The beginner’s guide to Wet Hot American Summer
Clarisse Loughrey | On 05, Jun 2015Reading time: 7 mins
Wet Hot American Summer returns for a prequel series on Netflix this July, despite the fact that its reunited cast are now 14 years older than they were when it was first made. With the original film finally available on Netflix from today, after never being released in the UK, we present a beginner’s guide to the cult comedy hit that nobody has seen.
Wait, there’s a movie called Wet Hot American Summer? Are you sure it’s totally appropriate to be talking about this?
Yes, we’re cool. Unless you’re offended by the sight of a grown man humping a fridge.
So what is it?
In short, the greatest cult comedy of the century. And we mean “cult” in its truest sense. Initially a critical and financial failure on its release in 2001, Wet Hot American Summer has gradually cultivated an entire legion of die-hard fans and a regular spot on the midnight screening circuit; thanks, in part, to the now mainstream careers of some of its cast and a handful of celebrity fans, with Kristen Bell naming it her all-time favourite movie. Wise choice, Veronica Mars.
Oh, this is one of those Judd Apatow projects, right?
You’d be wrong there, buddy. It’s actually the beloved offspring of the otherwise moderately obscure, NYU-birthed comedy collective known as The State. After a pretty popular run on a self-titled sketch show on MTV between the years of 1993 and 1995, the team have since consistently returned to the art of collaboration across the multimedia spectrum, with some of its members responsible for TV’s Reno 911 and the RISK! podcast. It’s Wet Hot American Summer, however, which will arguably remain their most iconic work; the brainchild of David Wain and Michael Showalter, it also features former cast members Ken Marino, Michael Ian Black, and Joe Lo Truglio.
Right, got it. Still doesn’t explain the title, though, are you absolutely sure this is a legitimate film?
Yes. Same goes for that other Wain/Showalter collaboration, the rom-com skewering They Came Together. Because, get it? Came… together? We’re having fun. While They Came Together works to thoroughly expose, yet loving tease every trope the genre has ever come up with, Wet Hot American Summer provides the same service for the camp movies and teen sex comedies of the 1980s. We’re talking the likes of National Lampoon’s Animal House, Meatballs, and Porky’s – unusual in the fact they were already comedies to begin with, yet not immune from the Hollywood love affair with clichés.
Spanning the final 24 hours of a fictional Jewish camp in 1981, Camp Firewood, Wet Hot American Summer sees campers and counsellors alike desperate to make their final hours a summer to remember, whether in the last dash for love or the camp’s closing talent show. That said, its interweaving storylines see everything from an astrophysicist associate professor (David Hyde Pierce) attempting to save the camp from a falling piece of NASA’s Skylab to a Vietnam veteran (Christopher Meloni) finding peace with himself, thanks to the sage advice of a talking can of veggies. With plenty of 80s power montages in between for good stead.
Will I recognise a whole bunch of famous faces, then?
Absolutely. A large part of Wet Hot American Summer’s appeal has always resided in its near-miraculous gathering of talents, specifically those who, at the time, had yet to claim their rightful place among the comedic cosmos. Though it may boast its fair share of established luminaries from the 90s scene, specifically Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, and Molly Shannon, it’s also the first major comedic appearance from several mainstays of the genre.
Indeed, it actually marks Paul Rudd’s first real transition from teen idol to the comic force he is today; his role as Springsteen-wannabe, douche-bro boyfriend Andy still stands as one of his most laugh-out-loud performances to date. Whatever Ant-Man turns out to be, the scene of him pulling a tantrum for having to clean up his plate is guaranteed to be at least 20 times better. Plus, on top of that, we’re treated to an early appearance from Rudd’s frequent co-star, Elizabeth Banks, as the burger-loving camp babe.
Yet, the highlight for many will always remain the poetic pairing of Amy Poehler’s drama club tyrant and her eagerly obedient assistant, as played by Bradley Cooper in his very first cinematic role. So much to be thankful for here, guys.
So why do I keep hearing about it all of a sudden?
There’s a chance this cult favourite is about to hit the mainstream, with Netflix surprisingly commissioning an eight-episode return to Camp Firewood set for release on 31st July. Not only are the original cast set to return in true testament to the film’s lasting conviviality, including (gasp) the now mega A-lister and Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper, but we’ll also get to see appearances from the likes of Chris Pine, Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Jason Schwartzman, and Kristen Wiig.
And in usual, Showalter/Wain absurd-style, the series has actually been pitched as a prequel, taking place at the very beginning of the same summer camp which ends with the original film’s climactic talent show. Entitled Wet Hot American Summer: First Day at Camp, the show will snatch up the film’s initial meta-joke that the cast were about 10 years too old to be playing teen counsellors by, that’s right, now making them about 20 years too old to be playing those same teen counsellors.
Last question. Is this movie actually worth watching?
A hundred times, yes. Wet Hot American Summer bottles the essence of those heady Airplane! days, the humour barrage of the ZAZ team (David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker), and repackages it for the dry, meta-absurdity of the front lines of 21st century comedy. And it does so with pure dedication, refusing to merely exploit the genre parody as a prop for broad, comic hijinks, but to pointedly strike at the minutest details of its source material with an unabashed faux-sincerity. No surprise there’s a training montage here, but it’s one that note-for-note replays each guitar lick, each brooding gaze, and each slow-mo, crop top-wearing moment of homo-eroticism of the 80s standards. And it’s a feat fairly spectacular to behold.
Yet, it does all of this with an unbridled sense of surrealism. Which is a brave thing to do, and an indication of why Wet Hot American Summer has never been the mainstream hit its fans have so passionately desired it to be. Forever warm and good-natured at its core, this is a film that so deeply submerges within itself it begins to possess the sense of true spontaneity and absurdity of long-form improv. It’s a ride of a film, and one in which true affinity can only be found by fully releasing yourself to the powers that be. In short, it’s the kind of movie where you come out of the other side confused as to why no one immediately comprehends why you’re screaming “I’m going to go fondle my sweaters!” at them.
Perhaps the greatest gift of Wet Hot American Summer is, however, the fact that its peculiar brand of humour has become, to many of its fans, an actual barometer of compatibility with the rest of the human race. As NPR host Jesse Thorn so eloquently puts: “When someone has an open enough heart to accept this silliness – and that’s what it’s about for me, an open heart – if someone’s heart is open to Wet Hot American Summer, they love it. And that’s when I know that me and them, we’ve got an unbreakable bond. Together forever. Like camp counsellors.”
So get watching. You’re about to make some lifelong friends.
Wet Hot American Summer is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.