David Wain’s Wet Hot American Summer is one of the least likely movies to inspire a follow-up of any kind. The film was savaged by critics upon its release and barely made a dent at the box office; Universal even denied the movie a 10th anniversary DVD/Blu-ray. Though I disagree entirely with his assessment, Roger Ebert’s venomous “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh”-inspired review is worth a read. Another pan that seems worth noting is on the film’s IMDb page. A user’s 1/10 review from 2003 is accompanied by the headline, “I registered to say how bad this movie is.” And yes, this is that IMDb user’s only review on the entire site.
And yet here we are, 14 years after the film was released, and the prequel series Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is now streaming on Netflix. (As of this writing I haven’t seen an episode. Check back next week for Flixist’s thoughts on the new series.)
Wet Hot American Summer‘s Phoenix-like rise is what cult films and cult acts are all about. The resurgence was facilitated by word of mouth and home video. But ultimately Wet Hot seems vindicated by time, and I’m not just talking about the stardom achieved by Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, and Paul Rudd. While rooted in the cliches of 80s teen sex romps, Wet Hot American Summer was ahead of its time, even if only a few years, since the movie was throbbing with a nascent form of full-fledged 21st century irony.
[The Cult Club is where Flixist’s writers expound the virtues of their favorite underground classics, spanning all nations and genres. It is a monthly series of articles looking at what made those films stand out from the pack, as well as their enduring legacy.]
In a lot of ways, Wet Hot American Summer is a cult movie made by the generation that grew up watching cult movies and cult television. Picture this sign on the treehouse: “The Wet Hot American Summer Cult Club--No Boomers Allowed… Unless You’ve Seen Zapped with Scott Baio… or Sledge Hammer!” The film takes place in one day at Camp Firewood, the final day at Camp Firewood, the only one that matters. And into this day is poured multiple teen movie cliches: telling your crush you’re into them, virgins trying to get laid, bad boys being bad to good girlfriends, exuberant montages, demented staff, friends trying to get their virgin friends laid, a talent show, telekinesis, hidden romances, nerdy kids saving the day. So much happens so quickly that logical notions of time and space have no meaning. An hour-long trip seems to cover a weekend of events, a one-minute training montage seems to cover a week of exercise and self-discovery, a single day carries in it a month-long trajectory of emotions.
And that’s the whole point. Wet Hot American Summer takes place in a film version of time and space since it’s a movie about the culminating plots of other movies. Beneath that meta-layer, there’s perhaps a wistful tinge of nostalgia as well--as a kid, summer seems to go by so fast, like the entire summer is just a single day. Mostly it’s just funny if you think about it, but also if, in a smart and detached way, you really don’t think about it too much.
Even though the movie is about the culminating stories of other camp movies, Wet Hot American Summer isn’t constructed with a single narrative thrust that climaxes and wraps up neatly. The movie stops and starts as title cards note the passage of in-story meta-movie time. A potential Bad News Bears-style showdown in the middle of the film seems like the big set piece we’ve been waiting for, and yet it’s self-consciously avoided. A camper says that the cliche of the big game is trite, and the counselors agree, because ultimately it is trite. Summers, whether a day or an entire season, rarely have that kind of shape with a solid conclusion. Instead, Wet Hot American Summer is more like a feature-length sketch show that just ends when camp ends. The final shot of the film is suitably unceremonious.
I think Wet Hot American Summer is alive today because some Gen-Xers got the joke--were in on the joke--and are now in power at Netflix. From their streaming thrones, they’re able to dole out the filthy original-series lucre as they see fit. (And good for them.)
I can’t help but stress the whole Gen-X angle, which bleeds into a millennial attachment to the film. It may also explain why film critics of the time (who were predominantly Baby Boomers) just couldn’t get into it. The Boomers weren’t really in on the joke; some didn’t even get the set-up or that the set-up and punchline were sometimes one in the same. Like other cult followings, there’s a sense of exclusivity.
When Scott Tobias wrote about Wet Hot American Summer for the AV Club back in 2008, he identified the makers of the film as well as many of the cultists:
Here’s a movie from 2001 that doesn’t concern itself with yesterday’s box-office hits, but with a sub-sub-genre of comedies from the late ’70s to the mid-’80s, starting with Meatballs and its sequel, and including other disreputable standards like the TV movie Poison Ivy (with Michael J. Fox and Nancy McKeon), SpaceCamp, and the non-gory scenes in their slasher cousins like Friday The 13th and Sleepaway Camp. But it doesn’t stop there: WHAS is pitched specifically to Reagan-era latchkey kids who grew up watching these movies on television, and have a certain generalized nostalgia about the fashions, hairstyles, graphical elements, and other minutiae that seeped into their wood-paneled family rooms.
