Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp: On the set of the prequel
It’s a crisp afternoon in February, but summer has come early to the Calamigos Ranch in Malibu. Specifically, the summer of ’81.
For the past seven weeks, the venue’s rolling grounds have been repurposed as the set of the Netflix prequel Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp—an eight-episode event series based on the 2001 cult classic Wet Hot American Summer, a zany indie film about teenage counselors on the last day of camp that blossomed into a defining comedy of the new century. Kids in striped shirts and knee-high socks have been tossing Frisbees and facing off in burping contests. Adults in cutoffs and sleeveless shirts, playing said teenagers, have been smoking cigs, sucking face, and getting up to assorted kinds of no good. And today, clad in a peach Lacoste polo that’s tucked into tight white shorts, Bradley Cooper is standing by a picnic table fending off a horned-up, frustrated Amy Poehler, who’s boasting fiercely feathered hair.
The pair have time-tripped back into character as pretentious theater nerds Ben and Susie, who are bickering over a staff musical to be staged that night.
“Oh, Ben, I don’t want to fight with you,” pleads Susie. “We’re a very important couple. And couples don’t fight.”
“Yes, they do,” he responds. “My parents fought all the time until my father killed himself.”
“What’s happening to us?”
“I don’t know!”
“Look, I have an idea,” Susie exclaims. “Let’s just have angry sex right now, okay? Just treat me like a hussy. Just throw me on this picnic table and let’s have passionate make-up sex!”
After an early run-through, Poehler turns to Cooper and says optimistically: “That’ll get there.” “It’s going to be great!” he responds. They compare notes with co-creators David Wain and Michael Showalter and joke around with Michael Ian Black, who is waiting to film a scene with Cooper in which his McKinley — who makes sweet, shed love to Ben in the film — rehearses a number with Ben for the musical involving a two-man zoot suit.
Back to the action. Cooper and Poehler nail the next take, which climaxes with Susie breaking a pencil in a fit of sexual frustration and romantic confusion. As the camera stops, Poehler cracks up everyone by shouting “What’s a bitch got to do to get laid around here???”
This question—and many others—will be answered on July 31, as creators David Wain and Michael Showalter hope to recapture the original lakeside lightning in a bottle with the reboot—and generate some new bolts, too. The coolest coup: All the original cast members were willing to reprise their roles, no matter how famous they’d gotten—from Paul Rudd’s scoffing D-bag Andy to Elizabeth Banks’ barbecue- sauce-smeared babe Lindsay to Christopher Meloni’s unhinged, refrigerator-humping chef Gene—and this time, they’ll swap punchlines with a new constellation of shiny stars that includes Jon Hamm, Josh Charles, Michael Cera, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, and Jason Schwartzman.
“It’s a special little club,” says Meloni. “For somebody to dust it off and say, ‘We want to revisit this place with these characters,’ everyone said, ‘Yep, I’m in.’ And goddamn it, we’re the same people we were before success. We’re all like, ‘I want to be back with my family.’” The prequel’s inherent ridiculousness made Rudd laugh. “I loved the idea that we were too old to play the parts we played in the movie, and now that we’re 15 years older, we’re playing even younger than the movie,” he says. “That made complete sense to me.”
While the end of the movie teed up a 10-years-later sequel, Wain and Showalter were more interested in going from last to first for this second coming. “The last day of camp from the movie is all about one last chance to do that one thing that you wanted to do before it’s too late,” says Wain, who directed the original Wet Hot and the entire prequel. “This is all about beginnings and setting the tone for yourself before it gets locked in for the whole summer.” And the Firewood folks are locked—if not loaded—for one big day. “The series has major, major plot twists,” declares Showalter, who reassumes the role of romantically challenged nice-guy Coop, among other characters. “There are good guys and bad guys, there’s a killer robot—I won’t go too far into that—there’s a government assassin. President Ronald Reagan makes several appearances. There are extramarital affairs, there are multiple homicides, there’s the loss of virginity, there’s copious making out, there’s singing and dancing, there’s… that’s a lot right there, isn’t it?”
