Forget about rock climbers and daredevils and people who sit down on toilet seats in porta-potties—David Wain and Michael Showalter are the bravest men in the world.
Fans of their 2000 cult classic Wet Hot American Summer have been beside themselves since Netflix announced it would air Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, an eight-episode prequel to the big-screen parody of 80s summer camp movies, featuring the entire original cast (and then some). But it was the kind of dangerously unrestrained glee that seemed like it could easily turn ugly—if all those people’s hopes came crashing down like a rogue piece of Skylab, it would be a disaster on the scale of the Hindenburg. (That’s a joke from the movie—I’m a fan too, see.)
At the very least, a lot of people would’ve thrown tantrums on the Internet.
Wain and Showalter—who created and wrote both the film, which takes place in 1981 on the last day of camp at Maine’s fictional Camp Firewood, and the show, which takes place on the first day of camp that same summer—made a prequel that lives up to its source material by re-creating its exact brand of absurdist humor (the best way I’ve ever been able to describe it is that it’s so stupid it’s smart) and by recalling jokes without it ever seeming like those jokes are being regurgitated, unless doing so ups the anticomedy ante. It’s familiar but fresh. It builds on the minutiae of the story in a way that’ll only make future viewings of the film funnier. It cherry-picks bits of improvised dialogue from the film and fleshes out backstories.
Example: In the film, during an inappropriately timed meltdown over her divorce from her husband, Ron, Molly Shannon’s character Gail says, “When Jonas and I separated, I thought everything was lost.” In the show we actually learn who Jonas is. We even, for just a second, see the crayons that’ll eventually be lost—all except for a single brown one—sending Gail into an emotional tailspin.
The more ridiculous the origin story the better. Elizabeth Banks’s character Lindsay, who we knew as little more than a nymph who can’t eat ribs without making a mess and occasionally tastes like a burger, isn’t who she seems. Gene didn’t start camp as a walking, talking raw nerve (and before he was fondling his sweaters he was pouring cherry juice onto his pubic mound). The verbal, self-fellating can of mixed vegetables makes sense now too. To the extent that a verbal, self-fellating can of vegetables can make sense.
Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Showalter—everyone is as funny as they were in the film, plus they’re all 15 years older which makes the overarching sight gag of a bunch of adults playing 16 year olds even better. But Paul Rudd really goes out of his way to prove he’s one of the funniest people in Hollywood. As moody slacker Andy, he so completely harnesses the frustration of an overgrown adolescent that he can do something as stupid as misprounounce “filet mignon” and it’s hilarious. From the start of their rocky relationship Andy has sniped at girlfriend Katie (Marguerite Moreau) for “smothering” him. In the final episode of the season, when she asks if he’d like to walk with her to the mess hall, he snaps, “You’re being egregious.” WHAS is still egregious in all the right ways.
Other stray thoughts and observations (spoilery stuff ahead):
- Apparently Bradley Cooper had to film all of his scenes in one day, which is why he spins records as “DJ Ski Mask” at the big party.
- It had never occurred to me that H. Jon Benjamin voiced the can of vegetables and now it seems so obvious.
- Did you notice that the gang of punks that stormed the convenience store was made up of the actors who played Associate Professor Newman’s “indoor kids” in the film?
- A.D. Miles should be in more things and when he’s in things he should be given more material.
- The name Jim Stansel makes yet another appearance (an attorney played by Michael Cera this time around). Wain explained during a 2012 Reddit AMA: “Jim Stansel was the name of a guy who used to work with my dad when I was like 10 years old. We have a super-8 movie of him up in a hot air balloon for a radio station promotion in Dallas, and my dad’s going “that’s Jim Stansel! That’s Jim Stansel!” and the name has always stuck in my head. I just love the name!”
- Jeremy, the sort of no-one guy Lindsay couldn’t manage to pigeonhole in her article, is played by Dan Klein who in real life he is an extremely funny person. He’s part of the team responsible for the Fuds menu (and the subsequent book), the too-short-lived webseries Teen Wheels, and the Rejected Pitches video series. You should read/watch all of these things.
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, streaming on Netflix.