Tobias, a Gen-Xer like that first-wave of classic AV Club writers, is a Wet Hot acolyte. (Gooble gobble.) The comedy is so videostore and VCR-based, drawing on a shared cultural memory not just of middle-class summer camp experiences but about movies-about-summer-camp and teen-sex-movies and slashers-at-camp-movies and that-one-joke-I-saw-on-late-night-TV; and maybe to a certain degree, the movie is also about people trying to model their real-life summer camp experiences to match the things they saw in films and TV. The time-space weirdness of the movie seems to suggest that it’s impossible to make real life work like the movies; further, if real life worked out that way, it would make reality trite.
Wain and collaborators Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black, Ken Marino, and Joe Lo Truglio were all members of MTV’s sketch show The State, which is one of the cultiest cult shows that ever did cult-show. A lot of the fondness for Wet Hot American Summer comes from an attachment that many had to The State and the projects that the cast embarked on following The State‘s cancellation. (Maybe a question to consider in all this: at what point does fondness become nostalgia?) The State was at the forefront of that cult sketch comedy canon, along with The Kids in the Hall, Mr. Show, The Dana Carvey Show, and The Ben Stiller Show (of which camp director Janeane Garofalo was an alum; ditto a brief stint on Saturday Night Live).
Thinking about it, you really can’t have sketch comedy without grounding that in the improv tradition. Think of places like Second City, The Upright Citizens Brigade, and The Groundlings. These were the places where SNL and SCTV found their players. Improv is often built on discrete scenes with a common theme, all of which abide by a “yes and” mentality between performers in order to keep a joke alive and to enhance it. The “yes and” at the heart of improv might be the adult collaborative equivalent of a child using “and then” as a conjunction while telling a story that they’re really excited about.
The State‘s comedy tradition and the film’s roots in home video explain the varied nature of Wet Hot American Summer‘s humor--a series of personal experiences by way of movie cliches joined together by strange “and then’s” with lots of “yes and’s.” It’s also why (again, if you’re in on the joke) a lot of the comedy hits. The characters at Camp Firewood are rendered broadly from a collection of tropes, as if hewn from a sketch team’s writing room or from an improv team’s regular house show. Each character is dropped into situations that play to their strengths as comic figures, and it just keeps going--and then, and then, and then until the end.
Beyond that, there’s the awkward interpersonal comedy, mostly having to do with flirting and attraction. There’s slapstick. There’s quotable non-sequiturs mostly from Christopher Meloni as the ‘Nam-addled camp cook. The visual gags are there too (e.g., why are they wrestling behind the line for corn?), and ditto some audio ones (e.g., Wilhelm scream). Wet Hot takes its lessons not just from improv and sketch, but also from Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker at their best: keep the jokes coming fast, from different angles, and don’t just rely on one type of humor.
The Wet Hot American Summer series on Netflix is a prequel rather than a sequel. A sequel would have made logical sense since they tease a 10-year reunion in the film, a snippet of which is seen after the credits. And yet it’s a prequel show about the first day of camp rather than the last, and most of the cast looks their age (i.e., comfortably into their 40s). Come to think of it, they’re following up a 90-minute movie about the final day of camp with eight half-hour episodes about the first day of camp.
But that’s the joke. Wet Hot American Summer continues its own tradition of operating in a pocket of movie-space and movie-time, and the set-up and punchline are one. Its driving comedy imperative of yes’s, and’s, and then’s hopefully still abides.
We’re taking a look at one of the odd moments in American film and popular culture: the time in the 1970s when pornography went mainstream. Known alternatively as prono chic and The Golden Age of Porn, Flixist will focus one of the seminal (now, now) films from that era: 1972’s Deep Throat.
In addition to looking at Deep Throat, we’ll consider the rise and fall of The Golden Age of Porn (blame home video), how the clash over porn led to a division among second wave feminists, and how the ugly side of this pornorific era in American culture was depicted in films such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights and, more recently, Lovelace starring Amanda Seyfried.
Yup. Porn. I’m sure putting that Philosophy degree to work.
PREVIOUSLY SHOWING ON THE CULT CLUB
Repo Man (1984)
Putney Swope (1969)
The Last Dragon (1985)
Tromeo and Juliet (1996)