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What Indie Film and Web Series Taught ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ Super-Producer Jonathan Stern

What Indie Film and Web Series Taught 'Wet Hot American Summer' Super-Producer Jonathan Stern

You might not immediately recognize Jonathan Stern’s name, but if you’ve watched anything funny over the last 10 years, you’ve more than likely seen his work. The incredibly prolific producer has collaborated with David Wain, Paul Scheer, Rob Corddry and more to help produce shows including Hulu’s “Hotwives” series, “Burning Love,” “Children’s Hospital,” “Garfunkel and Oates” and “Wet Hot American Summer.”

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Working behind the scenes, Stern took the experience he gained working in the New York independent film scene and applied it to producing comedy on a platform-agnostic level. This means that in an industry where tons of potential films and TV shows die unseen, he actually gets projects made. Which, as he explains below, is why comedians keep coming back to work with him.

First off, is it Jon or Jonathan?

Well, people call me Jon, and I’m always credited as Jonathan, so you can figure out what works for you I guess.

Jon seems nice. It’s a nice friendly name.

[laughs] I remember I was “Jonathan” until I went to summer camp in fourth grade and everyone called me Jon, and then I came back and I announced to everyone at school, “My name’s Jon now.” That’s what summer camp can do to you; make big changes. When we were starting up the writer’s room on “Wet Hot” last fall, we all spent a good chunk of time trying to remember all our summer camp stories from many decades ago. It was quite moving, when you remember how important this period was to you. My parents sent me an envelope they had saved with all the letters I wrote to them during my three years at summer camp, and so I started reading those too and we all had these experiences, at least all of us working on “Wet Hot.” It was really remarkable, all that we could dredge up and remember, and just how important and pivotal some of those things were. We tried to work that into the show, I guess.

I think that’s pretty clear.

If you talk to [Michael] Showalter there’s definitely a couple of stories there that specifically happened to Showalter. Not to his character in the show, but Showalter’s stories are in there. Everyone’s stories are represented there.

I imagine all the Reagan stuff [in “Wet Hot”] is also documentary-level accuracy.

[laughs] Well the thing is, there’s a news article in the New York Times over the weekend about how Reagan is suddenly showing up so much in television, including Showalter’s Reagan, and it’s because the age everyone is who’s making television now, Reagan was a big part [of growing up]. And that’s true: Reagan was the first presidential election that I really got into and followed and cared about and recognized what was going on, and furious. I was just angry for four years at politics for the first time. I realized it’s a valuable lesson because then you can be angry at politics for the rest of your life if you start out right. And yeah, so Reagan was our first big president, people our age.

Is “Wet Hot American Summer” Season 2 at all in the cards?

Whether it’s in the cards or not, it’s probably not smart for me to speculate, at least out loud. But I can tell you that I personally would love to do a second season and I know that’s the case for a great many people that were involved with it, and I think that people would like to see a second season. So we’ve been having conversations about what a second season would be like and look like, what happens with those conversations is something that remains to be seen.

It’s really interesting to look at your resume and see all the different projects you’ve been involved with, but I want to get a sense of what was basically your start?

Well, you can figure out which part is the real starting point.But I remember seeing “Ghostbusters” in high school, and I suddenly came away and said “I’ve gotta write my own script, this looks like a lot of fun.” I wrote a script on my Atari 2800 — a computer, for those of you who don’t know what Atari is [laughs] — and I didn’t know what to do about it. But we had a substitute English teacher that week who happened to be Justin Theroux’s mom, because Justin Theroux was at our school. And I asked her to read the script and tell me what she thought, because I was trying to decide whether to apply to film school or just a regular liberal arts program for college.

She came back at the end of the week and said “Well, anyone who can write this should follow their path.” She gave me something very vague, but what she was saying was that if you can sit down and have the enthusiasm to do something like that, well then that’s what’s important; not the overall quality of it. And I didn’t quite realize that for a long time, that you weren’t going to be good at what you do right away or for a long time, and that if you’re succeeding or reaching some satisfaction it’s not because you’re born with an innate ability to do this most of the time, but because it’s something you just spend time working on. The Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours theory.

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I did go to film school, and I came out and worked every job I could in New York in the indie film business and television, whatever was going on in New York. It was a long time before I actually thought “okay maybe I’m actually good enough at this now to stick my neck out a little,” and that next big step was I just started writing short magazine humor pieces. The first one I submitted to the New Yorker, they picked it up as a Shouts and Murmurs piece out of the slush pile. It occured to me like “that’s legitimate, that’s someone else telling me that objectively this is okay to show to an audience.” So that was a piece of encouragement I needed to then start working specifically in comedy, and not just flounder and feel my way around.

