Wet Hot American Summer First Day Of Camp Is Great And Absolutely Not For Everyone

Let’s start with some obvious – Paul Rudd’s cafeteria meltdown is the greatest portrayal of a teenage boy ever caught on film. I have cut-and-pasted it below because I am generous, but please know that this counts as my early, and only, holiday gift to you:

Wet Hot American Summer

“But Paul Rudd is obviously not a teenager in this scene,” you’re saying, which is a fine thing to observe despite the fact that the awfully young-looking Rudd is an actor who doesn’t seem to age. He doesn’t look much older than he did when he first appeared in Clueless, which is weird. But his vampiric consumption of blood as a means of keeping up his young looking appearance forever notwithstanding, it is perhaps necessary to understand that the first Wet Hot American Summer was premised at least in part on the absurd idea that a collection of actors in their early 30s were supposed to be teenagers. As in, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we started with the idea that these obviously not young people were in fact young people, and then we went from there?” And where they went from there was to the idea that camp movies (which really are not much of a thing) were ripe for being satirized. This idea somehow went over like gangbusters, allowing the film to assemble a what-is-in-retrospect absurd cast.

It’s clear from the trailer (available here) that producers didn’t quite realize the talent that they had on their hands but, yes, that is definitely a murderer’s row of acting talent that agreed to be in what was, even at the time, a very very weird movie. Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), Amy Poehler (Parks and Rec), Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games), and Paul Rudd (Ant-Dude) are perhaps the biggest guns. Chris Meloni (Law and Order: SVU) and David Hyde Pierce (Frasier) are in there too, and then there’s a who’s-who of comedy: Janeane Garafalo (stand-up), Molly Shannon (Saturday Night Live), Joe Lo Truglio (Brooklyn 99), Judah Friedlander (30 Rock), Jon Benjamin (Archer), and Michael Ian Black and Ken Marino and David Wain* and Michael Showalter* (The State). But despite the assembled performers, the movie bombed hilariously. It was made for $1.8 million**, sold for $100,000 to distributors who put it in 30 cities where it didn’t even have the decency to earn its cost back. Critics everywhere hated it.

Maybe it was the absurdist plot? Or the talking can of vegetables?  Or the kid who drowns and is immediately forgotten about? Or the maybe-somewhat graphic gay sex? Or the magic? Or the Catskills jokes? Or the montage? Or throwing kids out of moving vehicles? Or the heroin addiction? Maybe it was all of that, or maybe it was something else, but whatever it was, the movie came and went quickly. And that, as they say, was that, except that it was later released on DVD, gained a loyal (if small) following, built on that loyal (but now slightly bigger) following, and inexplicably, word started getting out that this cinematic disaster would be revived in a television show that would somehow manage to wrangle all of its original stars for – and this might be the best part – a prequel to the original film.

Which is how we end up with this summer’s debut of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp, eight episodes that maintain the movie’s original trajectory whilst somehow involving the same actors who are now 15 years older than they were originally, except that by virtue of this being a prequel, we’re meant to understand that these actors are technically portraying younger versions of the characters that they played in the original film.

So let’s get this out of the way – if you’ve seen but did not enjoy the original movie, these eight episodes are going to go over like eight separate trips to the dentist for some particularly painful dental work. Nothing from the original was scraped away; if anything the new Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp absolutely revels in what made the movie so great. There is nothing for the critics who hated the film the first time around. Wain and Showalter appear to be looking in those critics direction as if to say, “What’s that? You wanted a whole lot more of what you got the first time around? NO PROBLEM!”

This is how we end up with eight episodes loosely centered around a toxic waste dumping scheme near the camp while one “24”-year-old reporter attempts to embed undercover with the counselors while the camp’s dramatic students try to put together a Broadway show. As in the first movie, everything happens over a single 24 hour period, which means, for example, that we make it from toxic waste dumping scheme to the trial about it within the season’s eight episodes single-day arc.

The good thing, perhaps, is that if the show’s conceit is too much for you – and, yknow, that’s a fine thing for it to be – you’re not going to like the show either. The critics who savaged the original movie did so specifically because it was so unlike anything they were used to and it was so unlike anything they wanted. But the world in which that movie was released into was one in which narrowly marketed output for very specific markets had suddenly started to have a better chance of landing, even if they failed in immediate commercial terms. The movie theater distribution network really doesn’t exist in a manner that’s friendly to cult films; that’s what makes them cult films after all. They please a small percentage of the total moving going public, so much so that the film is celebrated as greatness within its community without being more broadly appealing. The DVD market gave Wet Hot American Summer a far better chance, and instead of playing to empty theaters, it found its rabid fans. A shorter version of that might be that Wet Hot American Summer was released wrong. It never should have been considered for broad release.  It should have been considered for a much smaller audience. Fortunately, it’s 2015 now. Netflix (among others) exists, and hitting narrow markets is precisely the point. Netflix wasn’t looking to fill theaters for two weeks – it was looking only for the same cult market that made a hit of a movie that had failed via more traditional means.

That Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp was released to rapturous applause speaks volumes to the new model. All of the disconnected fans that made up the original fanbase now had social media accounts capable of spreading the gospel and sharing their mutual love for the utter oddity of Camp Firewood. Their favorite jokes and their favorite performers were exactly the same. Nothing had changed except for the distribution mechanism.

