“Wet Hot American Summer” is one of the great comeback stories in popular culture.
The indie comedy starring Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, and Bradley Cooper and many others chronicled the last day of camp at Camp Firewood. When it debuted in theatres in 2001, it was ignored by audiences and ravished by critics.
However, over the next few years it surprisingly become beloved by many.
It grew such a following that Netflix decided to revitalize this timeless story for an eight episode season called “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.”
But no one really expected “Wet Hot American Summer” to make a huge splash at all in the first place. After all, it did have a tiny budget and a cast of mostly untested, unknown young actors.
According to Entertainment Weekly, the film had a tiny $US1.8 million production budget. It was shot over the course of one month at Camp Towanda in Pennsylvania, where a lot of leisurely drinking and smoking took place. On top of all that, it rained nearly every day of the shoot.
“Wet Hot American” summer was directed by David Wain and co-written by Wain and Michael Showalter. Wain and Showalter first met while attending college at NYU. They then became cast members on the sketch show “The State.” “The State” ran on MTV from 1993 to 1995 and various other cast members jumped on the “Wet Hot” bandwagon, including fellow NYU alums Michael Ian Black (“show, movie”), Ken Marino (“Party Down”), and Joe Lo Truglio (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”).
When the show went on a permanent hiatus, Showalter and Wain began working on the “Wet Hot” script, which was based off their own real life summer camp experiences. This gave the film an authentic feel even in its most surreal moments involving a talking can of vegetables.
Despite weather-related issues, casting the movie and getting it made wasn’t hard. It was getting the film financed, a process that took three years. They had to go as far as tracking people down at their homes who promised money but didn’t pay up. Eventually, getting stars David Hyde Pierce and Janeane
Garofalo on board helped them secure financing.
Even for a film with such a low budget, “Wet Hot American Summer” was still considered a box-office flop. When it was released during the summer of 2001, it grossed a meager $US295,206. To be fair, it was only released in two theatres that were both located in New York.
The reviews weren’t kind either. 14 years later, “Wet Hot American Summer” sits at 31% on Rotten Tomatoes.
In a one-star review imitating Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah (A Letter from Camp),” Roger Ebert wrote that he hated the movie “something fierce.” Meanwhile in the Washington Post, Stephen Hunter wrote, “This is supposed to be funny? It was so depressing I almost started to cry.”
But there was a small yet passionate movement who stood behind the film that slowly caught on. With the rise of home video and then DVD, movies that didn’t do well in theatres could get an after life. In this regard, “Wet Hot American Summer” came out at just the right time.
When it was released on DVD in 2002, the film got an entirely new audience. It gained popularity through midnight screenings, in which attendees dressed up like their favourite characters.
“We started hearing about screenings on college campuses, midnight shows, costume parties, and we would hear about people on Facebook who would have it in their favourite movies,” Showalter recently told Variety. Showalter also said fans would write on social media that “I went on a date with someone and I asked them if they liked ‘Wet Hot American Summer,’ and based on their response I could tell whether it was going to go well or not.”
It certainly didn’t help that “Wet Hot” was only released in two theatres, both in New York. Maybe the real problem was that it just took a while for the generation that they wanted to write the film for to get older, see it, and buy copies of it.
The change might have really come because “Wet Hot” either wasn’t understood when it first came out, or was just marketed completely wrong.
If you want proof that there was something off about the marketing, check out the film’s original trailer:
It’s also worth noting that the trailer gives away parts of the ending, and seems to make light of some of the film’s best moments of surreal dark comedy, including a scene where the counselors go into town and shoot up heroin.
“The packaging and marketing for it was like, ‘This is just another one of those big ensemble comedies.'” Showalter told Rolling Stone. “But I think it spoke to the sensibility of a younger generation of audience members who understood the vernacular of it in a way that mainstream audience, the critics — and maybe even the people that were distributing and marketing the movie — did not.”
All of these years of success eventually led to “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.” Wain and Showalter had been talking for some time about wanting to do some sort of followup series. Originally, imagined as a second movie, the idea later evolved into a miniseries.
“Their creative model really lent itself to what we were thinking, which was to have way more material than we could fit in just one movie. This was more like a miniseries or serialized story, and not an open-ended network TV show that just goes on forever. It was perfect,” Showalter recently told Rolling Stone.
This eight episode prequel reunites the whole cast and takes place on the first day of camp, as opposed to the last day.
“Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp” premieres on Netflix on July 31.