Fourteen years after the release of Wet Hot American Summer, Netflix is streaming an original series based on the film. All the major cast members have returned, including: Janeane Garofalo, Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, and Paul Rudd. Essentially, a lot of talented actors who would get more famous in the 2000s have reunited.
Despite terrible reviews, the film attained cult status amongst fans of the now famous cast. Which makes sense — if you like Rudd and Banks and hear they did a silly flick that riffs off the sexy summer camp genre of the ’80s why wouldn’t you want to check it out? The film, let’s be clear, really is deserving of those terrible reviews. On the other hand, there’s no accounting for taste when it comes to cult flicks, which is as it should be. The happy surprise is that the new Netflix series is actually really funny despite its mediocre origins.
Here’s why you should give the WHAS series a chance, and why you should also consider (even if begrudgingly) sitting through the 2001 snooze fest.
1. Just Hit Play, Already.
Full disclosure: I didn’t watch the film until last week. I had heard of it for sure, but it just never looked like my thing. I also didn’t realize that the movie was made by the team who made me laugh with Role Models, and I’d heard MTV’s The State rocked. In the years since, Paul Rudd perfected his nice (but sarcastic) guy act in Judd Apatow movies, Amy Poehler honed her special brand of wit on Parks and Recreation, and Bradley Cooper went from geek to an American sniper.
The thing that I should like about the WHAS movie is that some of these actors are not playing to the personas that would later be their gluten-free bread and butter. Take Rudd’s Andy, a teen counselor who is a grade A jerk. Seeing him freak out after Garofalo (one of the few actors that was already famous before this) forces him to pick up a mess he made in the cafeteria is interesting as Rudd plays all his interactions like a bratty kid. Likewise, Cooper – whom many first met as Sydney Bristow’s nerdy pal on Alias – is remarkable as a closeted teen who learns with the help of Michael Ian Black that he’s one of those “creative people”. To be honest, Poehler doesn’t have much to do here, but her manic energy is still on display.
This might sound I’m giving props to the movie and I am, to a degree, as it does feature a crazy talented cast. David Hyde Pierce shows up during his run on Frasier, and delights as a college science professor who worries about getting tenure even as he moons over Garofolo. The problem is that beyond the fun ’80s era logo and the washed out ’80s look there’s not much going on beyond what the actors bring to the lazy script.
Which is why I think if you’ve watched the movie a bazillion times, you wouldn’t notice that there really is no “there” there in terms of a concise piece of comedy. And let’s be clear: concise is key to comedy. Think about the excess padding in the last forty minutes of all those Apatow movies. WHAS is only about 90 minutes, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. For each minute of energy and inspiration, there are another ten where nothing seems to happen which is almost as bad when a skit on SNL drags too long.
So why should you even watch it? Why not just dive into the show?
2. Prequel! Huzzah!
The film is set in 1981 on the last day of camp. For the most part, the eight episodes of the series take place on the first. It’s in the title: Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. So you’d be robbing yourself of inspired gags if you skip the movie. H. Jon Benjamin (Bob’s Burgers) is the voice of a sage-like can of vegetables in the movie that mostly serves as a dumb Vietnam gag. In the series, he starts out as the head director of the camp, in human form. Don’t you wanna know what happens? You should. Bradley Cooper gets married to Michael Ian Black in the movie – which I gotta give props to, since this was back in 2001, way before mainstream audiences were more accepting of LBGT rights.. In the show there’s naturally more to the story of how two theatre-bound guys met. Even a few throwaway bits about a musician and a comic pay off greatly in the series if you’ve seen the movie.
There’s a lot to admire in how well the show creators Michael Showalter and David Wain connected the dots between the film and the series, considering that when you watch the movie, everything feels pretty inconsequential. So yeah, just watch the film first.
3. An ‘Okay’ Joke Is Made Hilarious Through Time.
Although the main premise was a comedy about teen counselors at a camp located in Waterville, Maine (Camp Firewood circa 1981), no one looks like an actual teen. Part of this I think was a comment on ’80s teen flicks like Friday the 13th and Porky’s where the actors never looked at all teen-aged. Like, ever. There’s also something kinda great about casting actors that actually were teens in the ’80s. By the time the cameras rolled for WHAS, Garofalo was approaching 40 while the rest were close to their 30s. Some looked great then and now. Banks and Rudd… wow. Some not so much. Co-creator and star Showalter looks his age…even back in 2001.
Still, even a dumb teen comedy that aims to act like a ‘dumb teen comedy’ can’t just have one gag. That’s part of what really feels awesome and somehow fresh in the series. The original cast are 14 years older now, which I believe has made them universally smarter, wiser and, best of all, better performers. In terms of the movie getting by with “adults playing teens”, it’s an idea that’s simply not fully explored. In the series, it’s downright celebrated, and made all the more absurd by all the same actors being fourteen years older than they were the first go-round.
One of the early episodes has camper Abby (twelve year-old Bebe Wood) hating on boys chanting “boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider!” but then she gets her first “visitor” in the bathroom. Counselor Katie (played by the stunning Marguerite Moreau) tells Abby it’ll be okay, and hands her a tampon. When Abby leaves the stall, she is no longer played by an age-appropriate girl, but by original cast member Marisa Ryan (who’s 39). Funny and telling, this is the kind of moment that the movie never would have even considered.
