More camp antics in Netflix ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ revival

24 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Wet Hot American Summer’ All-Star Roll Call: Then and Now.

In 2000, the fresh-faced Bradley Cooper skipped his graduation ceremony from New York’s Actors’ Studio to make the spoofy comedy “Wet Hot American Summer,” joining little-known actors Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler and Elizabeth Banks as camp counselors.You’ve certainly changed since the summer we first met — way back in the early ’00s, when you were just a bizarre, misunderstood two-hour feature starring Janeane Garofalo, Niles Crane, and a bunch of nobodies.When Wet Hot American Summer first came out in 2001, it was mostly summarized by critics as a parody of ’70s and ’80s teen sex comedies like Porky’s and Meatballs, but the deconstruction went further than that.

Few ordinary audience members knew anything about the likes of Amy Poehler, Michael Ian Black or Ken Marino, however, which may explain why the movie flopped so hard at the box office. Victory here was delivered before production began just based on who the producers got to return or, impressively, join in the festivities, to the point where it’s almost easier to rattle off who isn’t involved than provide a comprehensive list of who is. The core WHAS creative team was drawn from the sketch comedy troupe The State (which had its own self-titled MTV series between 1993 and 1995), but to bring the world of 1981 to life, writer-director David Wain called on young drama students, improv champs, and alt-comedy veterans — unwittingly assembling a roster of future all-stars. The film has gained such a following that it has generated an eight-part Netflix NFLX -1.36 % series (due on July 31) in which the creators and the now-starry cast return.

But your camp friends did — and they quickly became obsessed, watching your film over and over again on DVD, compulsively committing its entire script to memory. They helped you grow from an outcast to a cult classic, buoyed by the same qualities that baffled detractors — your winningly random sense of humor, your gleefully nonsensical plot, your sincere embrace of the cheesy and the cliché. The only other comedy cohort that has come close to such total anarchy is the South Park team, but Wain & Co. aren’t as invested in topicality (though they are as enamored with the tropes of musical theatre). But director David Wain and writer-star Michael Showalter go one better by actually going back and filling in backstory to the original movie, which really should be watched right before diving into these episodes in order to appreciate their giddy devotion to that process. Mad Max will roar back out of the apocalypse while Mad Men rides off into the sunset, rock’s Antichrist Superstar and hip-hop’s Yeezus will rise again.

While the original Wet Hot took place on a group of counselors’ final day at Camp Firewood, the miniseries is set entirely within the session’s first day. For anyone who has cultishly memorized every line of the original film, no matter how meaningless (guilty), the rewards are plentiful: Why didn’t Henry get tenure? And while the new additions shouldn’t be spoiled, suffice it to say that Josh Charles is put to particularly hilarious use as an upper-crust preppie at a nearby camp, while several members of the “Mad Men” gang apparently chose to celebrate the end of their time in the 1960s by taking a brief sojourn to 1981, when the movie and this eight-episode series is set. The plot is almost completely beside the point, but the producers seek to putty in how several relationships that existed in the original got started, treating their low-budget comedy (one suspects the craft-services bill this time around trumped the entire prototype) as if it were one of the “Star Wars” prequels.

The series also brought in new cast members including Jon Hamm as a secret agent, John Slattery as a musical theater director, Jason Schwartzman and Kristen Wiig. What critics like Ebert didn’t understand is that the original WHAS never cared about making fun of “camp movies,” whatever those are. (Although, granted, there are a few scenes that ring a lot funnier if you’ve been to summer camp yourself, especially a Jewish one.) Instead, you were all about deconstructing well-worn storytelling tropes, the kind we know so well that we can identify them with our eyes closed: the nice guy who pines for his best friend, who’s dating a complete jerk; the ragtag team of misfits who have to band together to save the day; the daring rescue mission; the inspirational speech a coach gives right before the big game; the climactic musical number; the training montage. (Oh, the training montage!) It’s the same sort of ultra self-referential, fourth-wall-busting material that Bill Lawrence, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller used to great effect in Clone High, another underloved early ’00s production that found new life later in the decade as a cult hit. (Psst, Netflix: We think we’ve found your next revival.) That spirit is alive and well in First Day of Camp, which skewers everything from slobs versus snobs narratives and musical theater to Never Been Kissed, conspiracy thrillers, and courtroom dramas — even as it provides ridiculous backstories for Wet Hot’s principals.

