Wayne Federman might not quite be a household name, but in L.A.’s sprawling comedy scene he’s “That Guy” every comic seems to know. The comedian is proudly known for his “Federman-and-out” one-and-done turns in movies like Legally Blonde, Step Brothers, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and 50 First Dates. He spent over two decades of perfecting the art of the TV guest spot, including an episode of The X-Files in which he played a character named… Wayne Federman. He’s also the only character actor in Hollywood who has a film festival named after him—programmed by a who’s who of comedy culled from his contact list.
This year’s 4th Annual Wayne Federman International Film Festival kicked off with the risqué Danish comedy Klown, programmed by Sacha Baron Cohen, and concludes with Neil Marshall’s bloody femme-horror flick The Descent, presented by Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani. The mini-fest running through Sunday night will also see UCB improv comic and podcaster Lauren Lapkus introduce Big, Paul Scheer waxing nostalgic over Ghostbusters, Chris Hardwick hosting the Chevy Chase classic Fletch, and Doug Benson live-snarking his signature “Movie Interruption” while watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s for the first time.
In a first for the popular series at L.A.’s Cinefamily, Federman’s letting Will Forte break the rules by playing one of his own movies: the cult SNL spin-off MacGruber. “I used to have only stand-ups picking movies, that was my mission statement,” Federman explained. “Now four years in I don’t know if Sacha Baron Cohen is even considered a stand-up—he’s more of a performance artist. Will Forte wanted to show MacGruber, and do you know how long it took for me to say yes? A microsecond.”
Forte, whose new Fox sitcom The Last Man On Earth made a strong debut last weekend, is just one example of The Federman Sphere Of Influence: Federman first caught MacGruber in New York, where he palled around with “Weekend Update” scribes and was Head Monologue Writer on the inaugural season of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. “And what a great actor Forte turned out to be! I always like it when nice people do well,” Federman said. “There’s nothing Machiavellian about that dude. He’s just a sweet guy.”
Federman’s been around the block in his 30 years of stand-up, and his deep bench of comedian-programmers reflects it. He tapped new blood this year, including @midnight host Chris Hardwick, who backed into a stand-up career after getting famous as a ‘90s-era MTV personality.
“I didn’t know him when he was doing his TV show,” said Federman. “But he started doing stand-up and I really admired him for that because it’s hard. He would go on at The Laugh Factory and a lot of comedians resented him, like, ‘This MTV dude thinks he can do comedy,’ but he really built up that act bit by bit. That’s not easy, for a famous person to start doing stand-up. You have to fail onstage quite a bit."
Federman’s film festival also lets comedians celebrate with one another rather than compete — especially considering how much the business sees its share of cutthroat competition for set times and laughs, not to mention personal demons and tragic losses like Robin Williams’ suicide last year and the recent overdose of stand-up and Parks and Recreation executive producer Harris Wittels.
“For a lot of comedians there was some sort of hardship that makes them want to go through this crucible of fire,” said Federman, who appears in Kevin Pollak’s Sundance documentary Misery Loves Comedy, about the angst that fuels many of comedy’s brightest. “It’s just hard to do stand up. When you’re the worst at it, in front of the worst crowd, you don’t even know if you’re good, bad, what’s going on. It seems like there are thousands of people ahead of you. It’s just a very difficult thing to crack. Someone said, ‘You can do comedy and not be miserable. But you can’t do great comedy and not be miserable.”
But call Federman The Mayor of Comedytown, or its Friendly Neighborhood Alderman, or the Chairman of its Welcoming Committee, and he demurs. “I just think I’m a conscientious worker who shows up every once in a while,” he tells me, tucked away into a back table at The Little Room at Largo, across the courtyard from where old pal Judd Apatow is hosting a variety show studded with buddies of his own. As the crowd roars for Apatow guests Andy Kindler, Natasha Leggero, John Doe of X, and Norm MacDonald, Federman shows off his cinephile party trick—matching Oscar Best Picture winners to the years they won.
Federman tends to connect the dots between stand-ups, comedy writers, late-night scribes, and film and TV-makers on both coasts—like Apatow, who he first met pre-Freaks and Geeks when Apatow was a writer on The Larry Sanders Show (Federman played Larry Sanders’ brother Stan in an episode that also memorably featured the Wu-Tang Clan).
The Wayne Federman International Film Festival might not even exist if not for that Larry Sanders connection. Inspired by a Patton Oswalt-hosted screening of The Foot Fist Way at another local moviehouse, the Quentin Tarantino-owned New Beverly Cinema, Federman needed a big name to help kick off his series. He went to Garry Shandling, who agreed and picked Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy.
“I knew a lot of interesting people… but the key was Garry Shandling,” he explained. “He did the very first festival, on the first night. Once he was onboard other people could see what this was, and his presentation was superb because The King of Comedy totally influenced The Larry Sanders Show. It’s a serious film! That night sold out and it was beautiful, he was in really good form.”
Others who’ve embraced their inner film geeks for Federman’s film festival include Kindler (Modern Romance, 1981), Pollak (The In-Laws, 1979), Paul F. Tompkins (Topsy-Turvy, 1999), Jeff Garlin (The Sweet Smell of Success, 1957), Margaret Cho (Darling, 1965), Bill Burr (The Dirty Dozen, 1967), Nick Kroll (Raising Arizona, 1987), Aziz Ansari (Back to the Future, 1985), Dana Gould (Dr. Strangelove, or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb, 1964), The Sklar Brothers (Breaking Away, 1979), Sarah Silverman (Crimes and Misdemeanors, 1989), T.J. Miller (The Bank Dick, 1940), Jimmy Pardo (Airplane!, 1980), and Kathy Griffin (The Dead Zone, 1983).
“This is what I hope to get: People who love to see movies on the big screen get an entertaining presentation, maybe a new angle on a movie they’ve seen,” Federman smiles. “And the comedy fans get to see the person they love geeking out on something.”