Browse Josh's Portfolio and the Comic, Reviews or Blog archive.

Josh Reviews Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp

David Wain and Michael Showalter’s cult classic film Wet Hot American Summer is not a film for which I ever expected to see a sequel made.

WetHotAmericanSummer.FirstDayOfCamp.cropped

The film did not succeed upon its theatrical release back in 2001.  But then a strange thing happened, which sometimes occurs with films whose style or content fall somewhat outside what one might deem the “mainstream” (and this seems to particularly be the case with comedies): the film slowly began to build a passionate group of fans who love and quote the film endlessly.  At the same time, so many of the performers in the film, who were small-potatoes when it was released, exploded in popularity in the years to come: performers like Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd, and many others.  Looking back on the film today, Wet Hot American Summer feels like an incredibly prescient film, one that magically brought together an insanely talented array of performers.

And yet, despite the film’s eventually earning a beloved status amongst many comedy fans, who ever thought that a sequel would ever be made?  What flop ever earns a sequel?  And Wet Hot never felt to me like one of those films that is begging for a sequel.  The film’s story, about the last day of summer camp at Camp Firewood in 1981, felt like a complete story.  And how on earth could all of these now-very-popular and successful performers ever be united?

And even if one dared to dream that perhaps someday some studio could be convinced to front the money to make a sequel for a film that flopped, there are all the other challenges of making a sequel to a comedy.  I could probably write a book analyzing all the reasons why this might be, but for now let’s just cut to the chase to state that making a comedy sequel is incredibly hard.  There are very, very few comedy sequels that are any good.  (Go ahead. Try to name one.)

Somehow, David Wain and Michael Showalter have managed to surmount every single challenge that stood in the way of crafting a satisfying and entertaining sequel to the original film.  I don’t quite know how they did it, but they did!  And so, lo and behold, Netflix’s eight-episode Wet Hot American Summer mini-series is now something that actually exists that I have seen with my own two eyeballs.

Somehow, David Wain and Michael Showalter managed to lure back every single cast-member of note from the original film.  That in itself is a triumph of staggering performers.  To reunite that enormous ensemble, all of whom are big comedy names?  Crazy.  (Along with the names I listed above, back for the mini-series are: Marguerite Moreau, Michael Ian Black, Janeane Garofolo, Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino, Christopher Meloni, Molly Shannon, Zak Orth, A.D. Miles, …and even David Hyde Pierce, Judah Friedlander, and many more.)  Furthermore, the format that they worked out with Netflix — of sequelizing the original film not as a second movie, but instead as an eight-part mini-series, is genius.  GENIUS.  This mini-series format allows the sequel to have plenty of time to breathe, to explore all of the incredible characters played by this insanely-talented ensemble, and for the show to go on all sorts of nutty comedic tangents that would have been squeezed out of an hour-and-a-half-long film.

They solved the problem of creating a sequel to a story that really didn’t need a sequel by making the sequel be a prequel instead.  Whereas the film chronicled the last day of camp, this mini-series depicts the first.  And here again, David Wain and Michael Showalter have done the near-impossible.  I have complained again and again here on this site about how much I generally dislike prequels.  I usually find them to be lazy (let’s just repeat the things we know the audience likes) and narratively inert (how can there be tension when I already know what will happen to all the characters?), and they bore me by looking backwards rather than moving the story forwards.