In between those two points, “Ghostbusters” and The New Yorker, was a succession of encouraging teachers and bosses and friends, and I think that without any one of those I would’ve lost my self-motivation. You can only self-motivate so much but you always need someone who encourages you at the right time, and these are people I’m still close to that all along the way.

When I was a PA, one of those people was Richard Shephard. He was directing and I was production managing some TV together, and he said “Let’s make a movie together. I’ll direct it you produce it.” No one had really said that to me before, and I thought “Wow, if he trusts me with that, maybe I can trust me with that.”

So you’re starting off in independent film production. Working on that side of things, what was key to transitioning you to comedy?

So right around that period, I had a producing partner named Ben Odell, who now produces a bunch of movies for the Spanish language North American and South American markets. Anyway, Ben and I were trying to do movies together and at a certain point I just needed work. I had just had my son Bram, who’s now twelve, and nothing motivates you better than having a kid and also being in debt at the same time. That got me to say “all right, enough development and speculative work, I’ve gotta go out and do something.”

And right around then I ran into an old friend, David Wain — who was an old friend even then — and he was producing a movie called “Diggers” that Ken Marino had written and was starring in. He had to go off and do “Stella,” and so he asked me if I would come in and co-produce. Long story short, I went off and did “Diggers,” and when we were making “Diggers” Ken mentioned the script that he and David Wain had written called “The Ten.” I read the first draft and I told them “all right, don’t show it to anyone else, let me produce it, give it to me.”

Somehow, a year later we were actually filming it, and right around then Ben said, “Look, there’s a level of enthusiasm I saw you have for ‘The Ten’ that I’ve never seen you have before. You should focus on comedy, clearly this is what gets you going, this is what you like.” And he was right, but also coming up in the indie film world in New York, comedies were not as respected as all of the other more hard-hitting and dramatic and issue-oriented films. I had been so dismissive of comedy, even back at film school at NYU. There wasn’t a lot of encouragement to go the comedy route, so I had always kind of poo-pooed comedy for the whole time until Ben told me this. It was a lightbulb going off. It was also the moment I realized while making “The Ten,” which I enjoyed doing so much, that I can really really enjoy what I do, it doesn’t have to feel like work. And so all of those things connected.

Now after “The Ten,” indie films were really on the ropes, especially in New York, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’m not sure what David [Wain] was thinking he was going to to either. “The Ten” hadn’t come out yet and there was this opportunity to do what became a web series, “Wainy Days,” which was one of the very first web series. We did 40 episodes starring David as a lovelorn single guy in New York– not just New York, but basically a block from my apartment in Brooklyn because that’s where I knew all the restaurants and all the neighbors and I could get locations.

Suddenly more people were watching an episode of “Wainy Days” than watched “The Ten,” this movie that we spent a year making, that went to Sundance. The thing we spent a half a day shooting and put on the web had this big audience, and again I’m connecting the dots, that the format and the medium doesn’t matter to me on a personal or professional fulfillment level. And it didn’t matter on a business level either, so from that point forward I became very “platform agnostic” and believed — and still believe — that movies, film, TV, long format, cable, pay cable: It doesn’t matter where a project that I develop as a producer ends up, as long as it’s the right fit for the project.

Sometimes you don’t know what that is until you develop it further, and sometimes you don’t know what that is until you shoot it. It migrates. “Children’s Hospital” was a web series that became a TV show, “Wet Hot American Summer” was a movie that became a TV show. Things can move around now in a way that I feel they couldn’t before.

In thinking about digital content, I remember “Wainy Days” very distinctly as one of those great early examples of people taking that platform agnostic attitude. But it’s something that’s been a very slow-building thing. Being platform agnostic in 2009 is a very different thing than being platform agnostic in 2015.

Well, part of it was out of desperation. I didn’t really have a choice, I couldn’t be picky, I couldn’t tell people “no no no, ‘Wainy Days’ has gotta be a studio movie, that or nothing.” We did a web series with A.D. Miles and Joe Lo Truglio called “Horrible People,” still one of my favorite things I’ve ever done, but we couldn’t have done anything but a web series for that, we couldn’t have gone around and pitched that as a TV series. So part of it was that that was the only option available. But at a certain point it doesn’t matter, because the one thing I find in common with all the people I work with, and myself, is that we want people to see our work. I think this is maybe even more true of comedy, because you want to hear people laugh. And so whatever gets it out there to people is what’s important, and we don’t want to make something that lives in a small bubble and people don’t get to experience.