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The return of Wet Hot isn’t just about reassembling one of the largest and greatest comedy ensemble casts again—it’s also a tale of the long shot turning into a big shot and then getting an even bigger shot. It’s the weird little indie that could, a modest and rough gem of modern alternative comedy that’s built out of irony and heart. Yet when it first came out, Wet Hot American Summer seemed like one of the least likely movies to spawn such a highly anticipated prequel. Veterans of sketch fave The State, Wain and Showalter had penned a camp-movie/’80s teen comedy spoof set at the fictional Camp Firewood in Maine, inspired by their own sleepaway experiences. After casting a ragtag collection of comedy pros and friends (Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, A.D. Miles), Hollywood newcomers (Cooper), along with a few of their State mates (Michael Ian Black, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio), they holed up at Camp Towanda in Pennsylvania in spring 2000 to shoot the $1.8 million flick. It was cold and rained nearly every day. “Everyone had a blast,” recalls Wain. “We shot for 12 hours a day and partied for 12 hours a night. It was crazy.”
Featuring meta absurdity, feel-good silliness, a dash of druggy darkness, and a serving of steamy romance (plus a gay marriage ahead of its time), the edgy rom-com grossed only $295,206 at the box office (making it the No. 252 movie of 2001) and was largely roasted by critics (“an almost laughless bomb”). But as its stars—like Poehler, Cooper, Banks, and Rudd—rose to big fame in subsequent projects, and people discovered the movie on DVD and cable or in screenings at bars, colleges, and festivals, the legend slowly grew. Soon it became a must-watch. “I used to buy it on DVD to give to people as a gift,” says Schwartzman, who, much to his fanboy-ish delight, was asked to join the reboot as “fussbudget” boys’ head counselor Greg. “It was so surreal just to look around and be in the scenes. There were definitely a couple times when I would miss a line because I’d be like, ‘I’m in a room, acting in a scene with all these people. What’s going on? This is crazy!’
By the time the cast did a live reading of the script for rabid fans at SF Sketchfest in 2012, the appetite for more Wet Hot was undeniable; and in the age of reboot mania and new platforms like Netflix, which was getting into the business of embracing fan favorites and nostalgia-driven acts, it was almost inevitable.
Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos was eager to recapture the flag, citing the “superpassionate fan base” that repeatedly watched Wet Hot on the streaming service. “It was so funny and ahead of the curve of what everyone else was doing—it’s almost like an origin story for the current state of American comedy,” he praises. Sarandos says he was meeting with Wain about other projects when the conversation drifted to what Wet Hot follow-up movie might look like or even the possibility of a limited series. During the development stages with executive producer Jonathan Stern—in which they ultimately “organically” arrived at creating a prequel instead of a sequel—Wain and Showalter realized that with their surplus of story ideas, a short-run series made sense instead of another film. The canvas would be several hours, not 90 minutes. The sketch comedy elements they were interested in exploring worked well in the half-hour format. Plus: “A lot of the comparisons go away right off the bat,” says Showalter. “It feels like the right thing to switch it up in that way, so that people really would see it as its own thing and not as ‘Well, they’d better be able to top the original!’ ”
But before formally pitching Netflix (“We talked to some of the lesser ones like Yelp, we talked to Skype, we had a meeting at Hooli and they wanted to do some-thing,” deadpans Wain, who also consulted with the creator of another Netflix reboot special, Arrested Development’s Mitch Hurwitz), the pair secured commitments from their now-in-demand original cast. Poehler remembers the idea first coming up while she and Rudd filmed They Came Together with Wain. “During that time, David was like, ‘I think we’re gonna do something with Wet Hot,’ and it was like, “Oh my god…” she recalls. “That idea of getting everybody together again—everybody was excited.”