And yet somehow, Mr. Wain and Mr. Showalter have made the prequel idea work so, so well here!  It’s because they approach the whole idea with a comedian’s eye for the ridiculous, building up a deliriously complicated web of backstory for all of the characters and situations.  This notion also gives all the amazing performers so much room to play — something enhanced by the relaxed pace of the miniseries format — and the audience the ability to dig deeply into exploring these nutty characters.  It works because we just want to see more of these actors and their characters, and as long as it’s funny we’re not bogged down in plot mechanics the way we would be with a prequel to a dramatic story.  The idea of a complicated web of backstory and relationships between these characters also plays nicely into the subject matter being depicted.  Teenagers at summer camp absolutely create a whole universe to themselves over the course of a summer, and the tangled and ever-changing web of relationships and friendships over the course of a summer is enormously complex!  It all works.  They even succeeded in making the age of all the actors be a non-issue and actually a net-positive for the comedy.  These actors were all way too old to play teenagers when the first film was released a decade-and-a-half ago!  That was part of the joke.  They’re now, fifteen years later, WAY too old to be playing teenagers!  And YOUNGER versions of the characters they played a decade and a half ago?  It’s ludicrous!  Which is, of course, exactly why it works.  So clever.

I was pleasantly surprised by how the eight-episode format allowed the show to not just revisit old favorites, but to introduce lots of new characters and story-lines.  Some of the highlights of the miniseries were these new characters played by an amazing group of actors who meshed seamlessly with the returning cast.  Who thought the Wet Hot ensemble could get even better?  At the top of the list is the creator and director David Wain, who played the Israeli soccer coach Yaron.  Ever since I read the name and character description, I knew this would be perfect, but I was still bowled over by how hysterical Mr. Wain’s spot-on performance was.  So funny.  Equally wonderful was Lake Bell as Donna, the girl with whom Coop was smitten but who seemed more interested in Yaron.  I wonder a little bit about what a general audience thinks of these characters, who feel to me like very inside jokes to people who have ever been to a Jewish summer camp (obviously exaggerated to ridiculous proportions), but perhaps this is just a great example of how specificity can lead to universality.  Wait, am I getting too high-falutin’ for a show that gave us the origin of a talking can of mixed vegetables?  Then let’s get back to showering praise on some of the phenomenal new actors who joined this astounding comedy ensemble: Jason Schwartzman, Mad Men’s John Slattery, Sports Night’s Josh Charles, Michaela Watkins, Randall Park, Michael Cera, Kristen Wiig, Jon Hamm, Chris Pine, Richard Schiff, Jordan Peele, and lots more.  What an all-star list.

Some other comments:

I loved the way they worked in David Hyde Pierce.  That short five-minute sequence was genius-level.  So funny.  I am so glad that they found a way to work in his character (even though he couldn’t really enter the story until he met Beth on the last day of camp, as depicted in the original film).

I loved having Samm Levine’s voice back as the voice of “the beekeeper.”

Getting to see the story of Gail (Molly Shannon)’s first marriage was great.  And as much as I loved crazy drugged-out Vietnam Vet Jonas Jurgenson (Christopher Meloni), I think I liked preppy Gene Jenkinson even better!

All the jokes based around how Bradley Cooper so clearly wasn’t able to have been there for a lot of the filming really tickled me.  D.J. ski-mask?  Amazing.

I loved all of Chris Pine’s role, but when we learn the origin of the “Higher and Higher” song?  SO GREAT.

Lot of Mad Men veterans in this show!  I’ve already mentioned John Slattery and Jon Hamm, but Rich Sommer also pops up as one of the evil preppy Camp Tigerclaw boys!

It was fun to see the eight-episode series use the same captioning technique as the movie — showing the exact time (hour and minute) — all the way through, as the eight half-hours take us through the first day of camp.

The only off-note in the whole show for me?  The lack of a satisfying pay-off for the story-line of new young camper Kevin’s crush on another young new girl, Amy.

I didn’t love Wet Hot American Summer when I first saw it, but I enjoyed it far more on a later viewing, once I’d gotten used to the comedy style (and the insane exaggerations of summer camp life, exaggerations which were off-putting to me — as someone who works in the summer camp world — when I first saw the film).  If you’re not a fan of the film, I can’t imagine your having much interest in this mini-series.  But if you love the film, I guarantee you that you are going to adore this mini-series.  It’s a tremendous showcase for an astounding array of comedic talents, and it fires on pretty much every cylinder.  Pure joy from start to finish.

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someone