They Came Together: Michael Showalter on the Wet Hot American Summer Series
Michael Showalter came with his "The State" cohort David Wain to co-write They Came Together, the merciless satire of romantic comedies starring Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler released today. It's a film that tests your familiarity with rom-com clichés, and also has scenes about pooping in a Halloween costume. When I called Michael Showalter on the phone to talk about his screenplay, both topics were very much on the table. Who knew that the pooping scene was based on a real-life incident in Showalter's childhood? Besides Michael Showalter, obviously…
We talk a lot about romantic comedies, tropes, pooping, the Wet Hot American Summer prequel series – which Showalter says takes place entirely on the first day of camp – and the prospect of reuniting the entire cast of "The State" for an original movie. Enjoy it.
CraveOnline: I feel like in order to fully appreciate this movie you have to love romantic comedies enough to recognize every detail, but also kind of despise them. Do you think that’s fair?
Michael Showalter: Right. Yes. I mean, it’s romantic comedies but there’s a lot of tropes to movies in general also going on. But I know, speaking for myself, tropes… I have a love/hate relationship with tropes in general. I love them. I feel satisfied that I sort of understanding what I’m being instructed to think. But then I also sort of feel dirty in some weird way for participating time and time again.
I realize how fawning this sounds, but I really do feel like this movie could be taught in film schools so you could recognize every trope.
Did you take copious notes on two or three movies just to make sure you got them all? Or is it all off of memory?
Honestly, I’ve just seen these movies so many times. I’m such a fan. I’m truly such a fan of the genre of the romantic comedy, and so these movies are really just in my DNA. As we’re writing the script you’re remember, “Oh yeah, and this is what would happen here.” It’s sort of like these stories are just ingrained in us. I didn’t really need to do much research because I have a catalogue of movies emblazoned into my psyche.
Did this script start with watching You’ve Got Mail and saying, “I’ve got an idea!” Where did it come from?
That’s a good question. It was so long ago. You know that we wrote the first draft of this script ten years ago, or even longer. I think it was just probably wanting to do another Wet Hot American Summer type movie, and just to sort of pick another genre that we really loved. Whereas Wet Hot American Summer is the summer camp teen comedy, we were thinking we wanted to try taking on the New York-Woody Allen-Nora Ephron rom-com.
At what point did you realize that you needed a framing device?
That happened… It happened pretty early on in the editing process, was a discussion of… We may run into some of the same quote-unquote “problems” we had with some of our other stuff. With Wet Hot there was this thing of a large portion of the audience, both reviewing the movie and audience members just watching it, not understanding that we were doing parody. So whereas in a lot of quote-unquote “spoof movies” there will set-up, set-up, set-up and then a big comic set piece, in the stuff we do everything’s a joke. Every single thing is a joke. Even when it looks like a set-up, a boring dialogue scene, those scenes are jokes too. And so I think that we felt like the audience was feeling a little bit confused, not sure if it was fish or fowl, kind of. So that was very early in our editing process we realized that we might need some way to tell the audience, to help them understand what the movie was.
Are you talking about editing the already shot film, or just editing the script?
Editing the already shot film.
It plays well. I would not have guessed it was all shot later.
Well now that it’s in there I think we all feel like it was one of those things that was sort of meant to be. I feel that way strongly, actually, that the framing device was the final piece to the puzzle. It wasn’t something where it was like, “Oh we need something to fix this movie.” It was actually a missing piece that we just didn’t realize we needed until the end.
What I think is really cool about it is, I was on your wavelength so maybe some of the information at the beginning I didn’t need, but by the end of the film you recontextualize everything with that framing sequence.
Did you have anything like that before, or was it all just happy ending, happy ending, happy ending?
What do you mean exactly?
At the end of the film…
You mean like when they’re divorced, you mean?
Yeah, was there anything like that before the divorce was put in?
Yes. Yes. There was. Yeah, but there were different kinds of… We had tried out different kinds of endings in the script at one point or another, but we did end up going with a kind of happy ending, yeah.
Certain scenes in the movie are funny, but they seem sort of random instead of referencing something specific. And the scene I’m thinking of in particular is Christopher Meloni shitting into a Halloween costume.
Right. Right, that’s based on personal experience.
Oh my god, you have to tell me a little bit about that.
