At the time Wet Hot American Summer was released in 2001, it wasn’t exactly considered a must-see movie. It grossed only $292,102 in its limited selection of American theaters with an opening weekend total of $17,481. All of this with a $5 million budget.
But since that day, the film, which was written by the familiar comedy team of Michael Showalter and David Wain and directed by Wain, has earned itself quite a cult following, so much so that on July 31, Netflix will offer a new series called Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, a prequel series to the movie.
For anyone who is unfamiliar with Wet Hot, Netflix’s decision might seem a bit strange—why put so much effort into reviving a minimally successful comedy from 14 years ago? Even stranger to the uninitiated will be the fact that the show has managed to bring back all of the movie’s stars, some of whom have ascended to A-List status in Hollywood since the movie came out.
Seriously, just look at this cast, listed in order of how they were billed for the 2001 film:
Janeane Garofalo (Beth)
David Hyde Pierce (Henry Newman)
Michael Showalter (Coop)
Marguerite Moreau (Katie)
Michael Ian Black (McKinley)
Zak Orth (JJ)
AD Miles (Gary)
Paul Rudd (Andy)
Christopher Meloni (Gene)
Molly Shannon (Gail)
Ken Marino (Victor)
Joe Lo Truglio (Neil)
Amy Poehler (Susie)
Bradley Cooper (Ben)
Elizabeth Banks (Lindsay)
Judah Friedlander (Ron)
H. Jon Benjamin (Can of Vegetables)
If that’s not enough for you, the upcoming Netflix series will also be adding Jason Schwartzman, Lake Bell, “Weird Al” Yankovic, John Slattery, Jon Hamm, Chris Pine and Kristen Wiig in roles ranging from featured parts to brief appearances.
Here’s the most recent trailer to be released for the new series:
So what exactly is it about Wet Hot American Summer that transformed it from an indie comedy that barely made a blip on Hollywood’s radar to a near-certain summer hit for Netflix packed with some of today’s biggest stars in film and television?
The Stella Comedy Team
At the core of Wet Hot is the comedy trio of David Wain, Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black, who were behind the 1990s television series The State and who have made other appearances in comedy circuits, digital shorts and television shows as Stella. Their bizarre style of comedy is definitely polarizing — it is profane, occasionally nonsensical and often lacks any semblance of structure.
But this style of comedy made them viral sensations before “viral” was even a part of our lexicon. This was a digital world before YouTube, and their shorts helped to increase their audience even beyond those who watched The State when it aired. Showalter and Black started to make appearances on various pop culture shows (remember those VH1 “I Love the [Insert Decade]” shows?), and Wain added more writing credits to his resume.
A lot more people are probably familiar with another Wain-written and directed film, Role Models, which starred Wet Hot alumni Rudd, Banks, Marino, Miles and Lo Truglio as well as Seann William Scott and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (just coming off his breakthrough role as McLovin’ in Superbad). That movie featured a much more toned-down, accessible version of Wain’s comedy, still packed with moments of utter ridiculousness, but for the most part it’s a fairly conventional comedy.
Wet Hot, meanwhile, is much closer to Wain’s writing for Stella endeavors. While it’s not quite as off the wall as the Stella shorts, it’s certain to make some first-time viewers stop and think, “what the hell am I watching here?”
That’s part of what makes the movie such a cult favorite. It’s not that the comedy in it is an acquired taste — there’s basically no “acquiring” to be had here. You either think it’s hilarious, or you just don’t get it at all. And, just like with the Stella shorts of the same time period, a lot of the joy you get out of it is sharing it with friends and finding out which category they fall into.
That’s basically the way the movie has gained popularity over the years. As more people have discovered it (especially since it was added to Netflix’s streaming service), more people have thought, “I’ve got to show this to _____.” And so the cycle continues.
A multi-layered parody
Wet Hot has been by far my favorite comedy since I first saw it in 2002. The sheer absurdity of its characters, the way it parodies stereotypical “camp movie” conventions, the high volume of quotable lines and its rewatchability will always leave it a soft spot in my heart.
I gained an even greater appreciation for the movie when I saw Michael Showalter do comedy live at the Jewish student center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2006.
The place was jam-packed with people, and though Showalter was there to just do a general comedy bit, his references to Wet Hot drew by far the biggest cheers and laughs throughout the evening. At one point, he put a slideshow up on a screen that showed photos of him at a 1980s Jewish summer camp much like the one depicted in Wet Hot.
“We used to listen to Run DMC, and… other bands,” he quipped, as he came up on a picture of a nerdy pre-teen version of himself flashing gang signs and wearing a sideways baseball cap. He later admitted to being an “indoor kid,” a subset of kids represented in Wet Hot by a fan of Mork and Mindy, a Dungeons and Dragons addict and an astrophysics professor.
The more Showalter talked, the more it was clear that the movie was not just a parody of cheesy camp movies, but a parody of experiences that Wain, Showalter and Black had growing up as Jewish kids going to summer camp in the northeast. It hit me that part of the true genius of the movie* is that they treat the whole thing like it’s some sort of inside joke between, with lines and jokes that would never make sense to people on the “outside.”
*yes, I’m using the word “genius” to describe a movie in which a talking can of vegetables encourages the camp cook to “be honest” about smearing mud on his ass.
But despite that, the movie is so different and genuine that you can’t help but feel you’re on the “inside” anyway. It doesn’t matter if the jokes don’t really make sense — it’s just plain fun. And soon the lines and jokes become your own inside jokes with your other friends who have been initiated into the hilarity and farce of Camp Firewood.
What to expect from the series?
It’s hard to know what sort of quality to expect from the coming prequel series. The concept alone is hilarious—having these now 40-something actors playing the same teenage characters 14 years after the movie, in which they were already hilariously too old for the roles, is something I can’t wait to see.
There isn’t much to compare this series to. The nearest thing might be Netflix’s fourth series of Arrested Development, which in its return after quite a few years since it was initially broadcast drew some pretty mixed reviews.
I’ll consider the new series a success if it keeps the same genuine, ridiculous approach it did in the movie, and doesn’t try too hard to force jokes or development of characters who weren’t extremely important to the movie.
But most of all, it’s exciting to see that a little-known budget indie comedy from 14 years ago can still have such an impact on pop culture today. In age where the box offices are filled with remakes and sequels, we could use more original flicks like Wet Hot that are clearly different from just about everything else out there.
Tim Backes is an editor and founder of NovaCritic.com.