David Wain and Michael Showalter’s Wet Hot American Summer has inexplicably become the cult-classic comedy hit of 2001. Initially a critical and commercial failure, Wain’s directorial debut is still an amazing spectacle almost fifteen years later. The comic punches and sophomoric gags are still uproariously entertaining in an entirely warmhearted and tender manner, and the jokes that arise among and between the film’s summer camp caricatures are immediately recognizable to anyone who has ever been forced, willingly or not, to spend time in the great outdoors with other people of your own biological age during the dog days of summer. But is it still funny, and more importantly, is it still wet, hot, and American?
Upon first viewing, Wain and Showalter’s send-up of America in the 1980s is a decidedly farcical that struggles to compete against the inertia of its cast’s inherent deadpan delivery style, which is ironically the film’s single, defining strength. What becomes a problem for new initiates to the film’s humor is tied up in Wain’s denial of clear narrative beats. His and Showalter’s script is an exercise in clichés that are made funny via the commitment of its individual cast members to the derivative recitation of the comedy. The problem arises if the viewer hasn’t seen any of the films which Wain and Showalter are so clearly lampooning and recalling (see Meatballs, Heavyweights, or even Stripes). The films of such 1980s comedy demi-gods as John Landis and Harold Ramis figure heavily into the very DNA of Wet Hot American Summer, and the comedy style of The State in general, making Wain’s first film funny only for those well-schooled in the history of feature film humorists.
Once you do watch some of those older films which Wain makes a point of recalling ad nausea, his 1980s styled brand of cinematic buffoonery is oddly charming, which comes off more often than not as being preposterously amusing. Much of the film’s narrative makes no literal or clear structural sense, with wild flights of fantasy and surreal, Dadaist absurdity abounding in each and every frame, sequence, and prop piece. Ranging in scope from a talking can of vegetables voiced by H. Jon Benjamin, to an afternoon’s excursion to score various drugs and their associated paraphernalia with no seeming ramifications upon the rest of the film’s plot trajectory, Wet Hot American Summer is self-indulgently bizarre, which is by turns discomfiting and complacently appealing, the film’s countercultural rebellion against the very structure of the studio comedy that it is already a satire of resulting in a feature film comedy that is anarchic against itself as well as its presumed audience, assuming it even has one that is capable of being clearly defined and accordingly rebelled against to begin with.
What’s more, over this past weekend Wain and Showalter unveiled their new eight-episode Netflix Original Series sequel to their original feature film, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, a prequel in chronological reverse. Where the events of the feature film took place on the last day of activities at Camp Firewood, the new Netflix series takes place on the first day of camp, comprised largely of the same cast members as the original, with some of them visibly aged to the point of creating newfound continuity errors that the independent property has never had to contend with before. Unsurprisingly, the fact that such incongruous factors as having a much older and fatter Michael Showalter pretending to play himself from fifteen years ago come off as entirely expected within the non-logic of the series’ very premise and extant comedy tradition which makes for a sequel fifteen years in the making that is just as immediately entertaining as its namesake. In doubling down on the sheer lunacy that continues to cement the status of Wet Hot American Summer as a cult-classic satire of the very concept of parody and genre lampoon, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is just as ingeniously moronic as the original, and is probably even better for so being.
In 2001, Wet Hot American Summer had the likes of Zoolander and Super Troopers to contend with at the comedy Box Office, both of which are studio comedies with more immediately recognizable countercultural appeals. But where Ben Stiller’s satire of the fashion world is merely irreverent, and Super Troopers is by and large just another stoner comedy, Wet Hot American Summer achieves both ends while never entirely committing to either format, Wain and Showalter’s feature debut gloriously second-hand in its delivery of hand-me-down plot beats and comedic punches, but manages to deliver on each and every scripted line within a script that holds no clear commitment to any of its myriad featured sub-plots or to dramatic development of any form. Wet Hot American Summer has no moral lessons to deliver, and it doesn’t care whether or not the viewer is even having a good time. Instead, Wain takes the stance of someone who is overbearingly aware of each and every cliché and redundancy that his film self-consciously falls prey to, and makes the most of his film’s status in being entirely un-profound and uninspired.
The first film to feature cast and crew from the short-lived, sketch comedy show The State is still not any easier to get into upon first viewing. The comedy that it features is not entirely funny, nor is it entirely amusing. Everything that occurs in Wet Hot American Summer has happened already in studio comedies that have come before it, and continue to occur in the films that have and will continue to do so. But it is still funny. It is still wet. It is still hot. And it is, undeniably, still American, going boldly where other studio comedies have gone before and staked claim before moving on. Only Wain and Showalter have remained there, setting their film up in a cinematic territory previously inhabited, and now made home again to the very concept of having been a concept in the first place. Wet Hot American Summer is the summer camp satire that makes fun of the very notion of lampooning the likes of Meatballs, and Wain and Showalter’s production is a self-referential comedy that remains disarming and funny to this day.
Featured Image: USA Films