So then that’s that – if you’ve seen the original and hated it, don’t watch this. And if the opposite is true – if you’ve seen the original and loved it – then you’re gonna love this too. Nothing has changed except for the venue. That’s what makes the whole thing so great.

*Wain and Showalter wrote and directed the movie, and then, the television show.

**Thanks Wikipedia!

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20 thoughts on “Wet Hot American Summer First Day Of Camp Is Great And Absolutely Not For Everyone

  1. Can I ask you a question Sam? Why do you (if indeed you do) find the movie funny? I watched it over the weekend, and while it wasn’t excruciating, nor was it particularly funny or original. Just hackneyed.

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    • Without getting into the old “all art is 100% subjective” debate, in my experience comedy is the most subjective of all.

      Also, you never love anything more than when you perceive it as being on your wavelength, while the rest of the world just doesn’t get it.

      Anyone ever see The Ten, from some of these same cats? It was like Kentucky Fried Movie for a new generation. Like that movie (or any comedy that follows a sketch/anthology format) , it doesn’t all work; but when it hits, it hits.

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    • I will try and answer.

      I think the big issue with WAHS is that so many jokes are Jewish to varying degrees that people who grew up Jewish and in the Northeast especially have an inner edge. My general experience is that sleep-a-way camp is more of thing in the Northeast than anywhere else. My other general observation is that sleep away camp tends to be more of a Jewish person thing. The first ones were created by middle-class Jews who wanted to get their kids away from the city over the summer (pre-Salk*, cities tended to be breeding grounds for polio over the summer) When I have interacted with non-Northeasterners especially if they are not Jewish, the reaction tends to be “What are talking about with sleep away camp?”

      I think Wet Hot American Summer is unrepentant in its Jewishness. The movie and Netflix series name-drops references to towns and high schools in Long Island and Westchester. All the characters have Jewish names like Arty “the Bee Keeper” Solomon, Gerald Cooperberg, Gail von Kleinstein (a Jewish name trying to be non-Jewish with the aristocratic von), Abby Bernstein. Even the first name only characters tend to have names like Ben.

      Also what said. You just have to accept the absurdity of all this stuff happening in an extremely short time period. In my own review, I mentioned the gag in the movie where the characters descended into Heroin addiction in a hour and emerged unscathed.

      I also wondered about whether the unrepentant Jewishness of WHAS would turn non-Jews and non-Northeasterns off from the series.

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    • 1. The movie is neither funny or unfunny, original or unoriginal, hackneyed or unhackneyed, excrutiating or unexcrutiating. It’s just a movie. Whatever you thought about is reflective of nothing broader than your own response to it (just as whatever I thought it reflective of nothing more than my own response to it).

      2. I think the movie is very funny, although I’m not sure I’ve put years of thought into why exactly that is. It is the production of a bunch of people who seem to simply not care about anything more than putting on the screen what they think is funny. And in this case, what they think is funny overlaps what I think is funny perhaps because The State was a formative comedy experience for me growing up. Wain, Showalter, Black, Marino, Lo Truglio happened to be on television doing comedy just as I was starting to watch television looking for comedy. It’s a chicken/egg scenario, perhaps, but I like the idea that these folks were doing their own thing.

      3. I don’t know how to account for what I think is funny though. If I tell you that I love the softball scene from the movie, for example, I’m not sure where that gets us, just as if I tell you that I love Paul Rudd’s spasmodic freakout about having to cleanup a mess that he voluntarily made for no good reason, I don’t know where that gets us either. I find it funny.

      4. And you don’t. Which is fine. Nothing is for everybody. I like that their inherent position accepts that and moves on. “We’re going to do our thing, and we’re fine with it appealing to Sam but not to AaronDavid.”

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      • The movie is neither funny or unfunny, original or unoriginal, hackneyed or unhackneyed, excrutiating or unexcrutiating.

        I could potentially agree with this, if you remove the “original or unoriginal” clause.

        Surely, that is a claim which can, at least in theory, be objectively evaluated or measured.

        If I write simply “dog bites man” (like I just did), there is nothing, at all, “original” about my “story” – I have to elaborate on those three words somehow, draw events out, add pathos or humor, splash some paint on it…something.

        To whatever degree my elaborations (or combinations of elaborations), are unique and new to the world as far as we know, my work may be said to be “original” (with the obvious caveat that nothing may ever be 100% known to be “original”, and also 99.9% of everything may not be “original”, and of course any given person is free to say “I don’t care if it’s ‘original’ or not”).

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      • The problems I have with it may stem from having seen many of the prototype(?) films it stems from in the time they were made (meatballs, etc.) and not finding them funny two months latter (HBO in the early ’80’s played that stuff over and over and…) and it could be that I was kinda cranky when I saw it and when I queried you.

        That said, thank you for responding to my crankiness. And also for answering my question.

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        • It’s a film/series/world that is very easy to dislike. My wife aggressively rolls her eyes at my doubled-over laughing. “It’s not THAT funny,” she insists, but it hits me right in the funny that these performers inadvertently helped to develop. I really don’t think that this is a comedy for everyone, or that those who don’t like it should believe otherwise.

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