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:
“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.