‘Wet Hot American Summer’ at 20: the ‘Nashville’ of absurdist cinema [Retrospective]
Some folks have never seen a Star Wars movie. There are diehard film fans in this world who have still never experienced Citizen Kane. I myself am somehow a gay man who has thus far avoided Cruel Intentions. And yet until a year ago, my greatest cinematic embarrassment was that I had never seen Wet Hot American Summer.
Thus, it’s with a certain amount of trepidation that I sit down to write this. How does one distill the essence of this titanic work, the Nashville of absurdist comedies, into a simple retrospective? And how can a new recruit to its small but mighty cult ever manage to fully articulate the passions diehard fans feel for this film?
I guess how I’d start is to say that like a first kiss at a sleep-away summer camp or an awkward fumble in the utilities shed between activities, to watch Wet Hot American Summer is to fall in giddy, unabashed love. In my short 12-month relationship with this evergreen well of comedic delights, I’ve already watched it five times, and with each viewing I grow more and more fond of its hellzapoppin aesthetic, and more and more baffled by its aggressively negative initial critical reception.
Fans know by now that the film was an absolute bomb, grossing $300,000 on a $1.8 million budget, and that its reviews are some of the most sour collection of notices this side of Ishtar. So what was the deal? Was it just ahead of its time? Did its horny title and Animal House-esque poster make critics believe this would be another American Pie, a presumption that would lead to head-scratching when it was revealed the film’s sexiest set piece is a tender love scene between Bradley Cooper and Michael Ian Black? Did people, as Stephen McKinley Henderson so famously says in Lady Bird, “just not get it?”
Whatever the alchemy, the initial disaster of the film’s release probably only contributed to its legend. Released in a year that also included all-timers like Mulholland Drive, Ocean’s Eleven, Moulin Rouge, and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Wet Hot is undeniably the class reject. But over time it evolved organically into a cult hit that’s also one of those most rare things: a beloved film that still feels like a personal discovery.
That probably has a lot to do with its scrappy origins. Its writers, David Wain and Michael Showalter, were two of the driving forces behind MTV’s sketch comedy show The State, a punky American riff on Monty Python’s Flying Circus that leaned heavily into the type of absurdity that would later find a home in Wet Hot. Their screenplay was written and workshopped over the course of three years, but the film was ultimately shot over a quick and dirty 28 days, with the cast and crew living on the campgrounds, imbibing from coolers of beer between takes and staying up all hours of the night enjoying each other’s company. That combination of precise, meticulous structure and free-wheeling community lends the film an improvisatory spirit that also feels entirely cohesive. I’ve invoked Altman already, but Richard Linklater would also be apt; in many ways, this film’s hangout vibes make for a “through the looking-glass” version of Dazed and Confused.
The film’s humor, while intentionally far from the raunchy, joke-based comedy of its progenitors Meatballs and Revenge of the Nerds, is as close as cinema has come to developing a millennial advancement of the kind of genre riffs Mel Brooks and the Zucker Bros. were doing in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Both were famous for a kind of dead-on spoof that would painstakingly recreate the original moment and then twist it ever-so-slightly to take the piss out of it. But this type of humor would largely be visual: an angry mob, shot in James Whale-esque black-and-white, wanders with torches and pitchforks through the woods, when one of them can’t see where he’s going and bumps into a tree. An exterior dolly shot of a group of people enjoying dinner, meant to parody Alfred Hitchcock’s oft-used camera moves through glass windows, ends with the camera shattering the window and the group staring at it with befuddled shock.
Such gags have been repeated, to more and more diminishing returns, in spoofs like Scary Movie, Epic Movie, and Disaster Movie. But what Wet Hot American Summer is concerned with is something far more writerly, a complete deconstruction of the artifice of film storytelling. Wain and Showalter approach their script like it’s the last one they’ll ever pen, piling in every genre contrivance they can think of. In the midst of its last day of summer camp story, there’s also a training montage, a river rapids action set piece, an “exploration” of Vietnam PTSD, and a threat from outer space, all just because!
The plot is constantly introducing new developments to its topsy-turvy world, and the film’s cast of characters greets every single one with the straight-faced sincerity of people whose stakes have just been raised. When David Hyde Pierce reveals his character to be merely an associate professor rather than one with tenure, it’s accepted that this will be devastating news for the children he’s teaching about science, even if it has nothing to do with what they’ve been talking about prior, just as it’s accepted that a chase between a motorcyclist and a running man would absolutely be completely ground to a halt when the cyclist encounters the chase-ending obstruction of a single bale of hay in the middle of the road.
So sound is the internal logic, and so confident the direction by Wain, that the playful game of the film never crosses into the kind of cynically arch genre exercise that it could. Despite its subversive edge and inherently distanced, meta-textual writing, the film’s spirit remains decidedly pure. Constructs though they may be, Wain really does love these characters, and that love sees the film eschewing any mean-spiritedness for a genuine sense of progressivism. It helps to have that love scene between Cooper and Black, still one of the most loving gay sex scenes in cinema. It also helps that when the other camp counselors discover the pair’s romance, they respond not with prejudice, but by purchasing the couple a chaise-lounge, and that Katie, the main female object of desire at the camp, gets a climactic speech that avoids slut-shaming for an unashamed admission that she wants to spend the summer fucking Paul Rudd because “he’s really hot.” Hell, even the camp cook Gene’s bold proclamation that he does indeed own “dick cream” and enjoys fondling sweaters and wiping mud on his ass, greeted by the full-throated support of everyone at the camp, is a triumphant moment of collective acceptance. These “woke” flourishes seem like just another warm grace note in a film that never seemed interested in immediate success, knowing deep down that it was, at its heart, timeless.
It also, of course, helps to have this cast, of which nearly every member has gone on to achieve some level of personal success. There’s (now) 8-time Academy Award nominee Cooper, of course, and ‘Ant-Man’ Rudd. There’s Amy Poehler and Elizabeth Banks – movie stars, all. But there’s also good old reliables like Joe Lo Truglio, Judah Friedlander, Ken Marino, and Showalter, who would go on to direct films like The Big Sick, one of the most eminently lovable comedies of the modern era. Molly Shannon arguably deserved a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her performance as an arts and crafts instructor who finds the strength to get over her ex-husband from one of her students, an arc that ends with a romantic coupling between a grown woman and a child that feels… kinda cute? The de facto veterans here are David Hyde Pierce, quietly one of our greatest actors, and Janeane Garofalo, who gives by my estimation one of the greatest comedic performances of all time. Her ability to live both within and without the material is the gold standard for this type of comedy, and her navigation of the film’s gonzo tone is as much an underrated high-wire act as it is a love letter to accepting, generous, and loving women in leadership positions everywhere.
That’s kind of the bizarre magic of Wet Hot American Summer, that it succeeds so magnificently as both a genre deconstruction-slash-spoof and a warm hug of a story about people running out of time and trying to make their dreams come true. Twenty years on, Wain’s film has only grown in repute, all the while wearing its reject status with pride. That’s the thing about rejects. In the end, they always find their people.
Wet Hot American Summer was released on July 27, 2001 by USA Films. It’s currently available to stream with a Peacock subscription and to rent from Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu and Apple TV. There is also an 8-episode 2015 sequel series starring the majority of the original cast plus a huge set of guest stars on Netflix called Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.