Plenty of fans first encountered Wet Hot American Summer on a television screen. After its brief theatrical run in 2001, the film began an endless word-of-mouth tour, with countless stops in friend’s basements, college dorm rooms, video stores, cable broadcasts, and the video store’s 21st-century successor, Netflix. TV built the cult of Wet Hot, even as the film overcame box-office-bomb status to reclaim the cinema, playing packed revival houses and midnight screenings. Michael Showalter and David Wain’s gonzo camp comedy just makes sense on TV.
And though they’ve both experienced varying degrees of success on the big screen in the years since, TV is where Wain and Showalter have done their best work. It’s where they laid the foundation for Wet Hot American Summer’s sketch-like construction, as part of the 11-headed comedy monster responsible for The State. It’s where they participated, together and apart, in Stella and Michael And Michael Have Issues, two additional, criminally underseen collaborations with Wet Hot/State-mate Michael Ian Black. And TV is where Wain honed his gag-a-minute deadpan chops behind the scenes for six seasons (going on seven) of Childrens Hospital.
With all that in mind, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp feels like a can’t-miss. The Netflix miniseries landed its first joke before a single frame was shot: Already a decade older than their characters in 2001, the returning ensemble is now playing younger versions of those counselors in 2015. The session that ends in Wet Hot American Summer is just getting started in First Day Of Camp, which opens up all kinds of opportunities to explain how Coop (Showalter), Katie (Marguerite Moreau), Andy (Paul Rudd), and company got from the miniseries’ point A to the film’s point B. With more real estate to tell their story, Showalter and Wain craft an absurdly momentous day in the Maine wilderness, one involving government conspiracies, secret identities, and a remarkably professional production of a Broadway musical. But whenever the ongoing arcs start to feel too burdensome (or snoozy—sorry, new crop of kiddie campers), tangential hijinks are always ready to lighten the load. Origin stories are condensed into frantically paced cold opens and inspired sight gags, and even the most involved storylines are peppered with classic Showalter-Wain non sequiturs. At the very least, all of the convolutions within the conspiracy arc explain why Bunk 8 is so hot for The China Syndrome.
But First Day Of Camp is more than expository reenactment. It expands the world of Wet Hot American Summer to depict more of the world outside Camp Firewood, from nearby Waterville to the swanky digs of “evil” Camp Tiger Claw. It’s a clever sleight of hand that redirects attention from any ongoing games of “Which cast member was busiest?” Amy Poehler doesn’t get much time with onscreen beau Bradley Cooper, but that’s not as distracting as it could’ve been because a) John Slattery winds up by Poehler’s side as a washed-up theater vet, and b) Cooper’s most important scenes are with Michael Ian Black. Whether it’s with old friends (Ken Marino and Joe Lo Truglio reuniting as Victor and Neil, the Spike and Chester of camp counselors)—or new (Showalter and Lake Bell as not-quite-sweethearts), First Day Of Camp breaks cleanly into a collection of corresponding two-handers—another sign that Wet Hot fits the mold of a TV production.
Even with a lack of big ensemble scenes, the enterprise is threaded together by an affection for these characters and the distinctly warped collaborative voice of Michael Showalter and David Wain. More than any single callback or inside joke, First Day Of Camp earns its way into the Wet Hot American Summer canon by adding fresh spins to its predecessor’s drawn-out physical bits and good-natured raunch. The State never forsook its theater-geek roots, and that heartfelt, let’s-put-on-a-show energy still imbues the work of its alumni. And with First Day Of Camp, that goes beyond Suzy and Ben’s musical: When the series parodies different filmmaking styles and genres, it’s never from a place of snide superiority. Characters speak in the fakey-fake, artificial phrases and aphorisms of other fictional characters, but the series isn’t mocking these conventions and clichés. As with Showalter and Wain’s rom-com send-up They Came Together, First Day Of Camp revels in the surreal musicality of movie- and TV-speak.
The humor of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp isn’t in the length of Ken Marino’s cutoffs or Amy Poehler’s Dorothy Hamill hairdo. It’s in how Marino runs in those cutoffs, or the wild insults Poehler screams from beneath that hairdo. (In Poehler’s repertoire of perfectionist power-trippers, Wet Hot’s Suzy is the fuming yin to Leslie Knope’s yang.) It’s in unabashed silliness that gets funnier through repetition, or a sound effect that triggers a 14-year-old memory. First Day Of Camp dabbles in fan service, and it provides backstory no one asked for, but it does so in the joyously weird spirit of its predecessor. (You might not be dying to know how Katie wound up dating bad boy Andy, but maybe you were curious as to how that can of vegetables wound up with the voice of H. Jon Benjamin?) Wet Hot American Summer the series affords us four more hours at Camp Firewood—and for that we can all be thankful.
Six episodes watched for review
Reviews by Joshua Alston will appear daily from July 31 through August 7