I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I didn’t think much of Wet Hot American Summer (2001) the first time I saw it, but that’s why I’m so damn awesome: I can admit when I’m wrong. Having revisited the flick (twice) over the last few months, I now believe it to be a very amusing and deeply weird spoof/satire/farce combination platter that deserves every ounce of “cult flick” attention it’s gained since its release. And you can tell it’s a cult favorite because now that it’s back, the fans are falling out of the woodwork to devour all eight episodes of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (now available on Netflix!) with a big soda, a bowl of something salty, and probably a mood altering substance of some (legal) variety.
So let’s just dive right in, shall we? (Rule #1: It’s officially the summer of 1981 for the rest of this article.) (Rule #2: You will see plot/joke spoilers and mild profanity if you read any further.)
Episode 1: Campers Arrive
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that First Day of Camp is a prequel. You can tell because Andy (Paul Rudd) doesn’t seem to know who Katie (Marguerite Moreau) is, despite the fact that they sucked face for practically all of Wet Hot American Summer: The Movie.
The first episode, logically enough, focuses on character introductions. For our Camp Firewood authority figures we got Mitch (H. Jon Benjamin) as the camp administrator, Greg (Jason Schwartzman) as the head counselor (boy division), and Beth (Janeane Garofalo) as the droll second-in-command; on the counselor side we have “17-year-olds” Andy, Katie, Neil (Joe Lo Truglio), JJ (Zak Orth), Coop (Michael Showalter), McKinley (Michael Ian Black), and Victor (Ken Marino). The theater department is run by Ben (Bradley Cooper), Susie (Amy Poehler), and an inevitably goofy acting coach called Claude Dumet (John Slattery). Also there’s a camp nurse (Nina Hellman) who barely does anything at all, but is very funny when she barely does it.
Across the lake we have the snobby Camp Tigerclaw, who will surely make trouble for all our beloved Camp Firewood pals. They’re run by Blake aka Josh Charles, so you just know they’re jerks. Right now they’re just spying on our heroes, but they’ll be back soon, I bet. (I hate those guys!)
Early story threads include A) Coop tries to convince everyone that Donna (Lake Bell) is (somehow) his girlfriend, B) Mitch and Beth are hooking up(!), C) Neil and Victor place a bet related to s-e-x, D) a nervous new camper named Kevin runs up against a bully called Drew (and the kid who plays Drew (Thomas Barbusca) is freaking hilarious), E) McKinley introduces a kid named Arty to the radio station (which you’d understand if you saw the movie!), F) Mitch is stressed out about the camp’s finances, and G) someone is dumping toxic waste on camp grounds! That’s a lot of plot threads for 26 minutes, folks.
All in all, a very strong start for the series. Fast-paced, consistently funny, and reintroduces its massive ensemble (or at least most of it) in enjoyably silly fashion. (Victor molesting Neil’s head made me laugh for about six minutes.)
“Poison ivy is real.”
“Perpendicularity is your friend.”
“My dick is a state-of-the-art broadcast facility.”
Episode 2: Lunch
Elizabeth Banks had a relatively small part in Wet Hot American Summer, so here’s a clever way to re-introduce her character and give the lady (now a big movie star, of course) something fun to do: turns out that her character (Lindsay) was never a 16-year-old camp counselor to begin with. Nope. She was actually a reporter going deep undercover for Rock & Roll World Magazine. And now we’ll see how she pulled it off!
Meanwhile, somewhere else, Donna is smitten with the exotic new soccer coach Yaron (David Wain); Claude seems poised to woo Susie away from Ben; Beth and Greg discover the toxic waste dump; old pals Gail (aka arts & crafts) (aka Molly Shannon) and Jonas (aka Gene) (aka chef) (aka Christopher Meloni) pop back up looking quite a bit more well-adjusted than they did in the movie, which means they’ll be going through some drastic changes before the series wraps up. Bonus: Molly Shannon dances, which is always funny
There’s also a clever bit in which a camper “blossoms” into our old pal Abby (Marisa Ryan) — and instantaneously ages about two decades. Just another wrinkle on the “40-year-olds playing 17-year-olds” joke, and it’s actually pretty funny. Also actually pretty funny is the logic behind going the prequel route: this way we can watch the characters devolve into the freaks we know from the movie. Clever gimmick, well utilized.
“I was wrong about this one, okay? It was Miss Patty Pancakes who took a shit in your bathing suit.”
Episode 3: Activities
Coop and Donna deal with a case of too many shofars; Greg and Beth enlist Jonas to help them crack a secret government code or some such nonsense; Andy and Katie flirt some more; Ben and Susie struggle through rehearsals; Lindsay starts investigating a mysterious cabin. Also, Gary (A.D. Miles) is back! And Steve (Kevin Sussman) the robot-voiced nerd! Oh, and Mitch falls into a pool of toxic waste, dies, and comes back to life as a talking vegetable can. Bet you totally saw that coming.
It’s about halfway through this episode that one realizes how randomly bizarre the Wet Hot American Summer back-story is going to become. Already we’re dealing with toxic waste dumps and crazy legends about failed rock stars in haunted cabins — and that’s before we even get to President Reagan beating people up and ordering a secret agent assassin to investigate the problems at Camp Firewood. It’s all getting pretty kooky now.
“Knock the knees, point the toes, gyrate, and lead with the crotch!”
“Second rule of journalism: some stories have chapters.”
“I’m making a boyfriendship bracelet for my boyfriend, Blake, from Camp Tigerclaw. We’ve been to second base twice, so that adds up to fourth, and he is so good at lacrosse.”
