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David Wain and Michael Showalter Explain Their Sundance Rom-Com Parody They Came Together

David Wain, Michael Showalter. Photo: Mark Davis (Wain) Bobby Bank (Showalter)/Getty

It’s been thirteen years since David Wain and Michael Showalter debuted their cult comedy Wet Hot American Summer at the Sundance Film Festival, and they’re returning next week with a film that recaptures Wet Hot’s anarchic comic spirit: They Came Together, a knowing parody of romantic comedies that stars Paul Rudd as a high-powered executive and Amy Poehler as his potential soul mate, an adorable blonde shopkeeper whom Rudd’s about to put out of business. (If that sounds exactly like the plot of You’ve Got Mail, rest assured that the similarities are fully intentional.) The first clip from the movie made its way online yesterday, and we rang up Wain (who directed) and Showalter (who co-wrote the script and produced) to find out how much They Came Together spoofs the genre, what they really think of You’ve Got Mail, and whether there’s been any progress on a sequel to Wet Hot.

They Came Together obviously sends up the idea of romantic comedies, and the two of you seem to be students of the form: Michael, you even made a movie, The Baxter, that follows the sort of character who usually gets short shrift in a rom-com. Do both of you actually have a non-ironic appreciation for rom-coms?
David Wain: For both of us, it’s our favorite genre. We’ve spent so much time over the last few years watching and talking about our favorite rom-coms, and there are a few — Crossing Delancey would come to mind — that not everybody cites that we love. And just like with anything that you love, we also see all the clichés that we can make fun of as well, so it’s been this long-brewing idea to make our version of a romantic comedy that’s kind of off-the-wall and absurd.
Michael Showalter: I love romantic comedies, and David does too. Just like with Wet Hot American Summer, there’s parody, but there’s also homage. The movies that I loved in the genre were When Harry Met Sally, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Annie Hall, Say Anything … it’s a genre that’s so wonderful when it’s done well, and it can be funny but also life-affirming and romantic.
Wain: One of the funny things about making our movie, though, is that for as much as we were looking at the classics, we were also looking at movies that we remembered as being pale imitations. They gave us even more fodder for finding comedy in those clichés.
Showalter: In a weird way — and I’m speaking personally — there’s still something about those pale imitations and those conventions that I like. It’s comforting. It’s almost fun to be told what you should be thinking.
Wain: I feel like at some point, romantic comedies became like those serial Westerns that you used to go to, where you actually wanted it to be the same story every time. You wanted it to hit every genre touchstone because that’s the fun of going to those movies. It’s like watching an episode of Law & Order. You want it to follow that formula that you love.

You mentioned When Harry Met Sally, which didn’t get the greatest reviews when it came out. That seems to happen with a lot of rom-coms — take something like You’ve Got Mail, which only recently seems to have gained this one-for-the-pantheon reputation.
Showalter: I do remember that when When Harry Met Sally came out, there was a lot of criticism that it was a remake of Annie Hall.
Wain: I felt that way. It took me a couple of times watching it to really appreciate how great that movie was.
Showalter: I mean, I think You’ve Got Mail is not a good movie. That, to me, is one where the shark was just completely jumped. I’m not aware of its Zeitgeist [revival].
Wain: But you are correct that we did largely lift the plot of that movie for They Came Together.
Showalter: I think we did it because it felt like the sort of prototypical bad plot, basically. The other thing about You’ve Got Mail is by the time it happened, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan had done Sleepless in Seattle, Meg Ryan had done When Harry Met Sally and a slew of other romantic comedies, and that movie really was a movie where Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan were playing themselves. Like, just as long as it’s Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, screw everything else! It doesn’t matter if it’s a good movie, it’s just that we’re desperate to see these two people in a movie together! I thought it was very thin.
Wain: The truth is that with a lot of rom-coms — even the better ones — if you stop and take apart the plot, there are a lot of holes. That’s a lot of what our movie traffics in, pointing out what things don’t make sense.

These movies are often set in New York and they tend to present a very idealized image of the city. Do you guys have fun with that at all?
Wain: Yes, in a huge way. In fact, the characters are constantly commenting on how this is an “Only in New York!” story when, in fact, it has nothing to do with New York. We make sure to emphasize both inside and outside the movie how much “New York is like another character” because we feel like it’s the kind of thing you hear all the time from people who do romantic comedies, so we’re just going to say it over and over again.

How aggressively do you spoof the genre?
Wain: There’s a reason why this sort of movie works, so it’s a hard line when you’re trying to divert from the formula but still stick to a story that’s satisfying to the audience. In our case, though, we really are trying to undercut everything: It’s a true, silly, insane comedy that more than anything is spoofing the genre and making fun of it. At the same time, we have Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler at the center of it, who have a true chemistry and charm and affection for each other that you can see onscreen and that kind of overrides the spoof elements.

Paul Rudd has definitely done his fair share of rom-coms, too.
Wain: I think one of the reasons Paul Rudd was interested in doing this project was because he had been cast so many times as the regular guy rom-com lead who’s funny but not too threatening. In a way, this was how he wanted to put an end to that era of his career where he’s been typecast in that role.

Thirteen years later, what do you remember about coming to Sundance with Wet Hot American Summer?
Wain: We brought over 30 people with us from the movie, and we all crammed into a rented condo with a hot tub. Everyone was about 25 to 32 years old, and it was just one of those crazy blurs of a fun experience.
Showalter: I remember feeling a sort of morbid sense of dread. David and I couldn’t have had a more disparate experience of that. What I remember most about Sundance is that we didn’t have the audience reaction that I had hoped for, and that was crushing to me.
Wain: That’s for sure true. When you take an indie film to Sundance, the whole idea is to sell it and make a lot of money in a big deal — and if you don’t, to make at least a small deal. Something. But we didn’t get a single offer or inquiry from either the big or small distributors. Nobody took any interest in it at all.

It must be heartening, then, that Wet Hot has become such a cult comedy staple since. Your premiere audience is going to be packed with fans of that movie.
Wain: Audiences are definitely more interested in this sort of comedy than they were then, that’s for sure.
Showalter: I also think this movie is a little bit more accessible. With Wet Hot, there was certainly a large portion of our audience that did not understand what we were doing and truly did not know what they were looking at. That’s something that David and I have dealt with in a lot of the stuff we’ve done, where some of the jokes are really bad jokes and the joke is that we made the joke at all. Understandably, that nuance is lost on a lot of audience members, so they’re just going, “This isn’t that funny.” I think with They Came Together, we made an effort to kind of define the humor a little bit more clearly so that audiences are more in on the joke.
Wain: A lot of people over the years have told me that they saw Wet Hot American Summer for the first time and they were confused and not that impressed, and then they would see it a second time and think that it was their favorite comedy they’d ever seen. So we made an effort to see if we could make that happen from the first time on They Came Together.

I have to ask about the long-promised, potential sequel to Wet Hot American Summer.
Wain: It’s in process. I think that’s all we have to announce at the moment.

Does that mean that your thoughts about it are in process, or that the movie is in the process of actually getting made?
Wain: The project is in motion.
Showalter: [Laughs.] I love that David likes to be coy about these types of things. I will say that in Wet Hot, we were 30 years old playing teenagers, and I like the idea that if we do another one, we’ll be in our forties playing teenagers. If we do another Wet Hot project, [my character] Coop will be older and fatter.
Wain: With a gut.

Is They Came Together a You’ve Got Mail Parody?