In the summer of 2001, a low-budget comedy called Wet Hot American Summer hit theaters. Despite featuring a spate of future stars – including Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks and Paul Rudd – the movie grossed an abysmal $295,000 and was torn to shreds by critics.
But just when it seemed like this parody of summer-camp movies and teen flicks would be forgotten forever, a new generation of filmgoers starting rediscovering it on cable; soon, packed midnight showings started popping up all over the country. “It became a thing where if you were on a date with somebody and they didn’t like Wet Hot, you know it’s not gonna go well,” says the film’s star and co-writer Michael Showalter. Talk of a sequel began percolating over the years, though nothing really came of it.
Then Netflix, which had made a name for itself as producer of original content and a Lazarus for late, beloved TV shows (see Arrested Development), and the conversation changed. “Netflix became a medium that would run thing that weren’t quite a TV series, but not quite a feature film,” says the movie’s director David Wain. “It was the perfect wide canvas for us.” The result is Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, an eight-episode prequel featuring the entire original cast (plus a few new marquee-name folks like Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig) that will start airing on the streaming service beginning on July 31st.
We spoke to Wain and Showalter separately about how WHAS came back from the dead, how they got a who’s-who of A-list movie stars back into their Camp Firewood t-shirts and whether there’s more Wet Hot on the way.
What were your expectations for the original movie when it was released back in 2001?
Showalter: I hoped it would be a hit. I hoped it would be like Animal House or Dazed and Confused in that it would be some kind of generational comedy.
What happened? I went back and read many original reviews. It seemed like most critics just didn’t get it.
Showalter: My best guess is that they were expecting something more straightforward. The packaging and marketing for it was like, “This is just another one of those big ensemble comedies.” What caught them off guard is that it’s really a deconstruction of a lot of those kinds of movies. It’s very meta and filled with anti-humor, where the joke is there is no joke — but in the next scene there is a joke. It’s a very postmodern-ish type movie that a lot of people either didn’t get, or they got it and just didn’t like it.
But I think it spoke to the sensibility of a younger generation of audience members who understood the vernacular of it in a way that mainstream audience, the critics — and maybe even the people that were distributing and marketing the movie — did not.