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David Wain on The State’s “Taco Man” and the Importance of Silliness

David Wain. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Getty Images

David Wain is quite literally an elder statesman of comedy. Okay, maybe not elder, but certainly a statesman. He was part of the 11-member college sketch team that became The State, the groundbreaking MTV comedy series. From there, he worked with collaborators like Ken Marino, Michael Showalter, and Michael Ian Black on projects like Wet Hot American Summer, which he directed, and followed that up by directing movies The Ten, Role Models, and They Came Together, his web series Wainy Days, and co-creating series like Childrens Hospital, Stella, and the new Medical Police on Netflix.

In this episode of the new, improved, and now weekly Good One podcast, Wain talks about Wet Hot American Summer, The State’s “Taco Man” sketch co-written by Kevin Allison and Michael Ian Black, directing, and making comedy for your inner 11-year-old. You can read some excerpts from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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On His Writing Process

There’s a thing called automatic writing. I think we often do that with typing, where we’ll just literally start typing and see what got typed.

I remember being in the writers’ room of Medical Police and I’m working as an EP, like going through a script with the writers altogether. I’m the one on the keyboard, but we’re all looking at the screen and we’re all revising or talking through a script. I’ll just be writing down what everyone’s pitching, but then I’ll add on a new joke basically to entertain the room. Sometimes those become the best jokes or my favorite jokes in the show. 

But then [you] have the chance to [go], “Let’s see if that weird random joke does stand the test of draft after draft after draft,” and go through the whole process of postproduction and everything. So that by the time you get to set, you’ve actually honed that joke. It’s been on the table read, or you’ve read it over and over, and you’re still laughing at it, then you’re [like], “Okay, keep it. Keep it going.”

On How Good Editing Makes Good Comedy

I always think of it as everything up to the edit is just gathering your crayons, and then editing is creating the story for the first time, in many ways, for me. I’ve learned over and over and in deeper ways through all these decades how true that really is, especially in comedy. It’s so crazy. If you add three frames, which is a fraction of a second, to a reaction shot, it can change it from not funny to funny. Or the other way around. Lowering the volume of a voice, or just shifting an off-camera line a half a second, one direction or the other. These aren’t like minor, esoteric. It’s like truly the difference between a real laugh and nothing. And then of course, the bigger decisions of “Include that scene, but take that scene out,” or “Change the lines in this,” or “Cut this part in half,” or “Forget this part of the story.”

The movie They Came Together is an example where we made a 90-minute movie that was okay. Part of me realized, If there was only a way to take out half the movie and replace it and leave in the best stuff, and that’s what we ended up doing. We took out half the movie and shot all that connector material of four people talking at a table, all in eight hours, and created a new movie that, for me, works beginning to end. And that was basically an editing thing.

On the Integrity of His Brand of Irreverence

Whereas other people’s way of hitting at their truth is to speak very literally about what’s going on in their marriage or what it’s like to live their current life, I feel like my way of accessing my truth is to access the sense of humor and the point of view that I’ve tried to not completely extinguish that was there when I was 11.

I think that comedy with integrity is important and appreciated and needed. I know it really pleases me when I see that sometimes people come up to me and they’re like, “It’s been a tough year and I just wanted to let go and laugh at something. And boy, did that work for me.” I just feel like the care and fun and effort that we put in translates all the way to the people who receive it, in the best circumstances. And that’s important. I think the saddest part of our business is how many people are stuck either consciously or not making things that … You can see a movie, and there’s hundreds of people that work on it, and you get a sense sometimes that there’s no one involved who actually really cared about it. They’re all just doing a job. And that’s sad for them and for the people who have to watch it. 

On How The State Came Up With “Taco Man”

Jim Sharp was our producer when we did The State, and he was this very straightforward guy who we loved from Seattle. He was just like, “There’s just got to be more jokes” or “Put more jokes on the page; start with a joke.” So my guess is we were saying, “Well, there’s a mailman, and then he puts a taco in the mail,” and playing it without even a hair of comedic twist.

I definitely know that [with] the mailbox going away, we just decided to do that because we had a prop mailbox that we had been given by our department. And “Goodbye mailbox,” I just improvised that. I’ve seen T-shirts. People have tattoos that say “Goodbye mailbox.”

I’ve noticed this over time … I’ve spent weeks and many hundreds of thousands of dollars of other people’s money putting together comedic sequences and big feature films and other TV shows that are long forgotten, and this little dinky thing that we probably wrote in ten minutes and shot in 20 minutes has seemed to stand the test of time. I’ve been teased by my colleagues over the years for being a big fan of my own stuff. But certainly when I watch The State, I think some of it is definitely, to my mind, filler — like any sketch show. And some of it just doesn’t hold up in terms of these times or where comedy has gone in 30 years, 20 years. But a lot of it does to me, and this is one of the better examples. I have no notes on that sketch. It is, to me, a perfect little thing.

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David Wain on “Taco Man” and the Importance of Silliness