Well it was actually when I was in summer camp, which is basically when I was in third grade I shit my pants and then blamed it on… My bunkmates found it. They found my bathing suit and then they were like, “What the fuck? Why is there a bathing suit in the woods, like covered in shit?” I was like, “I don’t know. One of you must have stolen my bathing suit and like, shit in it, and hid it in the woods.” And they were like, “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” and I was fully committed to my lie. So I’ve always been looking for an opportunity to put that in a movie.
Well, it worked out well. When you were describing Ed Helms’ part, did you ever describe him as “The Baxter?”
Well, actually the Eggbert character came before The Baxter. In fact, in writing Eggbert I [had] the earliest spark of wanting to do The Baxter. […] We were working on it and I was thinking about that character, how it would be kind of cool to do an entire story based on him.
It feels like you nailed every trope that I could think of. Was there any trope that you had to cut, or couldn’t find a place for, or forgot about even?
Yeah, definitely. There’s a lot of funny stuff in the movie that we had to cut. One thing that stands out is a scene where it’s after they’ve broken up, and she comes back to her candy shop and she’s wearing the sweat pants. She’s in a terrible mood, and then her ragtag group of women – like an older woman and a 9-to-5 woman and a jogger woman – they play like an Aretha Franklin song and they dance around and the idea is, like, “Who needs men?” It’s like the women singing the Aretha Franklin song and dancing around, realizing that they don’t need men moment.
Singing into hairbrushes.
Is that going to be on the DVD?
Most definitely. Oh, without a doubt. It’s already there.
Is the script for the Wet Hot American Summer prequel done?
Yes and no. We’re talking about doing Wet Hot American Summer now as a Netflix series. So we have an outline but we don’t have a script.
Would that be a done-in-one, do ten episodes kind of thing? Or would you want to continue that if you could?
I think we would start with one and go from there, but I mean, I think one would be… if we could pull off one that would be a pretty amazing thing.
I think so too. When you say “prequel,” do you mean the week before summer camp? Because you could do it in high school…
No, it’s the first day of camp.
The entire season would be just the first day?
Yes, but there would probably be flashbacks to that year. Yes, the entire first season would be one day.
Are you confident you can get everyone back?
Yes! Yes, we wouldn’t have wanted to do it if we couldn’t get everybody. So we did our due diligence before the fact and everyone wants to do it.
That’s so awesome.
Yeah. At this point it’s just a scheduling thing.
Are you going to try build up to things that came to a head in Wet Hot American Summer? Like, the ragtag team of misfits? Are we going to see them get together?
Potentially, but we’re not going to try to make everything make sense. There will be some of that but we’re not trying to do a really intricate story. It’s more just an opportunity to bring the cast back together and tell more stories about these camp kids.
Have you ever thought about spinning a sketch from “The State” into its own feature film?
Like the way they do with Wayne’s World or something?
Yeah, like just Doug has his own movie for example.
Honestly I’ve never thought about it.
You’ve never thought about giving Doug his own movie.
I’ve never thought about it. I’ve never even thought about it. Isn’t that weird?
That is weird, actually. Is that just a complete lack of hubris?
Yeah. It’s never really felt like something that… no, it’s never really occurred to me as something that I’d want to do.
Now that it’s occurred to you does it sound like something would want to do?
What we have talked about and what I would be more interested in doing is a “State” project. “The State” has talked about doing our Life of Brian, that kind of a thing. We would get together and make our own “State” movie, and that’s something I have always wanted to do, and I think we all have wanted to do it, but it’s just very hard to get everyone together to do it. But that would be cool.
It’s interesting how you guys split off afterwards. You and David Wain seem to work together a lot, and Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant seem to work together a lot now.
Was that just a natural thing, you just worked well together, or was it something like, “Screw it! I’m doing this with Robert from now on!”
No, I think it was just sort of a natural thing. It had a lot to do with those guys’ move to L.A. So for most of that time David Wain and Michael Black and I lived in New York. This is for the past 15 years until very recently, Michael Black, David Wain and I were living in New York and Tom and Ben and those guys were all living in L.A. So it was really just a natural flow kind of thing.
Did living in New York for that long really help you make New York City another character in They Came Together?
Yeah, I had to go for it, I’m sorry.
You had to do it.
I had to do it. Well what’s great about that joke is that it’s a joke about the way people talk about romantic comedies.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard somebody in a romantic comedy say it. Are you sick of that joke now? Has that been beaten to death?
No, I think it’s a funny joke. I like it.