High Camp: The Giddy, Goofy Return of ‘Wet Hot American Summer’Netflix
When Mad Men ended its eight-year run this spring, it would have been reasonable to assume that Jon Hamm would pause before settling on another TV job. Patience isn’t something usually afforded to working actors, but in this case it was both earned and necessary. Could Hamm ever outrun the ghost of Don Draper? Did he want to? No one would fault him had he retreated to his own personal Esalen to relax, read scripts, and consider his options.
That’s not what happened, of course. Lured by the promise of an impossibly juicy part and unable to resist the appeal of sharing the screen with a phone book of boldface names, Hamm returns to television tomorrow night — months, if not years, ahead of expectations. And to what project is Hamm lending his immense talent, his Emmy-nominated cred, and his stupendous jawline? Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, an eight-part prequel to a comedy that grossed $295,000 when it was released in 2001. His role is as Falcon, a highly trained, khaki-clad assassin sent by President Ronald Reagan to execute two camp counselors, played by Jason Schwartzman and Janeane Garofalo.
Of course, given the chance, who among us would pass up the opportunity to hunt Jason Schwartzman for sport? But for Hamm and the dozens of other stars jostling each other in the credits, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp represents a much-needed breather from our frenzied, over-the-top television age. As a fan of the original film, I’m happy to say that First Day of Camp is plenty enjoyable and a worthy follow-up to a movie that has grown cultishly popular in the years since its release. But as fun as it is to watch, it appears to have been 10 times as much fun to make. This coziness matters. Why try to escape Don Draper’s long, handsome shadow when you can hang out with pals and make fun of it instead?1
The former advertising giant is joined by a junket’s worth of even bigger stars: Ant-Man is there, and so is Captain Kirk. That’s four-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper cooing in a Blanche DuBois accent into Amy Poehler’s ear, and that’s Elizabeth Banks, director of the highest-grossing musical comedy of all time, playing a 24-year-old rock critic going undercover as a teenager. Kristen Wiig took a long lunch from blockbusters like Ghostbusters to dry-hump a log cabin wall. What are they all doing in ill-fitting shorts, right in the prime of their careers? As far as I know, the agents at WME didn’t lose a colossal bet. Rather, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is the latest, and possibly greatest, example of sitcomity, a burgeoning genre that places as much emphasis on making the cast smile as it does on making us laugh. And while sitcomity has flourished in small batches on traditional TV — check Childrens Hospital (or anything else, really) on Adult Swim; binge on The Spoils on IFC — it may have found its ideal home on Netflix.
But first, a step back. For those not in on the joke, Wet Hot American Summer took a gaggle of twentysomething actors — including pre-fame versions of Cooper, Poehler, and Banks and a mid-fame Paul Rudd — and cast them as horndogging teenage counselors at a lawless summer camp circa 1981. (Making matters more confusing and often funnier is the fact that the campers themselves are played by actual kids.) Directed by David Wain and cowritten by Wain and Michael Showalter,2 the film alternately spoofed and celebrated the adolescent sex comedies of their own youth. There was Coop, a milquetoast romantic played by Showalter, pining for Katie (Marguerite Moreau), a pretty rich girl attached at the tongue to Rudd’s bad-boy Andy. There were theater nerds (Poehler and Cooper) and frustrated senior counselors (Molly Shannon and Garofalo). There was a ferocious drug binge and a gay wedding. At one point, Garofalo and some campers got the help of an astrophysicist (David Hyde Pierce) to help avert disaster when a piece of Skylab threatened to land directly on the mess hall. And the best gag of all was that everything onscreen happened in the span of just 24 hours: the last day of camp.
Fast-forward 14 years and absolutely everyone is in on the joke. As a prequel — set, naturally, entirely on the first day of camp — the new Wet Hot is less a parody of 30-year-old movies than a celebration of an aesthetic barely half as old. Wain and Showalter, once again directing and writing, are no longer interested in riffing on any particular trope or theme. Instead, the goal appears to be letting their assembled campers have as much fun as possible. “Camp Firewood is more than a summer camp,” intones H. Jon Benjamin (Archer) as camp director Mitch in the first episode. “Camp Firewood is an idea, a promise.” (For superfans asking: Yes, the new series does answer how Benjamin’s mellifluous voice came to inhabit a can of vegetables, and it does so definitively.) So while it’s possible to pick out individual story lines like blades of grass — Poehler and Slattery try to stage a Starlight Express–style musical in one afternoon, toxic waste threatens the local water table, Ken Marino makes a possibly fatal prank call — it’s better to just lie back on the warm lawn of general merriment. Or, as Rudd’s Andy might put it, just “hunker down for the doinkage.”
