Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp review
Cult classic to instant streaming
Nearly fifteen years have passed since director/ co-writer David Wain’s (Role Models, Wanderlust) freshman film Wet Hot American Summer debuted at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. Although the comedy never took off at the box office, it found cult classic status upon home video release when positive word-of-mouth boosted rentals and DVD sales. Fans waited over a decade for news of a sequel until Netflix Instant Streaming service made the film available and an entirely new generation of viewers joined the cult following to voice their requests. Finally, Netflix does what they’ve learned how to do so well and revived a well-loved film in the form of an event prequel series titled “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.” Director Wain reteams with co-writer Michael Showalter (“Stella,” The Baxter) and the original cast for eight episodes covering the long, fateful first day of the camp at Camp Firewood in 1981 despite the fact that it’s been 14 years since the film featuring the last day of camp.
Despite the time gap, Wain and Showalter tap right back into the formula that made their 2001 film so funny and well-received with a satirical approach toward 80s nostalgia and stereotypically selfish teenagers played by adults in their 30s and 40s. While it’s only the first day of camp, the cast is fifteen years older—a joke opportunity certainly not missed by the writing team. They also play with new humor opportunities, taking full advantage of retroactive continuity, or “retcon,” scenarios to explain the origin of the talking can of vegetables, how Gail met Ron, why Lindsay started working as a counselor, and when Beth first saw Henry. Just like the “trip to town” sequence in the movie, the writers play with time even more as all eight episodes take place over the course of merely the first day of camp. The raunchy, crude stuff is still here in full force, as well, but never as graphic as the R-rated 2001 film.
One should appreciate exactly how difficult it was to make the shooting schedule match up for the extended cast. A handful of actors and actresses from the 2001 film went on to enjoy monumental careers in entertainment, including: Paul Rudd (Ant-Man), Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), Amy Poehler (“Parks and Recreation”), and Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games franchise). In fact, Cooper was only available for one day of shooting due to the Oscar-nominated actor’s in-demand status. “WHAS: First Day of Camp” doesn’t follow Showalter’s Coop as a protagonist, instead focusing more now on several interweaving stories each more ridiculous and outlandish than the last to feature the well-known cast members a little more than the film had. Rudd’s Andy takes more of a starring role in the series than he did in the movie as Showalter’s Coop takes more of a backseat. H. Jon Benjamin (“Archer”)not only voices the can of vegetables again, but he also plays the camp supervisor.
Cast members who were already established in 2001 return as well, such as: Janeane Garofalo (Mystery Men), David Hyde Pierce (“Frasier”), Christopher Meloni (“Law and Order”), and Molly Shannon (“Saturday Night Live”). Although not everybody experienced the staggeringly successful careers that actors like Cooper, Rudd, and Poehler have, the rest of the cast, too, have risen in the entertainment ranks. Ken Marino (“Axe Cop”) and Joe Lo Truglio (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) have enjoyed careers as comedy character actors while Marguerite Moreau (Grey’s Anatomy)established herself as the consummate television guest actress. Michael Ian Black (“Ed”) has made several appearances as a talking head on VH1 specials and continues collaborating with Wain and Showalter on other projects. Zak Orth (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) embraced a career as a character actor, appearing in dramas and comedies alike. Even the little-known A.D. Miles returns and while many don’t remember his character “Gary” as fondly, it’s always impressive to book the head writer of “The Tonight Show” to participate in any given project.
A whole bunch of new, well-known cast members join the WHAS team for the series. As the original cast and filmmakers branched off on to other projects over the years, they made famous friends who leapt at the opportunity to collaborate with such a talented cast and crew in 2015. Three principal cast members of the acclaimed AMC series “Mad Men” appear in the forms of Jon Hamm, John Slattery, and Rich Sommer as an assassin, failed actor, and rich toadie, respectively. Lake Bell (“How to Make it in America”) plays a love interest to Showalter’s Coop as a flaky teenager who hilariously can’t stop touching her hair. Jason Schwartzman (Moonrise Kingdom) shares several scenes with Garofalo as a fellow co-runner of Camp Firewood. Other notable celebrities appearing include: Chris Pine, Michael Cera, Kristen Wiig, Randall Park, Jordan Peele, Josh Charles, and “Weird Al” Yankovic.
While not all the jokes land (mostly some improvised ones), “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp” captures everything that made the film a cult classic. Not a film by definition, this streaming television series is the best comedy sequel since Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. Wain and Showalter make no mistake that it’s all about the creative, funny, energetic cast. They certainly succeed in assembling and utilizing a friendly, collaborative group of performers. It’s always a refreshingly good experience when one sees the performers enjoying themselves as if it were their old days of stage improv. It’s not about the money here (Netflix not withstanding), it’s about humor.