Why David Wain’s ‘The Ten’ Is Still Sketch Gold Ten Years Later
The perpetually adolescent campers of Camp Firewood are experiencing a ten-year reunion this week in Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later, but they’re not the only ones with ten-year anniversaries on their mind. Yesterday marked a decade since David Wain’s The Ten hit theaters, featuring a cast that doesn’t look all that different than the one in Ten Years Later. The Ten might not have made a significant impression at the time of its release, but it’s slowly gained a cult status with people gradually understanding the strange beauty of this film. While it’s far from a perfect feature, The Ten is an essential stepping-stone in the career of David Wain and a highly creative approach to crafting a “sketch comedy film.”
The Ten is essentially the culmination of all of the absurd tendencies that were present in the ‘90s MTV sketch series, The State, and the original Wet Hot American Summer. It’s really nice to see how the film tries to fit in all 11 cast members of The State, even if some are just brief cameos. While the cast of these properties have all become titans of comedy, 2007 was still a much more humble time for everyone. A small dent had been made, but Wain’s only previous film at this point was Wet Hot and it was still three years until Childrens Hospital would hit Adult Swim and allow this cast to truly let loose.
One of The Ten’s many skills is how it effectively juggles so many characters and allows them to cross over between the film’s ten segments. Not only that, but Ken Marino’s Childrens Hospital character, Dr. Glenn Richie, originates here in The Ten. The same can be said for Mather Zickel’s news personality, Louis La Fonda, who not only carries over to Childrens Hospital but eventually got his own spin-off series in the form of NewsReaders. There’s also more than enough evidence to support that Janeane Garofalo’s character, Beth, is very well the same Beth from Wet Hot American Summer. It’s easy to picture her spending her days with nuclear science when she’s not camp-directing during the summer months.
Beyond the film’s wonderful cast (which also features the likes of Liev Schreiber, Winona Ryder, and Justin Theroux), it’s the film’s strange pageantry behind everything that helps it stand out. For instance, the film’s premise is remarkably simple: here are ten short stories based on the Ten Commandments. There are a number of ways to go about structuring that concept, but The Ten chooses to stick Paul Rudd in a gray void with some giant stone tablets. It almost feels like a backdrop for a Tim and Eric sketch. It’s a surreal decision, but one that the film fully embraces and pokes fun at whenever possible. Rudd’s Jeff Reigert talks to the audience one-on-one, almost like he’s performing a standup act or eccentric one-man show. Furthermore, Jeff isn’t simply some narrator or host figure. He has his own storyline about having an affair and leaving his wife that’s going on in the background of everything. Imagine if the Cryptkeeper had his own shit to work through while trying to introduce his tales of terror? It’s a great, unusual idea.
At its core, The Ten is really all about presenting high-concept sketch comedy that works harder than necessary to connect its dots. The Ten benefits from repeated viewings, and you’ll be surprised by just how much crosses over and connects to other segments from the film. Almost every character reappears in some sense with no one going to waste. Part of the fun is seeing how characters grow and progress between stories and how their lives change in this interim time. A wife from one entry leaves her husband then becomes the adulterous spouse to someone new in a future installment. In one of the more heavy-handed—albeit hilarious—examples, a character loses his job as a prosecutor in one story and is told to apply as a tour guide for the local nuclear power plant. Sure enough, several segments later, he’s back as a tour guide. Repeated phrases and elements like Glenn Richie’s “goofs” also reappear throughout stories, highlighting the impressive connective tissue that’s helping tie all of these disparate stories together.
Wain and company jump through many impressive hoops to make this silly comedy just so formidable, but there’s also surprising weight to just how each Commandment is deconstructed. Territories like murder, adultery, and theft are nothing new for film, but The Ten finds unique ways to subvert the audience’s expectations with how it approaches each of these Commandments. Something like “Thou Shalt Not Take the Lord’s Name in Vain” can turn into a subtitled Spanish telenovela about having sex with Jesus, or “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness” can morph into an animated tale about a rhinoceros saving a town from weiner dogs with super STDs. In an unexpected turn, the “Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Wife” segment deals with the intricacies of prison “bitches” and is done as a sequel to the “murder” segment. In perhaps the film’s best segment, “Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Goods,” Joe Lo Truglio and Liev Schreiber see their family and lives destroyed over their unhealthy need to acquire more CAT scan machines than the other. It’s some glorious, bonkers stuff with a sublime understanding reached between the two of them over the chords of “Something to Talk About.”
The Ten has great fun with all of its creative approaches to these traditional rules. Granted, a few segments might turn out to be duds, but the film still manages to cram ten short stories into 95 minutes without it feeling rushed or long. Plus, you’re not going to find a story about a guy that’s stuck in the ground and turns into a sitcom star over the his predicament anywhere else. Now, this cast has greatly contributed to the comedic landscape of the past ten years. The Ten might still not have the respect that it necessarily deserves, but it acts as strong proof that sketch comedy is capable of, and should be, pushed to the limit. This film wasn’t made with the expectations of reinventing the wheel, but within this feature lays a strong blueprint on how to take a simple premise and do something special with it. It’s this same magic that allows these people to subvert other areas like hospitals, catering companies, or summer camps all to great effect. Maybe a sketch comedy-fueled film on the Bill of Rights won’t be that far off.