It certainly wasn’t a problem attracting new recruits to the cause. (See: Schwartzman’s quote from above.) “When Michael reached out to me, I don’t even think he finished his sentence. I was just like, ‘Yeah, I’m in. Let’s do it,’” recalls Charles, who plays something of a bad guy in the prequel. “It’s a crazy time, I just had a baby, but I was like, ‘We’re going to do it. We’re going to make it work.”
Despite the overwhelming size of the cast, Wain and Showalter’s plan was to re-create an ensemble feel, not to string together a bunch of cameos. “We tried to [give] every cast member a roughly equal-size story line,” says Showalter. “Everybody has an arc.” (Given the busy and limited schedules of many cast members, this would require plenty of scheduling wizardry and, in a few cases, some Hollywood magic to make it appear that characters had filmed a scene together.)
The pair knew that a revival of the beloved franchise would come with expectations higher than camp counselors on an in-town heroin binge. But they weren’t filled with trepidation because they saw plenty of comedic gold in them thar cabins. “It’s subject matter that we’ve had ruminating for our whole life,” says Wain, “both pre- and post- making the movie.” Adds Showalter: “It’s like saying a band is only allowed to make one album. There’s more than one album in this world of Wet Hot. Maybe you think OK Computer is the best Radiohead album, maybe I think it’s Kid A.” The one thing that they knew was that they weren’t interested in a nostalgic retread. “The goal is not ‘Remember that old movie? We’re getting together a bunch of old people celebrating what we did years ago!’” says Wain. “It’s to make this as present tense and its own project. I’m excited about this material for its own sake. Having nothing to do with the reference to what we did years ago.”
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For matters of weather and convenience, the series was shot near L.A., where Firewood was re-created by studying photos of Pennsylvania’s Camp Towanda—and freeze-framing the DVD. Two cabins were built at Calamigos Ranch, along with the façade of a third, and others were digitally added during post-production. A barn, which had served as the gym on The Biggest Loser, was worked overtime. (“Depending on the day and what direction we were shooting, it was the dining hall, or the social hall where the play was happening, or any number of other sets,” notes Wain.)
Walking onto the Firewood set again was a trippy treat for many Wet Hot vets. “A total blast and surreal,” says Rudd. Poehler says, “When I turned the corner to the set and saw the replica, I was overwhelmed. I was like, ‘Whoa.’ It was really cool. Really cool.” She describes the vibe of the shoot as “very class reunion-y. Everyone is feeling super happy to be there. Everyone is a lot older and a little bit more relaxed. And every- one is a little less hungover. Maybe. I can’t speak for everyone. [There’s] a lot more sharing pictures of kids and dogs, a lot more of ‘Where are we going to dinner?’ whereas 15 years ago, it was a lot of smoking and sneaking around and going into town to buy booze.” Meanwhile, Black says he was just surprised to be there at all. “Even on the first day up until they started rolling, Zak Orth, who plays JJ, was like, ‘It may not happen,’” he says. “I think we all kind of felt that way. I’m still not convinced.”
Assuming this isn’t an elaborate prank or fever dream, here’s what we can look forward to on the First Day of Camp: Our counselors greet the arriving campers, including loner Kevin (David Bloom), whom Coop (once again played by Showalter) befriends. Ben and Susie get musical guidance from Broadway director Claude Dumet (John Slattery) and a tough choreographer (Michaela Watkins). Several romantic triangles take shape. A surprising wedding takes place. “Toxic waste threatens the existence of the camp,” hints Showalter. There is far-reaching conspiracy and courtroom drama. There is a government assassin named The Falcon (Jon Hamm). A long-simmering rivalry with Tigerclaw—the elitist camp across the lake—heats up, during which we met a quartet of villainous, preppy snobs Blake (Josh Charles), Courtney (Kristen Wiig), Warner (Eric Nenninger), and Graham (Rich Sommer, bringing our Mad Men-actor count to three). Beware: Tigerclaw alpha Blake rocks a triple-popped collar. “That was when I knew I had made the right decision coming to play with these guys,” says Charles with a chuckle. “I was having a costume fitting, and we were talking about doing a double-popped. Showalter is sitting in the trailer, and he’s like, ‘I think we should go triple.’ They had to sew the collars into the shirt, because otherwise it just would’ve been too thick. But those kind of things helped to unlock the silliness of playing the guy.”
