When David Wain and Michael Showalter’s Wet Hot American Summer was first released, it was critically panned and commercially ignored. The movie made a woeful $7000 its first weekend in theaters after an almost nonexistent marketing campaign by USA Films. But after the film’s DVD release -- and the advent of Netflix, and the relentlessly rising stars of nearly every lead in the movie, most of whom were unknowns in 2001 -- something special happened. Wet Hot American Summer gained the eternally coveted and rarely achieved cult following.
So how did it happen? Wet Hot is an enormously funny film, layered with absurdist humor and a surprising darkness that contradicts its few genuinely sweet moments -- mostly due to Showalter’s Coop, though the angelically lit, solemn love scene between Michael Ian Black’s McKinley and Bradley Cooper’s Ben also comes to mind. But what Wet Hot American Summer delivers better than any other film is the pure equality of its ensemble cast. Each member is as hilarious and crucial and then utterly disregarded as the next. It’s like the scene where one moment J.J. (Zak Orth) is giving a line and the next, he just walks off the pier into the water. His part’s done, and now it’s time for him to get out of the scene and let someone else shine. That’s essentially the entire ethos behind Wet Hot American Summer.
Janeane Garofalo’s frenzied phone panic, Paul Rudd’s petulant cleaning session, Chris Meloni tenderly humping the fridge, Showalter’s proclamation of love to Marguerite Moreau, that chase scene between Ken Marino and Joe Lo Truglio, Amy Poehler’s scarcely contained rage, Molly Shannon’s trembling vulnerability: I have no hopes of choosing a favorite scene or performance among them. Each weird, wonderful vignette is as valuable to me as my own favorite memories from camp.
This is largely because the filming of Wet Hot American Summer was camp. In an oral history the cast and Wain gave to Details magazine for the film’s tenth anniversary, we learned that the stars spent 28 cold, rainy days bunking together at Honesdale, Pennsylvania’s Camp Towanda. Rudd said, “We would eat in the chow hall. We slept where the campers slept.” Michael Ian Black added,
“I don't know what they were fucking thinking, but they contracted the actual people who make food for the camp to make food for us. And, you know, pizza bagels every day when you're 11 years old is a dream. When you're 30, and it's pizza bagels every day, you wanna kill somebody.”
The actors -- many of whom, along with Wain, were improv friends in college through a group that later became known as The State -- didn’t just eat and sleep together. They partied together. From Poehler: “We were being given the chance to take one more shot at summer camp, only we were wiser, better drinkers, and more sexually experienced.”
They got in trouble with the actual camp director, Towana’s Mitch Reiter, who wasn’t prepared for set antics at his family camp. They drank, lots, day in and out, Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s and beer from the local Walmart. Rudd said, “Everyone stayed up late. Everybody partied. There were no sticks in the mud.” Poehler added, “There would just be a lot of guitar circles, and people singing outside and getting really wasted.” You know, like camp.
And like camp, it all culminated in a big dance where everyone got a chance to make out a little. They hired a DJ, Mr. Blue, who played ‘80s music as they all enjoyed a rave on the campgrounds. Wain says of the party, “As luck would have it, for that moment in time, it stopped raining. It was this magical night, and we all went out on the dock in the pitch black and hung out…There were totally random hookups.” You know, like camp.
The camaraderie created by the impossibly rainy conditions, the close quarters and crummy food and random hookups resulted in the single greatest ensemble comedy of our generation. Each viewing reveals new gags, new line deliveries that stand out as genius, new dynamics between the now star-studded cast. And in June, we learned that Netflix -- the very thing that’s partially responsible for Wet Hot American Summer’s cult status -- is in talks to create a prequel with David Wain and the original cast. Yes, a prequel -- the actors who were already a decade too old to play their parts will now be two decades too old, a sight gag that will probably be twice as funny now. It’s enough to make you want to write the good news in your gournal.