When Wet Hot American Summer hit theaters over a decade ago, it flopped spectacularly at the box office–not a particularly surprising turn of events for a tiny indie film starring a bunch of people no one had ever heard of. Surprising, though, was the critical response, much of which was vicious beyond the point of general panning. Roger Ebert despised Wet Hot to such a degree that he formatted his review of the film as a parody of Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah Hello Faddah” and in it described Wet Hot as an “idiotic motion picture” and “cinematic torture.”
I wish Ebert had written an actual review of the film, because his stylized article is necessarily pretty vague in its critique.
As the years passed, with DVD access and video-on-demand becoming more commonplace, Wet Hot became a cult classic. Millions of people who, like me, weren’t yet in kindergarten at the time of its theatrical release now hail it as one of their favorite movies–a fact that has served not only as justification for Netflix’s greenlighting of a Wet Hot prequel series, but as something of a vindication for Wet Hot American Summer creators, David Wain and Michael Showalter.
Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer series, subtitled First Day of Camp, is shockingly faithful to the spirit of the film (other than its modern glossy digital-ness). First Day of Camp maintains and builds on the unusual comic absurdity previously unique to Wet Hot American Summer the film.
Not only does First Day of Camp capture the tone of its origin film, it brings back all of its actors as well–an impressive feat, given that much of the Wet Hot American Summer cast have gone on to become TV and movie stars. The likes of Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, and Elizabeth Banks reprise their Wet Hot roles from fourteen years ago, hilariously playing the same characters younger than they were in the original film.
Let’s take a quick look at some of those individual performances.
Janeane Garofalo as Beth
Wain and Showalter send Beth away from camp for the majority of the series. She mostly has peripheral adventures with new character Greg (Jason Schwartzman in an uncharacteristically uninteresting performance). I assume that this particular choice was made for scheduling purposes.
Beth’s function in Wet Hot was to hold all of the storylines together; she interacted with the staff, campers, and guests. As a fan of the film, I’d have liked to have seen more of Beth on camp grounds and less of her investigating random nonsense with Greg.
Michael Showalter as Coop
Showalter is not as broad a comic actor as many of the others in the cast, yet he remains the most important piece of the puzzle. In the film, Showalter’s Coop represented the “nice guy” stereotype you so often see in the coming-of-age films Wet Hot parodies.
Whereas in the film, Coop lusted after Katie (Marguerite Moreau) while she dated Andy (Paul Rudd), in the Netflix series Coop is in a “committed relationship” with Donna (a very funny Lake Bell)–that is, until Donna meets visiting soccer counselor Yaron (played by director and co-writer, the distinctly not-Israeli David Wain). Coop’s navigation of his relationship with Donna is a great variant on his interest in Katie in the film.
Showalter hasn’t aged as well as some of the other Wet Hot actors, a fact that makes for some terrific visual gags as the obviously middle-aged Showalter spends time with Camp Firewood campers, played by actual children.
Showalter is now, as he was then, inconspicuous in his comedy. More often than not, Coop (and by extension, Showalter, who wrote the episodes with David Wain) sets other characters up for the one-liners rather than making them himself. His ability to set others up for laugh lines and to allow himself to be the butt of those jokes is invaluable.
Elizabeth Banks as Lindsay
Lindsay is, as it turns out, not a counselor at all, but a journalist from “Rock and Roll World Magazine” on a mission to get the real scoop on…summer camp? Yeah, this is supposed to be a parody of films like Never Been Kissed, but it doesn’t ever really get off the ground. And the less said about Chris Pine’s involvement in Lindsay’s story, the better.
Christopher Meloni as Gene
Meloni is astonishingly funny. It really can’t be overstated. He’s amazing. It’s difficult to describe what exactly he’s doing that makes for such great comedy–his physicality, tone of voice, weird acting choices, and behavioral quirks as his character transforms over the course of the season are just wonderful.
Amy Poehler as Susie
Amy Poehler is playing Susie without the edge that she had in the film. It’s just not as funny. Simple as that. She spends much of the series directing a play with the help of John Slattery, another completely extraneous addition to the cast. One of the lesser corners of the series.
David Hyde Pierce as Harry
When Pierce is in the series, he’s great. He barely registers though, as Harry gets under ten minutes of screen time in the whole season. Seems like false advertising–I was told David Hyde Pierce would be starring in this series!
Paul Rudd as Andy
I’ll let the character speak for himself–these are actual things that Paul Rudd says in First Day of Camp:
“Smells weird. Who beefed?”
“Trees look weird if you squint at them.”
“I’d rather pick dingleberries out of my Aunt Frida’s butt than do that stupid shit.”
“I’ll fart my way into that snatch. Just you watch.”
“He isn’t cleaning your pool when he’s sucking on your mama’s big old pancake titties.”
“You tellin’ me that you don’t want to hack yourself off a slice of this long, greasy dick?”
I especially appreciated this series’ commitment to recreating the comedic tone of the movie without copying the movie’s iconic scenes outright. Unlike recent long-awaited cinematic sequels and prequels, First Day of Camp recaptures the something-special of Wet Hot American Summer without imitating its actual jokes. Not only have Wain and Showalter revisited something truly special without tarnishing its legacy, they’ve built on it in an entirely satisfactory way.
Also, Michael Showalter plays Ronald Reagan. And he beats the crap out of Judah Friedlander. It’s magnificent.