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'Wet Hot American Summer': The crazy story behind the cult classic

Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, and other now-famous stars of the strange summer-camp comedy remember the good times, the bad times, and the drunken times

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Wet Hot American Summer, A.D. Miles, ...
David Wain

These days most comedy directors would consider themselves fortunate to attract, and be able to afford, the combined talents of Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, and Elizabeth Banks. Back in the spring of 2000, first-time filmmaker David Wain not only hired those actors for his anarchic summer-camp spoof Wet Hot American Summer, but he got away with paying practically nothing for the film’s massive cast, which also included Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Molly Shannon, and Christopher Meloni. Or, in the case of Paul Rudd, literally paying nothing. ”I’m not sure I got paid,” the actor says. ”I’m not kidding. If I did, I would have gotten the very minimum. But it was such a small production, and stuff falls through the cracks.”

”Small” is the right word. Wet Hot American Summer cost a mere $1.8 million to make. And even at that price, it managed to be, in Wain’s own words, ”a financial disaster.” The movie grossed just under $300,000 when it was released in July 2001. And critics? Many torched it like a marshmallow. Salon.com described the film as ”a model of how not to make anything.” The Oregonian called it ”agony on a stick,” and gave it an F. ”There were reviews of the movie that were passionately hateful,” says Michael Showalter, who co-wrote the film with Wain and played the lovelorn camp counselor Coop. Over time Wet Hot American Summer acquired a cult following, particularly among Hollywood’s comedy cognoscenti. Indeed, it is partly thanks to Wet Hot that so many of its cast members went on to become such huge stars. Rudd says the film helped him land his role in director Adam McKay’s Anchorman. ”He was a fan,” says Rudd. ”When I met him, he was like, ‘Yeah! Wet Hot American Summer!”’ Adds Banks, ”Seth Rogen told me the same thing after I got cast in 40 Year-Old Virgin. It’s a great calling card, for sure.”

This summer the movie is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a clutch of screenings around the country, and Wet Hot American Summer-inspired art is currently on display at Gallery 1988 in Santa Monica. ”It was an incredibly humbling thing to see,” says cast member Joe Lo Truglio (Superbad, Role Models), who attended the art show’s opening night earlier this month. ”I just didn’t realize how many people this movie has touched.”

Of course, the real miracle of Wet Hot American Summer isn’t that its popularity seems to grow each year or it launched a number of careers. It’s that the movie got made at all. ”We acted like juveniles in every way,” says Poehler, recalling the month the cast spent shooting in Pennsylvania. ”All we would do all day — all we would do all day — is talk about what we were going to drink and smoke at night. All. Day. Long.”

Summer Begins

David Wain and Michael Showalter were somewhat famous for being members of the comedy troupe The State, whose eponymous Monty Python-esque sketch show ran on MTV from 1994 to 1995. After The State went on permanent hiatus, Wain and Showalter wrote a screenplay inspired by their own childhood camp experiences (in Maine and the Berkshires, respectively). The pair hooked up with an independent film producer named Howard Bernstein and started looking for financing. The quest would last three years. ”Over and over again we were told, ‘We’re giving you the money!”’ says Wain. ”Then these people would disappear. I remember trying to track someone down in their office in the East Village to confront them. And the ‘office’ was someone’s house, and there was no one there by that name.”

Wet Hot American Summer follows the adventures of mostly teenage counselors at the fictional Camp Firewood on the last day of camp in 1981. It boasts jokes that would not be out of place in Meatballs or Airplane!, and a mile-wide streak of good-heartedness. But the film is very eccentric, and at times extremely dark. In one sequence, a trip into town degenerates into a heroin-fueled phantasmagoria straight out of Trainspotting. In another, counselors played by Bradley Cooper and Michael Ian Black have sex in a wooden shack. And then there are the two scenes in which Rudd’s character, Andy, allows children to drown, and on each occasion throws their respective swim buddies out of a moving van in an attempt to cover up his negligence. According to Wain, early drafts were even more extreme. ”In the original script, when one of the swimming buddies drowns, Andy takes the other one into the woods,” he says. ”He’s like, ‘We’re going to go on a pizza party, just close your eyes!’ Then he takes out a gun, screws on a silencer, and shoots him, two bullets in the brain. My father read the script and said, ‘If you do that part, I’m disowning you.’ He was quite wise about that.”

Stars Align (And Get Discovered)

Though Wain’s father may have had doubts about the script, Rudd did not. The actor, who’d appeared in Clueless and The Object of My Affection, was keen to tackle something that dovetailed with his own off-kilter comic sensibilities. He swiftly bonded with Wain when they met in 1998 at a New York City performance of the play Sex a.k.a. Wieners and Boobs, which was written by and starred Wain, Showalter, and Lo Truglio. ”He gave me the script [for Wet Hot American Summer] not long afterwards,” recalls Rudd, who has gone on to make three more movies with Wain: The Ten, Role Models, and the forthcoming Wanderlust. ”It was the funniest script I’d ever read. I thought it would be fun to play this total douche.”

