Unlike acolytes of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” I would never pay good money to sit in a theater at midnight and listen to the loudest, tooliest “Wet Hot American Summer” fans in the room drown out the dialogue by screaming all the lines to the movie in between misogynistic asides to the female characters. I would sure as shit dress up like the characters from my favorite cult film, though. In fact, I’m wearing miniscule cut-off jean shorts RIGHT NOW while I type this.
Sorry for that mental image.
Like “Rocky Horror Picture Show” fanatics, I can quote an absurd number of lines from “Wet Hot American Summer” at the drop of a bandana, and I’ve watched it more times than any sane person would be able to justify. I’ve viewed the cult homage to late ’70s/early ’80s camp films somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 times, and plan on watching it again just as soon as possible now that I’ve mainlined all eight episodes of Netflix’s prequel, “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.”
There’s another difference between WHAS and RHPS. Remember how you felt when FOX announced that it was remaking RHPS? For me, it was a sensation akin to hearing that “Robocop” was being remade. Or, to put it in non-entertainment-related terms, it’s the feeling of your bowels burbling when you’re in the car, midway between two locations in the midst of rush-hour gridlock. You know something terrible is coming, and there’s nothing to do but grit your teeth, make bizarre but somehow soothing grunting sounds, and hope to survive the situation with some shred of dignity intact.
When it was announced that David Wain and Michael Showalter would finally bring their WHAS prequel to Netflix, on the other hand, it was pure bliss. It was that feeling you get from going into town, even if it’s only for an hour. That’s yet another allusion to the movie, folks, so if you’ve not yet experienced the glory of Camp Firewood, put your device of choice down, go watch it, and then return when you’re properly prepared.
Now, revisiting a cult classic isn’t always, or even usually, a good thing. For every “Battlestar Galactica” reboot, there are at least five media artifacts as unwarranted and ill-executed as Sam Jackson’s remake of “Shaft.” Or Colin Farrel’s remake of “Total Recall.” Or the reboots of “Friday the 13th,” “Halloween,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” or any other horror franchise ever thanks to Michael Bay.
Even Netflix went astray with “Arrested Development,” creating something that, while extending the lives of the Bluths we’d come to love, also delved so far into humorless self-reference and delusions about its own level of cuteness that we all kind of wished they’d just left well enough alone. It wasn’t so bad as to make me want to take a Forget Me Now, but it was a definite disappointment.
Fortunately, I can now say with confidence that WHAS did not fall into that nostalgia snare. Perhaps that’s because the movie was so firmly rooted in – and making fun of – its creators’ own nostalgia that the very self-indulgence that might sink another canoe instead acted as chewing gum, keeping it perilously but hilariously afloat.
I don’t have much nostalgia for the ’80s. I’ve joked that I’d like to be part of a VH1 series called “I Hate the ’80s.” It was the era of Reagan and one-hit-wonders, bad fashion and thin, tinkling keyboard tones. It was also the era of classic hip-hop and good John Carpenter movies, but there are exceptions to every rule. I might have grown up in the ’80s, but I came of age in the ’90s, and will forever be a child of that decade, with all of its love of ’70s culture and a return to bands over solo artists, indie cinema over big, bland blockbusters.
Maybe that’s part of what made WHAS so magical. It was a movie about the early ’80s and all of its naivete, but made by members of MTV’s “The State” comedy troupe, a group firmly part of Generation X and all of the ’90s hindsight that entailed. I might not love the ’80s, but I get the appeal of that time for others.
In some ways, despite its firm footing in 1981, WHAS is a timeless tale. The awkwardness of Coop as he stumbles toward rejection by his lady love, the sense of possibility in being away from home for the first time, the indoor kids versus the outdoor kids, the joy of making art on your own terms – WHAS speaks to all of these.
Just as WHAS was made on what I can only assume was a nonexistent budget, clearly far from the prying eyes of any studio execs, so too does “First Day of Camp” feel like a bunch of friends gathering in the woods to rekindle that last ember of their original dream. Many of the jokes of the movie are revisited in the show, from the stock sound effects of screaming eagles and breaking bottles to the kinks of Gene the camp cook and the intentional overacting of Janeane Garofalo. Craig Wedron of Shudder to Think is back with new takes on old anthems and incidental music that sounds sampled from the source material. Paul Rudd, Ken Marino, Christopher Meloni, Joe Lo Truglio, Amy Poehler, Zak Orth, and Elizabeth Banks revisit their characters with total commitment.
Even more, this is commitment to a story that’s never been popular. I first saw WHAS in 2001 during its initial theatrical release. I was in Seattle with my girlfriend at the time, and we needed to get out of her father’s house. We decided to see a movie, and it was either going to be Takashi Miike’s “Audition” or WHAS. Because of my love for “The State,” we chose the latter, and were alone in the theater. When I returned from the trip, I wouldn’t shut up about this movie I’d seen, despite Shawn Levy trashing it in The Oregonian and it disappearing from Portland theaters quicker than a camper under the not-so-watchful eye of Andy on lifeguard duty.
When it was released on DVD, I took it to Adair Village outside of Corvallis, where my crew had set up a compound while filming their own movie, “Westender.” I was nervous putting on WHAS, fearful that this movie that had blown me away would fail to live up to the hype (a feeling I now know again while hyping its prequel). I needn’t have worried, as WHAS became the movie of our own summer. Ten years later, we’d all reconvene in Big Bear, where we’d don the costumes of Camp Firewood and create our own moment in time. I dressed in jean shorts and a mesh football jersey, an afro wig and knee-high socks, my outfit a mish-mash of Victor Pulack and McKinley (take this quiz to find out which character you would be). One happy camper was the spitting image of Gene, and even managed to light a fart on fire in tribute to the Camp Firewood talent show, the only time I’ve ever personally witnessed this astounding physical feat.
WHAS isn’t for everybody, obviously. I’ve loaned it to good friends with great taste, only to have it returned with blank stares and shrugs. But enough other weirdos out there liked it to earn it a round of touring screenings in the early 2000s, and we weren’t alone. Joining the stars of the movie this time around are a who’s who of current stars including: Chris Pine, Jon Hamm, John Slattery, Jason Schwartzman, Kristen Wiig, and Michael Cera. The fact that they were able to get Bradley Cooper, Rudd, Poehler, and Banks to return is nothing to scoff at, either. Pretty sure none of them did it for the paycheck.
All of which is to say that in a world where there’s never a shortage of shit to lament, sometimes good things happen against all odds. Not to Coop, but that’s kind of his thing. As long as there are dopey-eyed goofs who can still appreciate the healing power of a big, dumb rock-and-roll riff, a cheap beer on a hot day, the life-affirming/soul-crushing power of love, and the specific brand of magic that can happen when friends gather in the wilderness, there will be a summer of the mind. The wet, hot, toxic-waste strewn, spooky-house bedecked, gum-chewing, saliva-swapping, crop-top-sporting, can-of-vegetables-conversing summer that none of us and all of us have lived/will live until Sputnik comes crashing to Earth again.
So, it is … and it isn’t. You are ready to be taught The New Way.