On the flip side I think very few people feel — certainly I don’t — that everything has to have a full, national, hug-a-million-people audience. That doesn’t matter as much either, because you’re able to expose yourself to a smaller subset of more enthusiastic, dedicated audience members. And that feels great too, and that’s probably better for a project than a larger number of moderately aware and interested people. It’s better to have a smaller group of people that really like what you’re doing than a larger group of people that could take it or leave it.

What’s fascinating to me about the work you’ve been doing lately is that you’re one of those few people that I can say is genuinely at the nexus of nearly all the interesting comedy that’s coming out of this one community. I’ve seen it traced back to the original Upright Citizens Brigade in New York — it feels like this big sprawling thing, but whenever you see a project that comes out of this community, you recognize it.

That’s nice to hear. I really enjoy the people I work with, and I think that now that you say that, maybe without exception everyone I’m working with started out in New York. There must be exceptions. But we were all in New York. I only moved out here six years ago, David only moved out here a few years ago, Showalter only moved out here a few years ago, I moved out here a year or two after Rob Corddry did. So it was a smaller community there, we certainly all got to know each other there in a way that would’ve been harder in LA.

Now, UCB is its own place in all of that, I was never in UCB, I never took a UCB course. I should’ve, I would’ve loved it, but it didn’t even hit my radar, I didn’t even know about it. In hindsight it would’ve been great, but all those people knew each other though the theater obviously.

That was a very special environment, while that was happening, while people were learning to perform and write — which in the UCB world are intricately linked — I was learning to produce on the indie level, because that’s what was happening in New York at the time for a producer: indies. And for me that was training that informs everything that I do now. Everything still feels like an indie film to me, but I guess I was learning to do something that then could compliment what they were learning to do, and then I could provide a service that they needed. People need producers. People need someone to be producing for them. Even if you’re your own producer, if you’re producing and writing and directing, that’s a lot to take on. The fact that I was always writing as well, I think, made me a more valuable collaborator than someone who didn’t, and I think these multi-hyphenates that come out of that community and out of UCB meld well with producers that are multi-hyphenates. Ultimately, the fact that I didn’t want to be a performer and I also wasn’t pursuing being a director, meant that there wasn’t a competitive overlap even on an unconscious level. We all needed each other.

So to answer your question maybe a little bit more clearly — how do I think I ended up working with so many of these people — I think it’s because I’m willing to just get something made. I’m not one of these producers that’s all about development meetings, and overhead deals that don’t generate anything. My goal is and always has been to get things made and to get them out there. Probably I think that’s what everyone wants, but I think that focus appeals to a lot of the people I’m working with, so those relationships evolve from that.

It speaks to the idea that there isn’t a really clear understanding of what a producer does, in the general mainstream consciousness.

Yes. And that’s okay in the general consciousness, I’m happy that those who work in the business of entertainment understand that because ultimately they’re the ones I need to be able to work with to get these things made. But yeah, that’s always a thing, you’re always explaining it to your relatives and people you run into. I mean, my parents still don’t truly understand what my job description is, and when I meet with people who are coming out of film school and they ask me what a producer is, my immediate answer is “Well, there are 100 different types of producers, so it’s very hard to answer.” You can always say what a director does, or a writer, or a DP, or an actor, but a producer, it’s hard to nail down. There are different types. A lot of people get that credit in a lot of different ways.

Talking about the fact that you “get stuff made,” I think people don’t understand that it is such a hard thing to pull off. I’m wondering, is there something, coming from independent film perhaps that has given you that ability?

No, I think again it comes from desperation. I had another kid, and now the fear is constant that I won’t have something going on. Every day I look at the bulletin board in my office, that has color-coded cards for what’s coming up as an upcoming production, what’s in development, what’s in post production, and I panic if there’s not enough upcoming productions. I just panic. And I think that panic drives me. Why do I panic so much? Because I have two kids and I’ve realized I have an office and employees and overhead. The cost of not having something to do is so high that now it’s just all I think about, is how do I get more upcoming productions, how do I move things from the development pile to the upcoming production pile. It’s what I constantly think about.

What a producer does, I feel, is a combination of what all the people in “Mad Men” do. You have your John Slattery who’s always selling, always trying to sell a client. And then you have Jon Hamm, who’s doing the creative, and people are giving him pitches and he’s coming up with pitches, and then you have Robert Morse who’s running the business side of it and has to have a big picture long view of things. All of those things have to carry equal weight, but you can never rest on what you’re in production on now. You always have to look at that six month horizon and remember whatever you’re doing now you’re going to be done with pretty soon. So what are you going to be doing in six months? Always be selling. As they say in “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

A very inspirational film for us all.

[laughs] We do a reference to it in an episode of “Children’s Hospital”. Without giving away the story. You can look for it.

The season finale of “Hotwives of Orlando” premieres today on Hulu. And a whole lot more is coming soon.

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