How “Marry Me’s” Ken Marino Became A Writer While Constantly Acting In Pilots For Sitcoms

After he moved to L.A., Ken Marino proceeded to act in a pilot a year for the next eight years or so. In that time, he also began writing movies. As his new sitcom Marry Me takes off, Marino talks about how both sides of his career developed.

How “Marry Me’s” Ken Marino Became A Writer While Constantly Acting In Pilots For Sitcoms
Casey Wilson and Ken Marino in Marry Me. [Photo: Colleen Hayes, courtesy of NBC]

Facing off against yourself can produce some complicated emotions. For instance, in 2013, Ken Marino lost an Emmy for Burning Love, the show he’d created with his wife, Erica Oyama, to Children’s Hospital, the show he’d acted in for years and recently become an executive producer on. But Marino has long been fighting this internal creative battle–working toward starring in a successful network sitcom, or continuing to develop more experimental creative projects. At this moment, however, he seems dangerously close to finally doing both at once.

Marry Me

Marino’s stranger side is the one to which most people were first introduced. Back in the early ’90s, he palled around with a crew of like-minded comedy hooligans known collectively as The State. While the 11 members, including David Wain, Michael Ian Black, Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant have somehow all managed to forge successful paths in show business, Marino seemed to stall out on his first step. After he moved to L.A. to star in the NBC sitcom, Men Behaving Badly, the show didn’t last beyond its inaugural season. Marino proceeded to act in a new pilot each year for the next eight years or so. None of the shows lasted. If they had, however, Marino might never have had the opportunity to get involved with less mainstream fare like Children’s Hospital, or begin an ongoing writing partnership with David Wain, or create a parody of The Bachelor with his wife. Now that he’s done all those things, perhaps the time is right for Marino, the hit sitcom star with mass appeal–which is where Marry Me comes in.

Marino stars with Casey Wilson in the zinger-packed single-cam show, which is loosely based on the real-life courtship between Wilson and her husband, Happy Endings creator David Caspe. The two leads play a long-time couple whose repeated attempts to get engaged are continually botched. (One imagines this schtick will eventually wear off and the show will simply revolve around a very funny and telegenic married couple.) The network seems to have a lot of confidence in Marry Me, which premiered to solid ratings on October 14. While the show threatens to launch Marino, finally, into sitcom success, his screenwriting career is also going into overdrive, with several projects in development, including the Go The Fuck To Sleep adaptation, which he wrote with Oyama. Recently, the hyphenate spoke with Co.Create about how the writing side of his career has developed and flourished in the shadow of the acting side.

Like YouTube Before There Was YouTube, 1992

The State began life as an NYU sketch troupe called The New Group. Eventually, its members would have an influential show of their own on TV, but first they had to learn how to transfer their comedic skills from the stage to a video format.

“Before The State was a show, we got on this MTV show called You Wrote It, You Watch It, where people would write in letters and then we’d reenact them,” Marino recalls. “We did our own costumes and makeup and stuff, and we shot and edited these videos, and then we handed them in. We were basically just hanging out and doing stuff to make each other laugh. That whole time felt like going to comedy college–writing these short things for us to produce ourselves. We were just thrown into this show, and we approached it in the way people probably do on their YouTube channels now. Making those sketches was the way we taught ourselves how to do comedy for TV and it’s what helped us get ready to have our own show.”

The State

Tuning Out From Rejection, 1997-2005

After The State’s three-season run on MTV, and some attempts to move to other channels, Marino moved out to Los Angeles to act in the sitcom, Men Behaving Badly. It was his first pilot, but not the last, and it turned out to be one of only a few that actually made it to air.

“When we were no longer attached to any show on any network, we had to all break off and try to make it on our own,” Marino says. “I’m still friends with all those guys, and it’s amazing how well everyone’s done, but I moved out to L.A. in ‘97 to prove I could do something on my own, outside of The State. I ended up shooting a pilot a year just about every year. A couple of them made it to air, but most didn’t. At a certain point, I decided I was gonna just stop caring. After a while I had shot so many pilots that didn’t go, I started blocking it all out. I tried not to remember anything. It’s an intense process, going through auditions, and getting rejected, and it feels very personal–unless you kind of detach from it.”