Wain had been familiar with Poehler from her work with the comedy sketch team Upright Citizens Brigade. ”I knew she was a kindred comedic spirit,” he says. Wain, Showalter, and casting director Susie Farris found Banks and Cooper through the audition process. Both were essentially unknown at the time. In fact, Cooper (who declined to be interviewed for this story) was still studying at New York City’s Actors Studio Drama School and ended up missing his graduation ceremony because he was shooting Wet Hot. As the Hangover star explained to James Lipton earlier this year on Inside the Actors Studio, ”I was having sex with Michael Ian Black in a sports shed.”

Meloni (”Who’s Bradley Cooper? Doesn’t ring a bell”) also auditioned for his role as the camp chef, a deranged Vietnam vet whose closest companion is a talking can of mixed vegetables. ”I recognized it as a new wave of comedy,” says Meloni, who had just finished the first season of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit when Wet Hot began filming. ”To be honest, some stuff I didn’t understand, and some things I thought, ‘That’s so f—ing out of bounds, it’s got to play.”’ Wain handed other parts to Molly Shannon, Janeane Garofalo, and David Hyde Pierce, who jokes that he did the movie for the big paycheck (”I was wrong!”). The director also roped in State-mates Lo Truglio, Black, and Ken Marino, and rounded out the cast with Judah Friedlander (30 Rock), Marguerite Moreau (Shameless), Zak Orth (Melinda and Melinda), and A.D. Miles (currently the head writer for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon). Even at the time Wain knew that he had secured a cast to die for. ”There was no question this was an incredibly special group of people.”

The Actors Assemble

Wet Hot American Summer was filmed at an actual summer camp — Camp Towanda — in Honesdale, Pa., in the spring of 2000. The camp doubled as both the movie’s location and accommodations for the cast. ”They set us up on these bedsprings with a plastic mattress, if you can call it that,” says Meloni. ”It wasn’t a mattress. That’s like calling a piece of baloney a porterhouse steak.”

Given that it was May, ”everybody brought summer gear, thinking, ‘All right, we’re going to go swimming and play basketball,”’ Poehler recalls. The weather had other ideas. ”I think by the end it had rained 24 out of 28 days,” says Meloni. The precipitation was a logistical nightmare for Wain, and the low temps were challenging for actors like Banks, whose costume often consisted of just a skimpy bikini. At least she had a warm body nearby. However, ”there was nothing romantic about it,” says Banks, describing her character’s constant enthusiastic lip-locks with Rudd. ”It was just ‘I’m going to eat your face, and you do the same, and we’ll see what happens.”’

The love affair between the counselors played by Cooper and Black was handled in a far more sensitive manner. In fact, their sex scene is easily the most touching scene in the film, and the most explicit: The pair remove their shirts, kiss, and then sweatily get it on. ”I set up the shot and then had to kind of look away,” says Wain, in all seriousness. ”I was young and shy.”

…And Get Drunk Together Every Night

With the weather making outdoor leisure pursuits impractical, cast members engaged in far less sporty activities during their off-hours. ”I was drunk 90 percent of the time,” says Garofalo, who played the camp’s director. ”I’m being very serious. I don’t drink anymore. I was always punctual, and I always knew my lines. But it was freezing and raining every night, so I put away a lot of whiskey.”

Garofalo was not imbibing alone. ”It was like high school,” Poehler says. ”One of us would go on a booze run, and it would be like, ‘Get me Jägermeister!’ And whatever they would bring back, you would get trashed.” Adds Miles, ”A lot of people were in their 30s and late 20s, and yet we would sit around and get wasted like we were 16.” Garofalo admits the combination of the close living conditions and alcohol resulted in a certain amount of bunk-hopping. ”Myself included, yes,” she says. ”That’s what happens at camp, isn’t it? I doubt that would happen now, especially since I’m sober. But I was younger, and my inhibitions were soaked in whiskey. Yeah, I was a little bit free with my person.”

Two weeks into the shoot, David Hyde Pierce arrived to film his role as an astrophysicist who hooks up with Garofalo’s character. Pierce was the most famous name in the cast, thanks to his ongoing portrayal of the stuffy Niles on Frasier, but personally, the actor was an unknown quantity to the Wet Hot crew. ”We would all hang out in the infirmary,” says Rudd. ”It was David Hyde Pierce’s first night, and he was in his room, which was right down the hall, and we were making a lot of noise. Finally, about midnight, he walks in the room, and we all stopped, because we thought, ‘Oh, God, he’s going to tell us to keep it down.”’ Then, as Rudd tells it, Marino announced, ”Oh, great, it’s Frasier!” Everyone laughed. ”He couldn’t have been nicer and funnier.”

”I don’t remember that,” admits Pierce. ”I just remember having a good time. I’m more easygoing than Niles,” he says, though. ”I definitely did my share of drinking. It was the only way to get through.”

