When David Wain was growing up, he loved spoofs, like Airplane!, early Woody Allen movies and the Mel Brooks oeuvre. But, Wain — who directed and co-wrote the new rom-com spoof They Came Together, out June 27 — noticed something weird in the post-Airplane! world. “Airplane! specifically was an incredible touchstone for a whole generation and yet it wasn’t really followed up on all that much,” he tells TIME. “We hadn’t seen in a long time the next Airplane! type movie.”
If he has anything to say about it, that may be changing.
When Wain and his co-writer, Michael Showalter, first conceived They Came Together, it was shortly after the release of their 2001 summer-camp comedy Wet Hot American Summer. Wet Hot would eventually go on to become a cult favorite — Wain says he’s particularly proud that liking the movie is a litmus test for friendship for some fans, and word that he's working on a prequel had fans salivating earlier this month — but they found that, at the time, the studio that had originally seemed interested in their follow-up project wasn’t ready to commit. The idea was They Came Together, a spoof of rom-com cliches. They tried making it independently, but it didn’t happen. Eventually they got burned out. The project died.
Many years and projects later, Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler — who had both appeared in Wet Hot American Summer — participated in a staged reading of the They Came Together script at the San Francisco Sketch Fest, just for fun. The response was so enthusiastic that the project came back to life, securing microbudget financing from Lionsgate, with Rudd and Poehler attached.
But, Wain says, the rise of Rudd and Poehler wasn't the only thing that had happened in the intervening years, though it certainly helped. Today, he says, absurdist comedy is more likely to catch on beyond the "cult" label that has stuck to so many of his past projects.
"We've made something now that either the audience has caught up with or we've caught up with how to deliver it," Wain says.
And one of the reasons for that change in the comedy vogue has little to do with mainstream Hollywood. "YouTube has made a wider range of comedy more available to more people who want to see it and seek it out. It's allowed people to look at web series and more TV shows and movies and shorts," he says. "It's a good thing."
It's not that there have been no spoofs since Airplane! — Wain says he's a fan of Walk Hard and MacGruber in particular — but that the spoofs that have been successful, like the Scary Movie franchise, have largely fallen into what he sees as a slightly different category. Wain draws a distinction between broader, absurdist genre spoofs and catch-that-reference comedy; They Came Together strives for the former. (It doesn't always stay on that side of the line, however, particularly with its heavy reliance on the plot of You've Got Mail.)
"One of the things I find so interesting about Airplane! is, sort of like Wet Hot American Summer, it was not a spoof of a movie anyone had ever seen or cared about. It was a spoof of this random forgotten disaster movie. That’s I think why it’s so enduring and universal. It has nothing to do with ‘you saw that movie Zero Hour and now you want to see Airplane!’ It’s its own thing," he says. "That was exactly what we were going for with They Came Together. It’s on its own. You don’t have to care or like or have any opinion about romantic comedies in order to like it.”
The goal is to create your own catchphrases despite being a spoof (something Wet Hot managed handily, even if it took a few years to get there) rather than encourage viewers to hark back to the thing you're making fun of. Wain knows that there will always be people who don't like that kind of comedy — "Some people are so befuddled and hateful of it, because they can’t imagine why anyone else is laughing at it, because it’s so stupid or so banal" — but, more and more, he can do without them.
And besides, he says, when it comes to They Came Together, the spoof isn't just for people who really want to make fun of rom-coms. In fact, you might not want to make for of them at all. “Underneath it all, it’s still intended to work as a romantic comedy," he says. "Despite the fact that we undercut everything, I personally still find myself rooting for Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler to make it through and get together.”