The state bird of New Jersey is the mosquito.
The statement, offered in jest by a movie character from behind the digitalized safety net of the TV screen, had at least one audience member thoroughly riled. It was all the encouragement my friend Richie, a Jersey boy born and bred, needed to narrow a set of steely eyebrows at the television and extend his middle finger, in a futile act of subterfuge that its recipient, the actor Gabriel Millman and his bespectacled “Caped Boy” character, would never bear witness to. And it’s not as though the courageous Dungeon Master in question would need to suffer another bout of ribald humiliation – moments later, minus the protection offered by the fourth wall, Caped Boy is maliciously referred to as a douche bag by one of a gaggle of pubescent girls after suggesting they might join him in a game of the much-maligned D&D. But Caped Boy takes their cattiness in stride; in fact, he even takes her insult as a compliment, as douche bags are, by nature, a hygienic product, and waltzes off exuding a bright and exuberant youthful positivity that might as well stand as a small symbol for the entire film in which he appears.
Now a decade old and enjoying a princely elevated – if unexpected – cult classic status, Wet Hot American Summer, a camp movie spoof from various members of the comedy troupes Stella and The State, has aged remarkably well. Summarily speaking, the film is a colorful, kitschy send-up of summer camp throwaway films like Meat Balls and Indian Summer – at least, this is what a bevy of descriptors would have you believe, but in reality, as with most unexpected cultural phenomena, there exists far more complexity than can comfortably fit into a one or two sentence descriptor. Like a fine bottle of wine smuggled amidst boxer shorts and crumpled Penthouse copies in the luggage of a teenaged camp counsellor with well-to-do parents, the movie has almost become better with age, evolving from box office blip into something of a dark horse comedic hit for those who would eagerly drink in its off-kilter but warm-hearted message.
“We had always felt that the wackiness and outrageousness of the movie should be balanced by the fact that the movie’s got a real heart,” remembers Michael Showalter, the film’s cowriter and male protagonist. And arguably, it’s been the omnipresent heart of the film that’s kept the phenomenon beating. “I think we couldn’t have imagined really that people would have such strong feelings about the movie. I don’t think that when we were making it; you know, you can never plan for something like that. So it’s truly amazing ten years later. It’s overwhelming that what we made is still being looked at and talked about, and people still love it. I think that’s something that’s a real honor, and I’m in awe about that.”
And while the film’s burgeoning following has derived much from its appeal to the Franzia swilling college crowd, perhaps the nexus to its ultimate triumph can be found within its rich layering – a filmmaking construct that, continuing the bottle of wine comparison, demands repeat viewings for maximum effectiveness. By all accounts, the movie’s initial release marked it as a commercial and critical failure, but this isn’t too terribly relevant anymore. All the movie, its message, narrative, and players really needed was room to grow: the opportunity to marinate over an unspecified time span. It speaks a comedic dialect that few can comprehend from the get-go, and offers subtle punch-lines, in between larger gags, that require more contemplative thought. Upon second, third, and fourth helpings, my own sense of WHAS as an elaborate comedy patchwork was allowed to develop into a sustainable love.
Speaking from the viewpoint of an enthusiastic fan-base member, I can confidently assert that if you haven’t seen Wet Hot American Summer by now, you are completely deprived of comedy oasis in a too frequently banal entertainment desert. If you have seen it but haven’t fallen desperately in love with it, then I can probably safely surmise that your level of taste and sophistication is, at best, sufficiently lacking. Since becoming a committed convert to the wonderful world of Camp Firewood and all its hilarious offerings, I have made it something of a personal mission to bring this movie to as many like-minded kindred as possible, however witting or unwitting. Such was the case nearly five years ago: clustered together in a college dorm room the size of a commuter flight coach section, my friends and I combined margarita mix with orange vodka, gathered around a TV two inches smaller than the purported size of Ron Jeremy’s penis, and got cozy with the motley crew of characters that comprise Wet Hot American Summer.
Like me and my campus crusade, Showalter and Wain’s spirit was high, even if resources were disappointingly few. Operating on a budget tighter than a peck-popping Iron Maiden tank top, the two began the planning stages of the movie in earnest, meditating on a mutual childhood dalliance with the summer camp culture. “I think our first vision was to just do a movie about camp, and all the things that summer camp was all about, for us,” says Wain. “And then the second step was to, you know, brainstorm the various multiple storylines and characters and then start organizing them and see how they would fit together.”
Those characters – whose crotch-hugging short-shorts were filled by then unknown actors like Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, and Paul Rudd – are perhaps the single greatest asset WHAS has to boast. From Chris Meloni’s iconic live-wire chef Gene to the adorably maladroit romance between put-upon camp director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) and astro-physicist Henry (a marvelously mustached David Hyde Pierce), the cast that comprises the body of the film is truly the beating heart at the center of one very madcap story. Unlike other independent comedies about awkward misfits of late – Napoleon Dynamite springs to mind – the filmmakers took great and obvious pains to bely a clear affection for their characters. Their adoration is continuously apparent, and splashes through in bright glimpses of nerd triumph that dot the narrative of the film. And while we, the audience, may be enticed to laugh at the ongoing folly of misfortune that plagues so many of the major players (Showalter’s long-suffering character Coop bears the brunt of it, falling for a girl who can never love him back, even as he attempts to win her over with a heartbreakingly sincere speech that forgives her for being “bowlegged” and “bilingual”), what we are really doing is laughing with the filmmakers, whose sharp intuitive abilities for cast and chemistry render the seemingly one-dimensional archetypes an unforgettable group.
