episode of Stella from start to finish?

David: The three of us met in a rented apartment in Manhattan during the winter of 2005 to basically brainstorm all of the storylines. It’s actually hard to remember exactly, but I think we then just divvied up the writing and banged out the scripts. Then we’d talk about them, rewrite, etc.

The rewriting continued extensively throughout the shooting that summer.

Jake: Can you go into some detail about the portrayal of more sophisticated ideas like discussing literature, wearing full suits, culinary skills, etc?

David: The wearing of suits was because when we first started our nightclub show at Fez in NYC(the first version of “Stella”) we just wore suits because we wanted it to be a “dressed up” night of comedy; In contrast with most of the other “alternative” comedy nights at the time which were very loose and in the back of dive bars, etc.

So with the three of us hosting in our suits, when we made the first short, we decided to keep the suits on to make it seem like (as a joke) we went turkey hunting in the afternoon right before coming to the club.

The idea of us always wearing suits in the shorts quickly stuck.

Discussing literature, culinary skills… With the three of us writing every word of every episode, we just pulled from anything that was ever on our minds!

Jake: How do your own personalities intermix with the writing when you guys are acting on screen? Do you purposefully write intricacies about yourself to be played out by these characters?

David: I would say yes. The three characters were very much heightened/twisted versions of our real selves. I don’t know that we set out to put in real details of who we were into the scripts, but it was a natural thing to do.

Jake: Are there any specific themes or motifs to be found within Stella as a TV series, or within the trio altogether?

David: I’m sure there are many but at the risk of sounding like a douche, I think that’s a question for the viewers and not us.

Jake: It seems like these guys without a job are always striving towards some creative outlet be it writing, music, choreography… Could you maybe expand on this idea?

David: I suppose that mirrors our existence at the time! I turned 35 during the shooting of the Stella series on Comedy Central. From age 27 to 34 my employment was sporadic and income was very low. So my real life was a lot of cooking up ideas and projects and learning skills and just basically trying to keep busy without much in the way of real work.

Jake: I also notice much of the writing in Stella seems to juxtapose ideas of mature adults with childish humor and immaturity. Can you reflect on this a bit and maybe how it influences your current writing projects?

David: That juxtaposition for whatever reason seems to be something I’ve always gravitated towards. I guess growing up I had this innate discomfort with certain social norms and fantasized about breaking them(e.g. pushing people down in the street, which I then did in Wainy Days). So that plays into everything in some way.

Jake: To focus on a more somber tone, why do you honestly think Stella was cancelled after the first season?

David: It’s not a mystery — it didn’t get very good ratings. Plus it was very expensive relative to Comedy Central’s other shows at the time. So it was a logical decision for them to pull the plug.

That said, I think they should have given it a chance. We could have brought the budget way down having learned a lot that first season, and the ratings could have been worse. But that’s the decision they made.

Jake: Stella paints a very surrealist yet vivid picture along with the music and I’ve never seen another TV show do this before. Can you expand on the idea of this idealistic “Stella universe” where everything takes place?

David: Our intention was really to just create a neutral world where our craziness would blatantly stick out. Any other elements to it beyond that were probably subconscious.

Or maybe I’ve forgotten!

Jake: Out of all the jobs and titles you’ve held which has been the most intellectually rewarding?

David: As much as I’ve worn many hats on many different kinds of projects over the years, I honestly feel like I’ve done one single job. The title might be “Maker of Comedy”.

And in total it’s been a lot of fun and has been very rewarding.

Jake: Please David, any last bits of advice for writers?

David: Well I’ve learned so many things over the years. But the one that sticks with me the most is that quantity is as important as quality, especially early on.

For example on “The State” I always knew that if I could discipline myself to write ten sketches, there was a far higher probability that there was a good one in there vs. if I wrote only two.

And that’s it!

I just want to give another huge thanks out to David Wain for his time and patience. I know he is a busy guy with a lot on his schedule, and I feel very honored to share this interview with the rest of the world. If you’d like to see more of David’s current work try out Childrens Hospital which can be seen on Adult Swim or downloaded from iTunes as individual season packs.

Oh and if you’re a Stella fan who still doesn’t have the DVD set I must give my personal recommendation! Each episode features additional commentary with Black, Showalter, and Wain. Plus it has bonus material including their full 20+ minute Comedy Central Presents special. This is truly a must-have DVD compilation for any Stella lover.

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Tyler is a true culture fanatic with love for comic books, music, movies, video games, and all forms of pop culture.

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