Obsessives, be at ease. If you’re curious about how Andy and Katie got together, you’re in luck. (“I’ll fart my way into that snatch, you just watch,” Rudd sneers, romantically.) Ditto fans of Christopher Meloni’s insanely brilliant performance as the fridge-humping fry cook, Gene. (Be prepared for the fastest, most macho beard growth in history.) But to locate the show’s real pleasures, just follow the crazily long leashes Wain and Showalter have extended to their pals. Rudd, always so fluent in the tone language that is American masculinity, clearly prefers playing a rump roast like Andy to a big-screen action figure. (Another classic pickup line: “Hey, Katie, I was thinking about watching you ride a horse later. Is that cool?”) Cooper seems to shed the baggage of American Sniper in real time as he makes goo-goo eyes at Michael Ian Black. And I haven’t even mentioned the inspired turns by comedy MVPs like Lake Bell (as the world’s worst first girlfriend), Jordan Peele (a chain-smoking magazine editor), Michaela Watkins (a jazz-handsy dance instructor), and Michael Cera (Michael Cera with a law degree, basically).
Look, there’s no escaping that the stakes here are as low as the counselors are high. (Did I mention the plot point about the talking can of vegetables?) Spread perhaps a bit too thin over eight episodes (I’ve seen six), Wet Hot’s focus is easily distracted, and its jokes can get awfully baggy — which is certainly not something one can say about the T-shirts. I mean no disrespect when I say that Wet Hot traffics in the gentlest sort of comedy imaginable. The best parts bowl you over like an overexcited puppy; the bulk of it merely laps at your toes like waves in a lake. There’s something to be said for this kind of consistency and comfort. You likely won’t pause the show to recover from the hilarity, but neither will you be turning it off in boredom or disgust.
If it sounds like I’m making the same sort of shrugging excuses for Wet Hot that many superfans did for the wobbly fourth season of Arrested Development, you’re not entirely wrong. Both were vanity projects, for the creators and the long-suffering fans alike, and both used an abundance of actors to make up for an insufficient story. But while Arrested felt like it was cobbled together with an unpleasant mix of ego and green screen, Wet Hot always feels like a coherent series. (It helps that the independent nature of the various plots means that not every actor is needed in every scene — just try not to notice when The Good Wife’s Josh Charles spends the majority of his screen time watching the other characters via binoculars.) And, unlike Arrested Development, which earned its devotion through the intricately woven relationships between its characters, Wet Hot has no such strict standards to uphold. It was a goof then and it’s a goof now — slightly older and thankfully none the wiser.
So why is Netflix, a company that is increasingly transparent about its plans to conquer all media, investing in such a thing? Because, despite its occasional nods at prestige, Netflix is essentially in the comfort business. It’s not worried about edgy appointment viewing. It’s more concerned about maintaining a zipless, perpetual feed. Let the creaky networks fight over projects that will get people onto their couches. Neflix is concerned with entertaining the people already sitting down. So while House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black might snag headlines and attract subscribers, being the permanent home of Friends still strikes me as a bigger deal.3 Not everyone wants to be challenged by TV all the time; often, all we want is to be embraced. Bingeing is bingeing, even if it’s on leftovers.
And that’s why sitcomity, in all its forms, is an incredibly shrewd investment for Netflix. The very things that would make Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp intolerable on a week-to-week basis — its sprawl, its in-joking, its deference to fart gags — are precisely what make it thrive on a streaming service. You’re not going to watch just one episode of a show like this. You’re going to crawl inside of it like a sleeping bag and revisit it like a beloved old bunk. (Don’t even bother asking if the original film is currently streaming right next to the new series. Of course it is.) First Day of Camp is full of familiar faces, and it’s soaked in fun. The esprit de corps, like listeria from the swimming hole, is contagious. And when it’s all over, it’s easy enough imagining doing it all again next summer. As it turns out, “friends forever” isn’t just something you carve into the cabin wall. It’s a business strategy — and an incredibly smart one at that.