“They were composites; a combination of composites and generalized ideas of summer camp ‘types,’ you know?” says Wain. “I think there was certainly influence of people that we knew, some of which we had known together, or our separate high school and summer camp memories.”
“All the characters are kind of based on archetypes from our experiences,” adds Showalter. “I mean, they’re all approximations of real people.”
In the words and actions of the characters, we find evident leanings toward the storytelling prowess that would ultimately convey the sort of message both Showalter and Wain had in mind. “We talked about what might be a theme, and one of the things we talked about was that at camp, despite being a kid, everything is heightened because you don’t have a lot of time, and you’re adolescents to begin with,” Showalter adds. “So, you know, the idea that [in Wet Hot American Summer] they have one day to try to accomplish everything that they didn’t accomplish in the summer, it’s really heightened by the fact that they’re at camp. Summer camp has always kind of been an opportunity to be someone that you really want to be. Because when you’re in school, and when you’re in your hometown, you’re kind of pigeonholed, and so camp is an opportunity for kids to be who they are.”
As the characters fell into place, so too did the remainder of the film. Indeed, piecing together WHAS proved a process from which Wain and Showalter were able to draw upon their shared backgrounds from. Long time friends and members of the seminal early-90s comedy troupe The State, the two invoked their shared sketch sensibilities to craft the movie’s bedrock foundational structure. “The movie is kind of a sketch movie in a lot of ways, because it’s a bunch of sketches kind of loosely thrown together with a story. Writing a feature is a definitely a totally different thing than writing a sketch comedy, and I think Wet Hot American Summer was somewhere in between those two,” says Showalter, for whom the film was a debut step into the realm of feature scripting. Wain, too, was at the time untested as long-form director, and readily concurs with Showalter’s assessment. “This was an easy one to start with, because it was so many different characters with different story lines, so it certainly had a sketch comedy DNA to it. None of the story lines really went too deep, let’s be honest. So it wasn’t as hard as it would’ve been to try to do, you know, a drama, like Ordinary People, for example.”
But if the planning process were a natural fit for the two funny-men, production itself provided its own unique set of complications – most of them covered in a thick layer of slimy, Berkshire-soaked ground sludge. Shooting through a series of uncooperative weather patterns, life on set frequently proved more wet than hot. “All of the physical limitations while shooting were incredibly challenging,” laments Wain. “It was pouring rain, and our budget and our schedule were incredibly tight, and so every single day I had to slash down my shot list and my goals for what I wanted to get done that day.”
Michael Ian Black, costar of the film and Wain and Showalter’s third Stella cohort, remembers it this way: “Just being in mud. Standing in and walking through mud. It was all mud, all the time; it was rainy, every day. And uh, so there was mud everywhere, and it was just a constant struggle against mud.”
Still, the cast and crew pressed on, and what we have for their efforts is a movie so beloved and influential, its presence in the zeitgeist even inspired an all-WHAS themed art show, launched earlier in the summer to much acclaim at Los Angeles’s Gallery 1988: Venice. “I was totally amazed and flattered that someone wanted to do [an art show], and when I saw it, I was even more amazed, because I didn’t realize how great it would be,” says Wain. “The pieces of art were so inspired and thoughtful and cool, they were totally, you know, impressive. I liked so many of them. The one I bought was this beautiful sort of paper cutout of Janeane Garofalo with a moose on her head.”
In canvas as in celluloid, the movie has certainly left behind an impressive legacy. My own relationship with the film is centered around not just a smoldering worship, but also a series of serendipitous personal milestones. Although the story is set in rural Maine, the movie was actually shot in central Pennsylvania, near where I went to college, and the hometown acquaintance of a close collegiate friend appears in several scenes with Molly Shannon’s wilting divorcee Gail as a kid-camper extra. My senior thesis paper was written on the speech Coop delivers to his lady-love Katie; and the first professional piece of writing I ever published was a review of a midnight screening of the film, written for a pop culture magazine in Detroit. We have long been intertwined, Wet Hot American Summer and I, and not without good reason: like so many super-fans beside me, the film is my idea of the perfect movie. Not one shot or snippet of dialogue is wasted or allowed to languish in underdevelopment; every story-line woven into the larger narrative quilt serves to augment the experience that Wain and Showalter sought to articulate; there is no bloat or excess baggage to weigh down the punchy series of jokes that keep the film flowing. From beginning to end, it is a comedic course of style and substance – definitive proof that the language of comedy can be spoken to the effect of a dazzling, memorable cinematic encounter.
So, what think yea, dear filmmakers, of your project’s leap forth into the pages of comedy history? “Well, I don’t think of it as ‘vindicated’ so much as just pleased,” says Wain, reflecting on the critical repulsion to cult mega-hit role reversal. “It’s so gratifying to know the thing that I cared so much about has become so successful, because most movies of that size – you know, that budget level – typically just don’t ever even come out at all. And so, the fact that this got a release was a huge victory, I felt, for us, and then, that it goes on to become, you know, such a remembered movie that people care about so much, and talk about, and watch over and over again, it’s just amazing. It’s wonderful. It’s not about the fact that it got bad reviews in the first place, it’s just so nice that people still remember it, you know?”
For his part, Showalter wholeheartedly agrees. “Oh I’m very satisfied, I love that. It’s really amazing and wonderful to know that the movie is still something people like, and I think that’s all you can hope for.”