Return to Camp Firewood: Netflix’s “Wet Hot American Summer”

Sarah Hope previews Netflix’s mini-series follow up to 2001’s “Wet Hot American Summer”

The summer is about to get wetter, hotter and American-er. Cult comedy fans are already mixing up the bug juice and practicing their arts and crafts while posted up in front of their TVs, waiting impatiently for the big day. This Friday on Netflix, the full cast of Wet Hot American Summer will return for an eight-episode prequel titled Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.

The film, released in July 2001, follows a group of teenage summer camp counselors at the fictional Camp Firewood near Waterville, Maine, as they tie up loose ends on their last day of camp. It was a critical and box office flop. Roger Ebert wrote a scathing, poetic review, set appropriately to the tune of Allan Sherman’s 1963 summer camp parody song, “Hello Muddah Hello Faddah.” In the final chorus, Ebert laments, “I want to escape, oh mudduh faddah. Life’s too short for cinematic torture.”

Indeed, WHAS has a cringe-worthy, dirty sort of humor that may not appeal to the most high brow cinephile. David Wain’s (They Came Together, Role Models) script is unremarkable, full of body humor and awkwardness. Many of the jokes are borne of the fact that the actors playing these teenagers are far from teen-aged. Most were about 30. What is remarkable about the film is the cast that Wain assembled: a collection almost entirely unknown actors who have since become some of Hollywood’s most famous. It included Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Michael Showalter, Marguerite Moreau, Michael Ian Black, Paul Rudd, Christopher Meloni, Molly Shannon, Amy Poehler, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Bradley Cooper and Elizabeth Banks.

Janeane Garofalo and David Hyde Pierce had plenty of cred by 2001. Garofalo had already joined and quit Saturday Night Live and spent time on The Larry Sanders Show and Seinfeld. Pierce had already earned three Emmy’s, two SAG awards, six American Comedy Awards and two Television Critics Association awards as Frasier‘s Dr. Niles Crane. Elliot Stabler — ahem, I mean Christopher Meloni — had already played his fair share of cops.

But most of the film’s ensemble had done little of note. Molly Shannon was already a Saturday Night Live cast member, but wasn’t yet an institution. Marguerite Moreau had a few minor moments on ’90s teen shows, like Blossom and Boy Meets World. Hunky-dad-slash-arthropod Paul Rudd‘s biggest claims to fame in 2001 were Josh in Clueless and Ashley Judd’s husband on the NBC primetime soap Sisters. The year after WHAS flopped, Rudd got what was arguably his big break: he played Phoebe’s mop-headed husband Mike Hannigan on Friends.

WHAS was Bradley Cooper‘s very first movie. It was the first movie in which Elizabeth Banks played a named character. The only wide release movie featuring Amy Poehler before this one was Rob Schneider’s Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. She became a Saturday Night Live cast member just months after the WHAS‘s premiere.

Several cast members, including Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black, Ken Marino and Joe Lo Truglio, as well as the film and new series’ writer David Wain, were members of The State sketchy comedy troupe, which had its own bizarre series on MTV for four seasons from late 1993 to early 1995.

Though this movie can’t possibly have been the primary catapult that launched these stars to fame, it is fascinating that so many talents that have exploded in the past decade gathered at the turn of the millennium to make this gem of a cult movie. It will be even more interesting to see these superstars revisit roles that paid the bills before they didn’t have to worry about paying the bills.

The new Netflix series will meet the teenage camp counselors when they are younger — several weeks younger — at the beginning of the summer that was coming to an end in the film. Anything is possible. We can imagine that’s what these young stars felt on the cusp of their ascent to fame.

Fifteen years later, we now get to watch them wallow carefree in the dirt of their youth. Grab your short shorts and mullet wigs. It’s time to get on the bus for the first day of camp.

The eight-episode miniseries Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp will drop on Netflix on Friday, July 31.

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