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A <em>Wet Hot American Summer</em> Primer

Chris Tomlin07/29/15


Article written by:On3 imageChris Tomlin


On Friday Netflix releases the eight-part comedy Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp — a series which you’ve no doubt noticed creeping into your various mainstream outlets (Hoda and Kathie Lee! The Tonight Show!) despite the fact that the source material it’s based on is likely one of the truest cult classics of the last twenty years. The series, which exists as a prequel to the events of the 2001 film Wet Hot American Summer, brings back every single adult member of the original film’s cast, has added a few more, and currently sits as one of the most insane comic cast lists since Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. If you’ve seen Wet Hot as a film, I don’t need to tell you how great it is (I personally myself pride myself on having rewatched it roughly every seven months since the winter of 2001); if you haven’t, you may be wondering what the fuss is about. Here, then, are a few things you need to know going in to the Wet Hot American Summer universe.

1. In 2001, the cast wasn’t nearly as amazing as it looks now. In 2001, Amy Poehler had yet to become a huge star on Saturday Night Live, Bradley Cooper would still be eight years pre-Hangover, Elizabeth Banks was nowhere near Effie Trinket and Paul Rudd’s greatest claim to fame was being Alicia Silverstone’s older brother in Clueless six years earlier. Molly Shannon would be well into her SNL run, David Hyde Pierce would be almost finished with his Frasier run and Christopher Meloni was largely known not for Law & Order but for the HBO prison drama Oz. In fact, at the time of shooting the more famous true comedians in the film’s cast would be David Wain, Michael Showalter, Ken Marino, Michael Ian Black and Joe Lo Truglio — all former members of the freshly and fondly remembered MTV sketch show The State. That the show would serve as such a collection of future superstars is one of Wet Hot American Summer’s claim to fame, which makes the new series in 2015 all the more impressive as director Wain has always claimed that “the cast swore they’d never do it unless every single one of them came back to do it.” Which they all did.


2. The movie was a commercial and critical failure. Despite premiering at Sundance in 2001, USA Films bought Wet Hot for only $100,000 and gave it a limited release which garnered almost no audience, only netting $292,000 in theaters. In fact, it was such a failure that even a few years into its cult success in 2011, Wain told Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast host Scott Aukerman that the film had only then begun to make a profit from its cult status. The Dallas Morning News called it an “almost laughless bomb,” a Washington Post writer said it was “so depressing I almost started to cry” and one online critic longed for Friday the 13th’s camp-slasher Jason Voorhees to enter the picture and murder everyone.


3. It prominently features a self-fellating can of vegetables, a renegade piece of falling debris from the Skylab space station and an ancient circa-1940’s Catskills comedian. That’s not to mention adults becoming engaged to children, a stellar performance of the Christian-themed musical Godspell at an all-Jewish summer camp and a refrigerator-humping Vietnam vet. While none of this may make any sense to the uninitiated viewer, all is revealed in the absurd context of the Wain-Showalter method, even if…well…some of it still doesn’t make any sense. Which leads us to point #4:

4. Things that don’t make sense will come to make sense in the prequel series. Wain has advised fans to go back and revisit Wet Hot American Summer (streaming on Netflix) before watching the series, as the series serves to set up a lot of the more unexplained and esoteric jokes of the film. The trailers alone have hinted at a human H. Jon Benjamin holding a can of vegetables (he voices said can in the film) and a presumably pre-PTSD Christopher Meloni’s origin story. If none of this makes any sense to you, you probably need to watch the film before the series.

5. It features this scene, which is one of my favorite in cinema history.

6. The movie may not be for you. I can think of a hundred people, personally, who I know would hate Wet Hot American Summer if they ever saw it, but I know two hundred who love it. The Wain/Showalter joke theory involves a lot of random absurdity, jokes with purposely no punch line, deliberately hack gags for the sake of hackiness and awkward acknowledgement of the cameras. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. But if it’s yours — and it’s most definitely mine — then it will be yours in spades. Trust me on that.


7. The new series premieres on Friday. It will feature eight thirty minute episodes, delve further into the backstories of the campers and counselors and add another third to the already overloaded cast, including actors Jason Schwarzman, Kristen Wiig, Jon Hamm, Josh Charles and more. But if you’re already a Wet Hot fan, you already know this, because if you’re already a fan this thing has been on your radar already for three years. It’s finally here, and it’s finally happening. Embrace it, because it’s probably all you’re going to get.

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