By now, you have hopefully enjoyed the ludicrous, brilliant 8-episode prequel series to Wet Hot American Summer. When I was not almost vomiting from laughing so hard, I found myself wondering if filming Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp at all resembled being at camp. Fifteen years removed from the original movie and with large success across the board, the cast must have loved revisiting Camp Firewood. It seemed like an escape from all their wildly busy schedules to see old friends in a familiar place. The magic was clearly still there.
After watching the Netflix Original, I immediately revisited the film and fast forwarded to my favorite scene, the talent show. In thinking about why I love this part of the movie more than any other (although the drug binge is a close second), it is the absurd crescendo, fueled by the fake ’80s rock anthem “Higher and Higher”, that still strikes me. It is the perfect microcosmic moment for the insanity that is David Wain and Michael Showalter’s original masterpiece–how could you ever explain that joke without seeing it?
With this in mind, I caught up with Craig Wedren, the composer of the original Wet Hot American and First Day of Camp, to discuss what it was like to revisit this beloved project, and create new material that sounded like 2015’s version of 2001’s version of ’80s music. In addition to discussing what it was like to go to Jewish sleepaway camp in the ’80s with David Wain and singing drunk karaoke with Paul Rudd, Wedren graciously bestowed upon us a 5-hour playlist of music that he listened to while composing new tracks for First Day of Camp. Listen below, and check out our conversation with the composer below.
Nerdist: Aside from the clay pot smash noise, the song “Higher and Higher” is one of the most iconic parts of the original Wet Hot American Summer.
Craig Wedren: What’s weird about that levitation tornado scene that I think kind of encapsulates and describes the best magical thing about Wet Hot is there is absolutely no reason why those ingredients work with that random collage of components — like the nerdy robot kid creating something that we don’t even know what’s going on, and there’s this music playing at the end of the talent show. Somehow it is utterly hilarious and emotional at the same time, and could not be more absurd.
N: And it is so memorable for those reasons. Was it always the plan to revisit that track in the TV show?
CW: It’s so ridiculous. At first, we were not going to use that song. That came up in a brainstorming session. I don’t remember what was going on but we were all hanging out or talking on the phone, or something and we’re talking about Eric’s song, the big reveal of the song he’s been working on since he lost his mind fourteen, or five, or three years ago, or earlier that day. Basically, we were just going through all the music and it’s like, yeah, that’ll be a new original like the “Higher and Higher”. Then somebody was like why don’t we just use “Higher and Higher” — that would be awesome. Then that sort of cracked Eric’s whole arc open and just made these little Easter eggs and dorky clues.
“I know Paul Rudd musically pretty well from drunken karaoke over the years.
He’s got a great voice!”
N: What was it like to revisit this project fifteen years later?
CW: When we made Wet Hot the movie in 2000 or 2001, the whole 80’s revival, which has now lasted twelve or thirteen years, hadn’t kicked in yet. So what we were revisiting at the time was purely our own DNA. 1985, maybe even ’86 was the last year that David Wain and I went to summer camp. David and I grew up in the rock and roll capital of the world, Cleveland, Ohio. It was kind of like a testing ground for every new song and every new act that any A&R mogul on either coast was trying to break in America–they’d test it out in Cleveland.
David’s dad was a bigwig in radio from ‘50s through the ‘80s, so we’re really getting a lot of what we now think of as classic rock music and wave music. Then right around 1981 we were 12 years old, or so, and we were just coming into our own generation’s voice: this collision of punk, new wave, metal, and classic rock. So when we were doing first Wet Hot, it was really just about voicing what was already there. It’s like showing people your gooiest, cheesiest Spencer’s Gift DNA and hoping that everybody wouldn’t laugh at it, or laugh at it in the right way. It was very, very easy at the time because we were only fifteen years from 1985.
Now making a second one, we’re much further away from the source. So I worried I wouldn’t necessarily feel as immediately connected to the camp experience that we had. Between now and then, the whole endless cannibalism of the ‘80s and kind of the reprocessing of recollaging the pastiche of the ’80s is embedded thanks to the internet, which was not a factor back then. So the whole pop cultural landscape has changed in the intervening years. The year 2000 has been reassessed. So going back into it, at least on the musical end of things, there was all sorts of stuff that I and Teddy Shapiro—who cowrote the music for the original movie–there was so much stuff that we wanted to get into: synth pop, a little bit of hardcore, what other things, a little bit more yacht rock.
N: What was it like to be reunited with everyone?
CW: We’ve all been working together consistently for the last 15 years and the 15 years before that, in various configurations. So it was quite natural, and it was totally hand in glove. Really, we all work on the style all the time, which is why I think the series worked, because no one was really rusty or dusty. It’s like our original thing. It’s like the unique voice that we all came up with and sort of toned and invented with Shudder To Think, my old band, and Wet Hot American Summer, and Stella and Reno 911, and everything. We’ve all just been doing it in all of David’s movies.
“Okay. We made the movie. Everybody hated it. Now everybody loves it. Let’s fucking go for it.”
In a way it was much easier, especially like I said because we had already established the basic tone on the original movie. So we knew the world. And then it was just like allowing again, those little sticky gritty embarrassing secret guilty pleasures out, in terms of influences and styles of music. So that was really easy. And everybody that was working on the team is either somebody I’ve been working with for most of my scoring career, or somebody new who I came to know and work with because they “got” or understood one of those projects, whether if it was Wet Hot or Shudder To Think, or Stella.
N: Did you write music with specific characters in mind?
CW: Well I know Paul [Rudd] musically pretty well from drunken karoake over the years. And he’s got a great voice. But Chris [Pine], he was new. And they didn’t have the role of Eric cast until the very last minute. And it was “Higher and Higher”. So I was like, I suppose if worst comes to worst, I can always replace the vocals with my own. You know, “Higher and Higher” is a dear thing to Teddy and I, and to people who love the song. So again, we need to match it or beat it, or at least complement it. The original. And then 5 or 10 minutes before Chris was shooting his scene, when I was in the trailer with him, I go, “Hey, let’s just go through this.” And I think I had an acoustic guitar and was kind of playing with words. And the minute he started to sing it I was like ‘Oh shit, this guy’s really good.’
N: What is the secret to writing a smash hit ’80s song?
CW: Well, the secret is to grow up in Cleveland, Ohio. Be a music-obsessed sponge of literally every single thing that came on the radio, not distinguishing between the Bee Gees and the Sex Pistols and Blondie and REO Speedwagon. It’s all equal, it’s all the same. Let it marinate for like 35 years. But keep the flame alive, like low flame, and still love it and wish you could be a late ’70s, early ’80s rock star, and actually make those hits. And then, make a movie that’s kind of a flop. And then wait 15 years and do it again. Like a lot more of it. And then that’s the secret to making an ‘80s hit.
N: So you’re saying it’s simple.
CW: Yeah it’s totally easy.
Our own Clarke Wolfe also sat down with the cast and crew of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, which you can watch right here:
Matt Grosinger is the Music Editor for Nerdist.com. He was a camper too, and Wet Hot American Summer more or less summarizes his experiences.