Episode 4: Auditions
Aha! The origin story of Professor Henry Newman (David Hyde Pierce), an aimless astrophysicist who, for some odd reason, owned a cabin smack in the middle of a summer camp. That’s kinda fun. Meanwhile, the opening day theatrics are faring poorly. “The Falcon” makes his way towards the campgrounds to silence the whistleblowers, Gail and Jonas work through some of their problems (not really), Ben and McKinley plan to get much closer (like, physically). Oh, also Kristen Wiig and Weird Al Yankovic show up. Like as a bonus.
By this point the somewhat patchwork nature of the production becomes fairly evident (for example: Poehler and Cooper are rarely seen with any of the other main cast members), but as long as the laughs keep coming, I don’t see it becoming a problem.
“I don’t care who jerked off next to who in the faculty lounge last week.”
“Hey, Katie. I was thinking about watching you ride a horse later. Is that cool?”
“Forever waltz about on champagne eyes!”
Episode 5: Dinner
Andy lands the lead in the big musical show, but all he really wants is to make out with Katie. Victor and Neil pull a prank on Jonas/Gene, who freaks the hell out even though he’s about to get married to Gail, who has discovered his secret alter ego and must turn to her arts and crafts kids for guidance. (It’s like foreshadowing!) Meanwhile, Greg and Beth consult a lawyer (Michael Cera!) regarding the giant pool of toxic sludge that’s about to destroy the whole camp. In the pairings department: Claude makes advances on Susie, Coop and Donna share a dinner date with Yaron; Ben and McKinley dance; JJ and Lindsay investigate that mysterious cabin.
“Down at the courthouse they call me Johnny Piss Pot.”
“Do you wanna touch a boob for the first time in your life or not?”
“Archibald Doohickey is my middle name! If the government sees that, they’re gonna know it’s me!”
Episode 6: Electro/City
It’s time for the big opening night musical, which will be a disaster (or will it?!?) The big show gives A) Kevin a chance to flirt with the girl he likes, B) Andy a final shot with Katie, C) Coop another opportunity to blow it with Donna (damn you, Yaron!), and D) lots of other people to sing and dance like goofballs. In other news, Beth and Greg and their wacko lawyer go to court to expose the truth behind that toxic waste nonsense AND Lindsay hangs out with the tortured dork rock star who lives inside that mysterious cabin. And hey! It’s Chris Pine!
By now the series has careened well past absurd and is gleefully barreling towards downright bizarre. Plus there’s an undeniable sense of “fun” going on — as if all the actors are actively enjoying this wacky little reunion tour. That’s always nice to see.
“You know what we have for dinner at my house? Nothing! Sometimes chicken.”
“I’m sorry, Susie. I had no idea until I put on the zoot suit.”
“Electro-city is such a cruel place to live!”
Episode 7: Staff Party
Previously on Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp: Holy crap! The Falcon killed that silly lawyer! And Greg too! But even more important than that tragic news is this: it’s time for the camp staff party! And Neil’s girlfriend Shari is supposed to show up! Who even cares about stupid, dead Greg? Let’s get back to that s-e-x bet! Victor seems locked in to a good thing with camp choreographer Rhonda (scene-stealer Michaela Watkins), while Neil stays close to his adorably old-fashioned sweetheart Shari (Beth Dover). Suffice to say that neither date works out all that well.
“When you kiss Donna, you must kiss her from the waist.”
“You can tell people you made it with me if you want. I like to appear unstable.”
“I trusted you with my diaphragm!”
Episode 8: Day is Done
President Reagan plans to bomb Camp Firewood back to the stone age! Will Neil be able to lose his virginity before all hell breaks loose? Can Gene / Jonas / whatever his name is stop the evil assassin (yep, Jon Hamm!) from abducting Mitch the Talking Vegetable Can? Does this episode contain one of the funniest kitchen brawls you’ll ever see? Shall the snooty Camp Tigerclaw jerkwads finally invade Camp Firewood and cause a huge ruckus? The answer to all of these questions is (spoiler) yes.
And just like that, the first day of camp has drawn to a close. (Now feel free to revisit the movie to see if all the dots actually connect!)
“He saved friendship with his song!”
“I had to break up with Donna after Yaron tried to make us have a threesome, and then Tigerclaw showed up because Andy stole Katie away from Blake, and they tried to destroy the camp. And then, well, right after that, President Reagan and the U.S. military also tried to destroy the camp, but that was after they also shot Eric, that hermit who lived at camp and turned out to be a musical legend. And then that new counselor, Lindsay? Well, she saved us all because she was secretly a rock journalist, and then Gail blew off Jonas at their wedding, and his name is actually Gene and he fought in Vietnam. And Gene also got beaten up by an assassin named Falcon, who tried to kill Beth and did kill Greg and this guy Jim Stansel, but then he turned out to be good the whole time, which I acknowledge doesn’t really make any sense, and he was only here to protect Mitch, who was turned into a can of vegetables. And then also Ben and McKinley are dating, Susie hooked up with Claude, Neil got laid, Victor didn’t get laid, and Abby had her period. So it was a hard day.”
“I completely agree that there are a lot of elements to this that do not make sense.”
All in all, it’s tough to call Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp anything but an inspired pile of silly fun. Like most super-broad comedies, some of the material works (a lot) better than other gags do, but given the comedic skills of co-creators David Wain and Michael Showalter, plus the incredibly huge and wonderfully game ensemble cast, it’s safe to say that if you liked the movie, you’ll be revisiting First Day of Camp a few more times before you get tired of it and watch something else. That’s pretty much how it works. But for now, watch this! It’s funny!