Ebert Hates the Movie ”Something Fierce”

In January 2001, Wain and some 30 cast and crew members traveled to Park City, Utah, to screen the film at the Sundance Film Festival — and try to secure a distribution deal. Miles remembers everyone being in high spirits: ”It’s funny — when it’s your first thing, you think, ‘We’re at Sundance! We’re in this movie! Say goodbye to your anonymity!”’ And then? ”Not only did we not get a good offer,” says Wain, ”we got not even a bite, not even a phone call from even the bottom-feeding distributors. Basically, several months after Sundance, USA Films called and said, ‘Okay, here’s a completely lowball, ridiculous, insulting, pathetic offer.’ We were like, ‘We’ll take it!”’

The film came out on July 27, 2001, in only two theaters, both in New York City. ”It opened at the Empire cinema on 42nd Street, which has 25 screens, and I think we were in number 25,” says Wain. ”It’s like the little TV room next to the janitor’s office. That was our big premiere.” USA Films did eventually release the movie in around 20 more theaters, but the dismal reviews effectively torpedoed its box office chances. EW’s Owen Gleiberman gave the movie an A, but Roger Ebert was moved to parody Allan Sherman’s summer-camp comedy song ”Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!” in his scathing takedown (”Wow I hate it something fierce/Except the astrophysicist David Hyde Pierce”). ”It just fizzled out,” Showalter says. ”It was like, ‘This is not fun. At all.”’ Other cast members, however, started to notice that some people actually liked the movie — really liked the movie. ”Hipster kids would mention it,” says Rudd. ”People would say, ‘Dude, that movie was so funny!”’

[pagebreak]A Happy Ending — And Possibly a Sequel

After Wet Hot was released on DVD in January 2002, the cult began to grow. Within a couple of years, fans were attending midnight screenings in New York City dressed as characters from the film, including the tin can. ”College kids love it,” says Banks. ”If I’m walking through an airport, the lines I hear the most are ‘I hope you have a big trunk, because I’m putting my bike in it,’ from 40 Year-Old Virgin, and either ‘You’ve got barbecue sauce all over your face!’ or ‘You taste like a burger. I don’t like you anymore,’ from Wet Hot American Summer.” Now, 10 years after its release, the film is regarded as an influential, landmark movie. Earlier this month, The New York Times described it as ”the alt-comedy ur-text.”

So what is Universal, which owns the DVD rights, planning for the 10th anniversary? Not much, it turns out. ”I’ve begged them to put out a 10th anniversary edition,” says Wain. ”I haven’t gotten any traction on it. Perhaps there’ll be an 11th or 12th anniversary DVD.”

By the time the film’s 12th anniversary rolls around, fans may be able to watch a new DVD and a sequel. Wain says that he and Showalter have been actively discussing a next installment, which they may start writing later this year, and that they’re ”exploring all roads.” Reuniting the original stars wouldn’t be out of the question. ”The one element that is exciting to me is that the core cast, which at the time was 10 years too old to play their parts, will now be 20 years too old,” Wain says. And much more expensive. ”I think we’re going to do the same level of production, but the movie will cost $80 million,” he chuckles.

Or maybe not. ”I think we would all be up [for doing a sequel] for the fun of it,” says Rudd. ”I don’t think anybody would be looking for a payday.” Miles, however, jokes that he’d ”rather we get paid what Bradley Cooper makes for a movie. That, to me, seems like the more fair way to go about it.” Poehler, for her part, has some nonfinancial concerns about returning to camp. ”Even when I was shooting the film, I remember thinking, ‘This is the most fun I will ever have making a film.’ But if we did a sequel,” she laughs, ”everybody’s marriages would probably end.”

Quotes from the Cast

”It was the only script that I ever kept around and reread out of pleasure, like a book.”

—Paul Rudd

”The line between being at summer camp and making a movie about it was very gray.”

—David Wain

”It was a special cast. But I wasn’t thinking about their future. I was just thinking, ‘Are we going to survive?”’

—David Hyde Pierce

”People say, ‘I picked my friends based on whether or not they liked Wet Hot.”’

—Michael Showalter

”I consider my life one long adolescence. This was beyond adolescent in every great way.”

—Amy Poehler

The Hank Azaria Connection

Hank Azaria doesn’t appear in Wet Hot American Summer. But the multitalented star of The Simpsons, Huff, and the upcoming The Smurfs was an expert on Pennsylvania’s Camp Towanda long before David Wain & Co. used it as the location for their movie. ”I went there from age 6 to 15,” says Azaria, now 47. ”It was fantastic, some of the happiest times of my life.” News that the camp was getting a big-screen debut came as a total surprise to Azaria a decade ago, when Janeane Garofalo (his costar from 1999’s Mystery Men) called him after seeing his name on a bunk plaque. ”She said, ‘I’m staring at your name right now. What gives?”’ Azaria recalls. Garofalo even gave him a shout-out in the film, during a scene where she ad-libs a roll call of campers (”Amanda Klein. Jessica Azaria…”). The actor says he would ”kill” to be in a Wet Hot sequel, but if one materializes, it is unlikely to be shot at Camp Towanda. ”The heavy equipment just ruined the ground,” he says. ”I think the owner was not too thrilled.”