Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is a great follow-up to 2001’s cult classic Wet Hot American Summer. Like the original film, First Day of Camp is rife with anarchic absurdity and chock full of movie cliches. While the movie was predominantly concerned with summer camp flicks and teen sex comedies, First Day of Camp throws in ninja/martial arts films, rock star comebacks, undercover adults, and political conspiracies that go all the way to the top. All of that is crammed into 8 zany half-hour episodes.
Well, let me qualify all that, actually--First Day of Camp is great if you’re a Wet Hot American Summer fan. If you haven’t seen or didn’t like David Wain’s original movie, First Day of Camp will be a painful, obnoxious, unfunny slog, like you’ve stumbled into a conversation at a party built mostly around in-jokes.
First Day of Camp is a fans-only proposition, but that’s also part of the joke. It’s niche-crafted and niche-approved. First Day of Camp goofs around with the fact that all prequels are basically just sequels made for the original fanbase.
The Netflix series takes place in one day at Camp Firewood, the first day (duh) at Camp Firewood, the only day that matters (other than the last day). Teen movie tropes about virginity, pecking orders, and bullying ensue, but it’s also clear we’re in a different place on the first day of camp than we were by the last day of camp. Coop (Michael Showalter) is timidly dating Donna (Lake Bell) rather than being a timid sadsack, Katie (Marguerite Moreau) is seeing a snooty Camp Tiger Claw guy named Blake (John Charles) rather than cocksure bad boy Andy (Paul Rudd), and, somehow, Ben (Bradley Cooper) and Susie (Amy Poehler) are an item, though a frustratingly sexless item. Also, Christopher Meloni’s cook character has hair and isn’t batshit crazy.
None of the above is inherently funny, but that’s what makes it funny. So much of the humor in the Netflix show is contingent on knowing on the first day of camp what happens on the final day of camp. It makes me think that a prequel to Wet Hot American Summer is infinitely funnier than a sequel would have been, at least at a conceptual level. That’s the absurd way that movie-time/series-time works--with prequels in particular, real-world chronology matters more than in-story chronology. In prequels, set-up is really punchline.
To put it another way, what kind of mook watches the Star Wars prequels before they watch the original Star Wars trilogy? Who pops in Temple of Doom before they watch Raiders of the Lost Ark? I’ll tell you who: someone doing everything wrong in life.
Since the Wet Hot prequel takes place 15-real-word years after the original film, there are a lot of unspoken gags built around the age of the cast. In Wet Hot, actors in their twenties played teenagers, which is common practice for lots of teen movies and coming-of-age films. In First Day of Camp, the teenage counselors are all roughly 40 years old, give or take, which is uncommon practice anywhere. The cast shows their age--though some have aged better than others (Rudd and Elizabeth Banks must have paintings rotting in rooms somewhere)--and the wigs/hairstyles look even more fake. It all adds to the show’s enjoyably off-kilter quality.
Showalter looks especially schlubby as Coop. Compare Coop in First Day of Camp to Coop in Wet Hot American Summer and it’s a pretty startling before-and-after (or after-and-before). I don’t mean that in a mean-spirited way since it’s part of the humor and all the performers are in on it. It’s actually a smart visual gag that’s used effectively as part of the storytelling. Seeing Showalter next to Lake Bell makes the doomed awkwardness of Coop and Donna’s relationship more apparent.
In those 15 real-world years that separate the First Day of Camp from the last day of camp, some of the Wet Hot American Summer cast have become much more famous. For Banks and Poehler, that means more focus on their characters and what makes them each tick. The backstory they’ve concocted for Banks’ character Lindsay is especially inspired. It’s a nod to Just One of the Guys and a wink to Cameron Crowe’s real-life adventures as a fake-teen that led to Fast Times at Ridgemont High. With Cooper, by comparison, writers Wain and Showalter have come up with a clever in-story way to accommodate the Academy Award-nominated actor’s busy real-world schedule. (Cooper had to shoot all of his scenes in just one day.)
The expanded cult following behind Wet Hot American Summer means loads of guest appearances throughout First Day of Camp, including Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig, Jordan Peele, Michael Cera, Jason Schwartzman, and H. Jon Benjamin. There’s another major cameo I won’t ruin, though it seems like this particular actor, like Cooper, probably shot all of his scenes in one day.
In addition to guest stars, the growing Wet Hot cult translated into a bigger budget (probably to pay all the guest stars). Wet Hot American Summer was shot for $1.8 million, though Wain told people it was $5 million in the hopes it would help secure a better distribution deal. Judging by this 2013 article from Variety, Netflix probably shelled out $1.8 million per episode for First Day of Camp. The scope of the story is larger, and yet there’s still a scruffy, raggedy look to the whole thing that fits with the aesthetic of the film. It’s as if Wain and Showalter figured out how to make everything look chintzier even though the world of the film has grown.
And that’s the thing. First Day of Camp is a cult show for a cult movie, and it stays true to its roots: spoofs, the yes-and of improv, the weirdness of 90s sketch shows, the and-then of a feverishly implausible child’s story; and it’s all fueled by real-life nostalgia for teenage summers as well as nostalgia for certain bits of Gen-X pop culture. Part of me wonders if there’ll be a second day of camp. That same part hopes it happens about a decade from now. It would be funnier that way. The Wet Hot American Summer series seems to get better with age.