That includes, but is not limited to, a camp-opening stage production, an undercover reporter masquerading as a teen, a trial that goes from interviewing an attorney to courtroom summations in a matter of hours, and a government conspiracy involving toxic waste. For newcomers — or even people who saw the film once, thought it was weird and funny, and never felt the urge to obsessively revisit it — I have to wonder how much appeal there will be for fan service as all-encompassing as this. Thankfully, there are enough cameos and stunt castings to merit a steady clip of “holy shit”s. (Most of these have been announced, but even if you’re aware of them I promise they will still pop up when you least expect them, and therefore I feel obligated not to spoil them.

For Netflix, which derives at least part of its programming formula from showcasing talent that has a good track record of subscribers streaming their work (hence its movie deal with Adam Sandler), just assembling this assortment of stars should yield marketing dividends. Yes, there are three Mad Men alums in this show, and they are deployed perfectly.) But even the returning cast is a stunt in and of itself: the original ensemble (which includes current-day big-timers Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, Bradley Cooper, and Paul Rudd, among countless others) were already well past their teenage years in 2001; in the first episode of , their even more aged faces and bodies are the bulk of the humor — Poehler in particular seems to have a great time saying “I’m 16 years old” with utter sincerity at any given opportunity. Beyond the inside jokes, WHAS:FDoC succeeds because it doubles up on the nothing-is-sacred promise of the film, and proceeds to absorb every beat, cliché, or overused trope ever put to film in its [Andy voice:] “whatever, man” orbit.

For those whose similarly themed projects are still on the launchpad, they could do worse than to take a look at Showalter and Wain’s road map in devising their quirky trip back to the future. We’ll go for a dumb classic joke or we’ll go for a very subtle reference or wordplay.” People who did appreciate the humor started going to midnight screenings dressed as characters from the film, mirroring the response to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” the ultimate cult movie. Executive producers, Michael Showalter, David Wain, Howard Bernstein, Jonathan Stern, Peter Principato; co-executive producer, Christina Lee; supervising producer, Rachel Axler; director, Wain; writers, Showalter, Wain; camera, Kevin Atkinson; production designer, Ryan Berg; editor, Matthew Barbato; music Craig Wedrin & Pink Ape; music supervisor, Bruce Gilbert; casting, Susie Farris. 30 MIN.

Wain repeatedly that the film figures into their lives. “The movie is like a litmus test for people they’re dating or are friends with,” he says. “If they like ‘Wet Hot American Summer,’ they’re their kind of person.” The writers brought the same sensibility, now more mainstream than it was, to the series. It’s also a minor miracle that the show manages to deliver so many big group scenes, considering how busy its stars are with other projects; Netflix’s Arrested Development revival couldn’t navigate similar scheduling demands, and it fell flat as a result. There are plenty of in-jokes designed to reward the movie’s existing fandom. (Look out for telltale barbecue sauce and a lawyer with a delightfully familiar name.) But there are also plenty of moments that’ll strike a chord with anyone, whether they know the backstory or not — looking at you, Paul Rudd nonchalantly leaping off a motorcycle, or angrily declaring (a la Bender in The Breakfast Club) “You know what we have for dinner at my place?

The most hilariously involved threads are of Vietnam-scarred, fridge-humping Gene (the god Christopher Meloni) and makeout slut Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks). The finds Michael Showalter’s Coop in the same underdog position as he was in during the film, fighting to win Katie’s (Marguerite Moreau) heart from some undeserving, socially superior asshole, and Rudd’s still definitely the same Andy, wafting farts into Katie’s face as a means of courtship (and Rudd is obviously the least-aged of any of the cast here), but now Andy’s a genuine antihero.

Virgin viewers might not get what all the fuss is about when watching episode 1, a scene-setter that spends a little too much time on a sweet but superfluous subplot about new campers who are actually played by age-appropriate actors. But things take a firm left turn into Ludicrous Land in episode 2 — and by the time it’s over, even skeptics may find themselves won over by Wet Hot’s whimsical weirdness.

Since you host “How to Be Amazing” and your 2011 special was called “Michael Ian Black: Very Famous,” how did you become so amazing, and so very famous? The show used a single location, far from the reality of an 80s summer camp: Calamigos Ranch in Malibu, a wedding venue that is also the location of the NBC series “The Biggest Loser.” Mr. Great enough, in fact, that I’m hoping we can meet again for another movie or miniseries or full-blown musical stage show somewhere down the line, maybe another 10 years from now.

Wain says. “In some ways he is the closest to what both Michael and I were at our actual summer camp experiences.” He describes that guy: well-liked enough, but not the most popular.

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