Marry Me

Competitively Motivated

Marino grew up wanting to be an actor. His first paying gig before joining The State was in a Los Angeles company production of the play A Few Good Men. Being in comedy just sort of happened, but the longer he was in it, the more his participation evolved beyond sketches.

“Everybody else in the group was starting to write their own things,” Marino says. “I was in Wet Hot American Summer, which David [Wain] wrote with [Michael] Showalter. Tom [Lennon] and Ben [Garant] were writing movies for Jimmy Fallon [Taxi] and Vin Diesel [The Pacifier]. And so I wanted to do my own too. When I first started writing, I thought it was going to be this big, broad comedy like The Jerk, but the more I got into it, the more I wanted to make it something more personal. Diggers is about clam diggers in Long Island, and my dad was a clam digger in Long Island. Originally, David was going to direct, but he had to drop out to go do Stella [the ultimately short-lived TV series]. Then I thought I might actually direct it, but since I was acting in it too, that probably would not have been the best way to learn to direct.” [Marino later began directing episodes of Wain’s web series Wainy Days, sat at the helm of the entirety of Burning Love, and has become a prolific director of sitcoms recently.]

Role Models (2008)

Writing As An Experiment, 2006

Although they’d written together before on The State, Marino and Wain worked together on a screenplay for the first time with 2007’s sketch-based Ten Commandments movie The Ten. It proved to be the beginning of a fruitful collaboration.

“David had always wanted to do a Ten Commandments thing, and so we wrote the movie together as kind of an experiment–just to see if we could bang out a sketch movie together in a short amount of time,” Marino says. “We locked ourselves in a room and decided we wouldn’t come out with a first draft in a matter of days. We stayed in there twelve hours a day, every day, with no breaks except for going to the bathroom and eating. And even thought it was a mess, we came out with a first draft. That’s when i realized how much I love finishing a first draft–no matter how good or bad it is–because now you have a base to work from. The week before that, we didn’t have anything! We had so much fun with that screenplay that we turned around and did it again immediately afterward, but we got sidetracked when we got the offer to do a pass on Role Models.”

The Ten (2007)

Make Your Thing

When it came time to try to make Burning Love a reality, Marino and Erica Oyama took a similar approach to how Rob Thomas got Party Down off the ground. It’s a strong example of how Marino will create something for himself instead of waiting for the right project to turn up.

“I don’t know if Party Down was consciously on my mind when we made the sizzle reel for Burning Love, but they were definitely similar experiences,” Marino says. “The original pilot for Party Down we shot because Rob Thomas and Paul Rudd and those guys were shopping around this script they had written, and nobody was buying it for whatever reason. And after Veronica Mars got cancelled, Rob was like, ‘Screw it, let’s make this pilot ourselves, and shop that around.’ So he asked myself and Jane [Lynch] and Adam [Scott] and some other people to shoot it at his house with no budget. Everybody was still looking for work and auditioning afterwards. We had no idea if anything was happening until Rob sold it to Starz about a year later. So when Erica started writing Burning Love, we got a bunch of friends together and shot for a day, and made a trailer for what the show would be like, and that really helped set things in motion.”

Marry Me

Different partners, Different Writing Styles, 2014

After the success of Burning Love, Marino and Oyama began to get more opportunities as a writing team. As their collaborative efforts begin the slow march to the big screen, Marino has learned that what works for his other writing team might not work for this one.

“Writing is a very different process with Erica than with David,” he says. “When we were in The State together, the way we would write sketches is by acting them out. Since David is better at typing than I am, he was the one putting down whatever we came up with. That’s still how we write scripts together now. We’ll be in a room together, looking at a computer screen and coming up with things, and David writes it all down. Erica and I do it differently, though. The thing we’ve learned from writing together, though, is that I tend to drive her nuts by throwing out new lines all the time. So now we’ll bang out a detailed outline together, in the same room, and then she takes a pass at it and hands it to me, and I give her my pass of her pass, and we go back and forth and we don’t drive each other crazy. So far, it’s working.”