It started in 2005 with a double-sided DVD, found by a friend in the bargain bin of a local discount shop. On one side was The Independent, a Jerry Stiller comedy about a B-movie director (“excruciatingly unamusing” – The Miami Herald). The other side didn’t look terribly promising, either: the film’s title, Wet Hot American Summer, sounded like top-shelf smut. On its sleeve was what looked like a crudely drawn knock-off of a National Lampoon poster. It seemed at best like it would be a bawdy, brainless comedy in the manner of the 80s cult favourite Porky’s, and at worse its sequel, Porky’s Revenge.
Early impressions weren’t exactly auspicious. The only remotely famous people among the cast were Janeane Garofalo and David Hyde Pierce, who played Niles in Frasier. The rest were comic actors who I vaguely recognised from bit-part roles in other films and TV shows: Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper,Elizabeth Banks. Set at the last day of summer at a rickety looking place called Camp Firewood, the film parodied the knockabout camp comedies of the 1970s and 80s (Meatballs, SpaceCamp, National Lampoon’s Vacation), but done in such an unerringly accurate way, that it was hard to distinguish it from the thing it was mocking. Its cast, largely made up of adults dressed rather creepily as teens in shorts and pop socks, traded dick jokes and banal snippets of dialogue; “I don’t want this summer to end”, that sort of thing.
But gradually things began to get weird, in a good way. The camp’s chef, a shell-shocked Vietnam vet, started taking advice from a talking can of vegetables. A camp helper let a kid drown and then covered it up by driving witnesses out into the woods and leaving them there. And, then there was the film’s funniest scene, a cheerful montage where the camp’s teen supervisors drove into town for a wild afternoon, which began with them buying cigarettes and beer and escalated to them shooting up heroin in a desolate squat, before returning to the camp as fresh-faced as they were when they left.
By the time the film reached its bizarro climax, with one half of the camp preparing for the big talent show, and the other half trying to stop a piece of falling NASA satellite from hitting the camp, I was a Wet Hot American Summer convert. I wasn’t the only one. A quick Google search revealed that the film had a loyal following on message boards and fansites. “It became this sort of secret thing, says David Wain, who along with Michael Showalter wrote and directed Wet Hot American Summer. “‘Hey hey, there’s this film you’ve never heard of. Take a look.’ And little by little by little over the years, people started to find out about it.”
A lot more people are about to find out about it now. Fourteen years after the first Wet Hot American Summer, Wain and Showalter have returned to Camp Firewood for a prequel series called Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp, which Netflix has snapped up. And, in an act of casting that would make Scorsese jealous, they’re bringing a sizeable chunk of Hollywood with them: all of the original campers are returning – even the now A-list quartet of Rudd, Poehler, Cooper and Banks – along with newcomers Michael Cera, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Weird Al Yankovic and roughly half the cast of Mad Men.
Getting this murderer’s row of comic talent together wasn’t the arduous task you might have thought. “The main tool we had was enthusiasm on everyone’s part,” Wain says. The original WHAS was what Poehler has described as “a non-stop party”; cast members used to film their anarchic scenes during the day and retire to their rickety bunks to get wasted in the evenings. (Garofalo, who has since stopped drinking, has spoken of being “drunk 90% of the time” on set.) Reliving this hedonistic moment of their pasts – though perhaps without the levels of bacchanalia in the original shoot – proved irresistible for those involved. “We quite simply called up everyone on the phone and said: ‘We want to do this, are you in?’” Wain recalls. “And everyone said: ‘Sure, tell me where to go.’”
Perhaps the most surprising thing about First Day Of Camp isn’t who’s appearing in it, but that it’s happening at all. Wet Hot American Summer bombed spectacularly on its release in 2001, and received savage critical notices. Roger Ebert hated the film so much that he wrote a review in the style of Allan Sherman’s novelty song Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (“Oh, Muddah Faddah/ Life’s too short for cinematic torture”). For a company like Netflix, looking for surefire hits in the streaming wars, there were surely more reliable sources for adaptation.
That said, the streaming network has previous in reviving cult properties, having saved Arrested Development, and Wet Hot American Summer certainly fits that description. Several years after its initial flop, Wain and Showalter noticed that university campuses were hosting midnight screenings of the film, or got wind of fancy-dress parties, with college students dressing as Gene the troubled chef, or Rudd’s feckless biker boy Andy. It was even making, and breaking up, relationships.
“I’d hear about people who would go on a date and whether or not the person who they went on a date with liked Wet Hot American Summer was some sort of litmus test about their personality,” says Showalter. “If you got it, it meant that you were a certain kind of person, and if you didn’t get it, then that meant you were done.”
It was that divisive quality which both buried WHAS in the first place and ensured its cult status further down the line. Wain says that a common response was to hate the film the first time and then love it on second viewing. “It became their favourite movie,” he says.
“That idea that it starts out feeling conventional and then becomes very crazy, a lot of people aren’t prepared for the absurd part,” adds Showalter. “They want it to stay in that more conventional place, so when the comedy becomes, for a lack of a better word, more ‘meta’, where we’re deconstructing genre, I think a lot of audience members just checked out.”
If Wain and Showalter are worried about people checking out again, they certainly haven’t let it affect the end product. If anything, First Day Of Camp doubles down on the first film’s self-referential quirkiness. The small, self-enclosed story that made up the original spirals off into new tangents in the prequel: there’s a daft thriller subplot involving lethal green goo and Jon Hamm as a contract killer, and – finally – we learn the origin story of that talking can. Also disconcerting is the fact that people who, in Wain’s words were “13 years too old to play teenagers in the first place” are now, in many cases, in their 40s and playing characters two months younger than they were in the first film. The costumes are a little bit tighter, the frown lines a bit more pronounced.
Equally, though, there’s a sense that in the time between WHAS and it’s prequel-sequel, comedy has caught up with Wain and Showalter’s way of thinking. TV has embraced the sort of highly attuned parody first foisted upon us by WHAS, from Garth Marenghi to Will Ferrell’s Spoils Of Babylon. Meanwhile, gonzo comedy channel Adult Swim has made a killing from the same sort of slapstick stoner surrealism seen in Wain and Showalter’s work.
Appreciation for the sort of strange, self-referential humour that Wain and Showalter specialise in has grown in the years since WHAS. Might First Day Of Camp actually be a hit? The pair are cautiously optimistic. “I hope that, this time around, the larger audience will be ready to embrace that meta stuff too, because that’s a big part of what we do,” says Showalter. And even if it tanks again, there’s always the chance that someone might find it in a bargain bin and pass it on to a friend.
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp is on Netflix from Friday 31 July
• This article was amended on 28 July 2015 to correct the Michael Showalter and David Wain picture caption.