4. Crazy What-If Situations Are Fully Explored.
That’s the hair of an undercover reporter!
So just how did Mitch (H. Jon Benjamin) go from person to can? Turns out the government has been dumping toxic waste on the campgrounds, and Mitch took a nasty spill in a puddle of green goo. This leads not only to his new form, but also an off-site adventure for Garofalo’s Beth and Jason Schwartzman’s Greg, as they attempt to uncover Reagan-sanctioned government secrets. This caper leads them to hire Michael Cera as their lawyer, and eventually, to the use of firearms. I think that’s really I need to say about that. Alas, a hilarious homage to action movies of the ’80s does not mean a cameo by John Rambo.
Also in keeping with the era: a rival camp of richies led by Blake (Josh Charles) located on the other side of the lake. Charles has a ball playing a preppie jerk like some kind of doppelganger of his good guy student Knox from Dead Poets Society. The snobs versus slobs motif doesn’t really pay off until the end, but the whole alternate camp area works nicely as a kind of “meanwhile” vibe to check in on from time to time as the snobs wax poetic about the triumph of Ayn Rand’s philosophy.
Another one of the best WTF moments is the backstory given to Elizabeth Banks’ character, Lindsay. In the movie, she was pretty much just a bikini-clad foil to Katie, vying for Andy’s (Rudd) affection. In the episode 2 opener, it’s revealed she’s actually 24, and a reporter for Rock & Roll World magazine with a degree from the Columbia School of Journalism. After wiping BBQ off her face (a nod to the movie) she asks editor Alan (the dependable Jordan Peele) if this zine is only about covering rock & roll or… about covering the world. She wants to go undercover as a camp counselor, but can she could pass as a teen? With a toss of her hair, Banks convinces him and us that she can. So now there’s a running in-the-know gag about passing that the show nails. Plus, there are several scenes of ace reporter Lindsay pulling out her typewriter at the oddest times. Score. In fact (partial spoiler) her investigation leads her to meeting mysterious rocker weirdo Eric, played by Chris Pine.
5. The New Additions Are Awesome.
This feels appropriate.
The returning cast is great, no doubt, but along with Pine, Cera and Schwartzman, there’s also Kristen Wiig hanging with the preppies, Lake Bell, and more. Seems like everyone is a fan of the show.
The best new cast member is Jon Hamm as Reagan’s top-secret assassin The Falcon. He was solid back in the day on 30 Rock, but his growth as a comedian this year has been great to watch. He’s embraced physical comedy in a way he hadn’t really done before, and it really helped WHAS. There’s a scene where he goes mano a mano with cast regular Christopher Meloni which is top notch. Am I the only one who never noticed how similar-looking Meloni and Hamm are?
Running a close second is fellow Mad Men alum John Slattery as theatre thespian Claude Dumet. Like Hamm and Meloni, Slattery is not supposed to be a teen. In fact, his super quick seduction of Poehler’s age inapropriate Susie is just the right amount of creepy funny. Even better is the way he coaxes Susie to goad Andy into acting. Andy’s rock song audition is only topped by Dumet’s reaction.
6. …And The Lower-Profile Stars Are Even More Awesome!
Sure, there are a lot of big name stars like Rudd and Banks on display, but some of the really amazing work is by actors who have been consistently great even though they never really got famous. Ken Marino has been terrific working with Rob Thomas on Veronica Mars and especially Party Down. He’s back playing Victor in the WHAS series, the virgin who poses as a stud. His sidekick is another funnyman, Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Joe Lo Truglio as Neil. The best thing about their friendship is how it’s developed into a warm-hearted bond. I’m not gonna say things don’t get super corny, but Marino and Truglio really do something special here as they navigate plenty of virgin and condom gags, and come through with viewers rooting for them. This just isn’t the feeling you get in the movie, where smugness is priority over character.
As mentioned earlier Marguerite Moreau stuns as Rudd’s love interest although she too has been solid on Shameless and Grey’s Anatomy without ever breaking out. Zak Orth who got a big part as a tech billionaire on NBC’s short-lived Revolution gets to shine too.
7. Like Fast Five, Newer Really Can Be Better.
Still can’t believe this is so terrible.
This is an interesting period for movies and shows. The old standard that the original is obviously better is not true at all anymore. Look at how many franchises have gotten better with time. Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible only recently feels like it figured out what it should be. The Fast & Furious series had to survive the oversized egos of its stars and the luck of hiring a new director to become this year’s phenomenon.
It’s like this: remember when Netflix produced the new season of amazing Arrested Development years after it was cancelled? And it was horrible? This is the opposite of that.
Get the party started!
Hey, I get it. Plenty love Wet Hot American Summer. They think it’s brilliant. Fine. For them, the new series is a must-binge anyway. For the rest, the time has come to finally see what all your hipster friends have droned on about. The good news is that the 8-episode season is absolutely worth watching. The bad news is that since it’s a prequel, you really should just bite the bullet and sit through the film. Even though the movie has been, in all honesty, better as a trivia question (“What early 2K release starred…”) than something that’s actually fun to watch, the show plays more like the Buffy series than the ill-fated film from 1992. Joss Whedon would perfect his teen tale four years later. It just took a little longer for the creators of Wet Hot American Summer to do the same. So what’s next then, “3rd Week of Camp?” I’m game.