‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’ and Nostalgia Nostalgia
This review, like Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, assumes an intimate knowledge of Wet Hot American Summer: The Movie.
My favorite part of the movie Wet Hot American Summer comes after the counselors have returned from their day in town. As the group disembarks Beth’s truck, Coop says goodbye to his love interest Katie and runs off to join his friends McKinley and J.J. where they’re standing. Which is right up against a barn, faces to the red paint, motionless and silent.
Were you expecting more? You shouldn’t be, because this is perfect. You can’t see their faces, but I imagine that they are placid and expressionless, like mannequins, or robots on factory setting. It’s only a moment, another in the series of weirdly long-but-still-brief, outre and often aggressively “unfunny” moments that make up Wet Hot American Summer. That the movie is an intricate web of anti-comedy, parody, affection, and unbridled hamminess is probably why all those people in your college dorm wouldn’t shut up about it. Thinking of those mannequin faces lined up on the wall makes me laugh for days.
The “Boys Stand Against a Wall” moment — as it is now so famously known, throughout all of popular culture and cinema studies, because it is so iconic — wasn’t my favorite scene the first time I watched WHAS, or the second, or the third. It was sometime during a late night, no-one’s-counting viewing that I first noticed it was even happening. It hit me, and it still hits me, sometimes out of the blue in the middle of a random day when it’s hard to explain why I’m laughing so hard.
Like a lot of the Internet, Wet Hot: The Movie came out at a time in my young adulthood when watching things repeatedly seemed like a completely legitimate way to pass time. I was in high school, a little younger than the counselors were supposed to be but not quite as young as the campers, and I wasn’t busy. I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have many hobbies, or many friends who had many hobbies. I didn’t hang out with those friends any place but the area above my parents’ garage where we repeatedly watched movies, and we didn’t do anything up there but repeatedly watch movies. I didn’t have adult worries; I didn’t clean the house I slept in, I didn’t buy or cook the food I ate, I didn’t pay the bills I ran up. And the internet wasn’t a thing the way it is now, so I wasn’t distracted by smartphones or Twitter or gifs of the thing I was already watching. It was, as they say, a simpler time.
Ahh, yes, a simpler, seemingly-unlimited time, in which to watch and watch and watch a thing until it becomes a different thing, filled as much with your in-jokes as its own.
Now that we’ve established that I’ll write almost 500 words about eight seconds in a 14 year old movie, how is the new TV show based on said movie?
The show solves all the questions you never had, like who is Jim Stansel, how did Gene meet his Can of Vegetables, why is Beth so smart, who wrote “Higher and Higher,” and what does David Wain look like in short shorts (good!). There are so many Easter eggs that there is actually nothing but Easter eggs. It is Easter, basically. And since an Easter egg hunt is the perfect metaphor for a movie about Jewish sleepaway camp, I’ll continue it: everyone knows that the best Easter egg hunts are ones where everyone comes away with baskets and baskets of eggs. But you need to know what an egg looks like, or you’ll come away with a basket of rocks. Yup, nailed that metaphor. This show is for the fans.
As an adult, watching anything that is For the Fans, especially to this degree, feels like a strange use of time. As much time as I devoted to re-re-rewatching Wet Hot American Summer in high school (and college), as a grownup, spending four or so hours watching a longer version of a movie I loved back then feels weirdly indulgent. Pausing to explain, “well, that’s funny because in the movie wonk wonk wonk” to an unindoctrinated person makes me feel like a cultish doofus.
But the show knows this, and it plays off our nostalgia eating its own tail in likable ways. It can be difficult to defend anything where the biggest joke is that there is no joke (see: The Spoils Before Dying, A Deadly Adoption) but Wet Hot American Summer(s) are an exception. They picked the perfect targets: summer camp movies, and now itself. Camp movies were always the perfect thing for the Stella/State players to work with, because they leant themselves to the shaggy, weird, hacky moments this group excels in. The movie was basically a series of sketches, and now the show is too. It might be an even better medium for the idea. And now the shaggy, weird, hacky moments are a joke about themselves, and the 14 years that have passed, and the 30 to ?-year-olds watching this and laughing as fake-teen Ken Marino looks like he is jerking off fake-teen Joe LoTruglio. It’s funny because it’s funny because it’s funny, which shouldn’t work. And won’t for some people. I, for one, am already in the tank for it.
The show is for the fans, certainly. But thanks to the incredible success of the cast and cool-kid allure of the project itself, which has drawn in so many previously-unaffiliated celebrities (Jason Schwartzman, Lake Bell, Kristen Wiig, Jordan Peele, Chris Pine, Michaela Watkins, Weird Al, Michael Cera, Bruce Greenwood, Randall Park, Josh Charles, Richard Schiff, and half the cast of Mad Men: John Slattery, Jon Hamm, and Rich Sommer), there are a number of strange and enjoyable wonders: a teenage Leslie Knope being seduced by Roger Sterling, Avery Jessup making beautifulish music with Captain Kirk before he’s unceremoniously beheaded, the American sniper in a unitard, Will from The Good Wife (RIP) throwing a Paul Rudd-level hissy, and Ant-Man singing a punkish ballad (just kidding, no one will ever think of Paul Rudd as Ant-Man). It has brand new joys, too, like more and better music, a shitty little kid named Drew, A+++ diaphragm jokes, and what, at one point, I branded “a star-making turn” for John Early, because I’m a regular Alan Shemper.
Anyways, it’s fun. And I’ll know more after I rewatch it. I’m sure I will.