Silliness remains an essential humor building block of Wet Hot, a film featuring a talking can of vegetables that counsels a delusional camp cook. Try asking Black what new shadings of McKinley that viewers can expect in the prequel, and here’s what happens: “Shadings? There’s little to no shadings,” he deadpans. “There’s no acting. There’s no character development. It’s just pure stupidity, from start to finish. And if you’re a fan of that — and many people are of the movie — then I think you’ll enjoy it. But yeah, I mean, this isn’t House of Cards. Not by a long stretch. I love House of Cards, but this is so much better.”
Actually, the prequel’s eight half-hour episodes do delve deeper into the characters while introducing outlandish backstories for people like Lindsay (Banks), Abby (Marisa Ryan), and Gene (Meloni). “I’m an evolved human being,” hints Meloni of his character. “And I think that’s a good word because my character evolves — almost like a caterpillar and a chrysalis into a butterfly…. You know, Gene in French means butterfly.” Explains Wain: “Part of the fun was treating the characters like we’re doing a prequel to Star Wars. We’re doing these iconic, mythic, huge things when really it’s just a bunch of horny, zit-covered teens at camp. And of course, then there’s the whole layer that it’s inescapable—that these actors are way, way too old to play the part.” (By the way, the indoor kids from the movie do return briefly, he says, “but in a bizarre, alternate-universe space-time-continuum-bending way.”)
In addition, the little asides and mentions of the past that pop up in the movie will be fleshed out, like Gail’s (Molly Shannon) failed relationship with a “Jonas.” “With Gail, there will be a lot of break-ups and make-ups,” teases Shannon about the lovelorn, forlorn arts-and-crafts counselor. “She needs to love herself more. She is a bit addicted to love. Almost like a drunk with a bottle.” And, yes, the mystery behind that chatty can of vegetables (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) will be revealed. “You want to know: How did Spider-Man get his superpowers? Why is Daredevil blind? How does a can of vegetables become a talking can of vegetables?” asks Showalter. “There’s got to be a story there.”
But the real story here is that the ultimate underdog got an unexpected chance to splash around in the lake again. “The entire experience of Wet Hot feels like a bonus track,” says Poehler. “The fact that we got to do it, the fact that it was made, the fact that it was good, the fact that people continue to like it, and now we’re doing this—it all feels like extra-cool stuff.” Meloni, meanwhile, offers up a ludicrous, perfectly Wet Hot metaphor: “I look at it as putting a child to bed. I put the baby to bed and then all the fanatics came out of the woodwork, like children will do — like they won’t go to sleep — so I had to slap them down. And I just wanted the child to sleep. And then I realized I don’t. I want the child to play. So 15 years later, I’m playing with a teenage child that I tried to keep in bed all these years.”
While you try to unpack that analogy, chew on this like a fresh stick of gum: The prequel doesn’t mean the end of the trail just yet. Netflix, Wain, and Showalter say that they are open to more adventures. “In the movie, it’s decided that they’re going to meet 10 years from now,” says Showalter. “That would make them in their mid-20s. It would be early ’90s. It was the grunge era…. I think there’s something there. I wouldn’t mind seeing them as quasi-adults.” Wain, meanwhile, is thinking big: “The main thing we’ve been talking about is for the next season to combine Wet Hot and Orange Is the New Black. The residents of the Litchfield prison escape and go to Boston at the same time as all the Wet Hot counselors, and they end up having an orgy in the Charles River.” Hey, stranger things have happened. And probably will this Summer.