Trying to dig into why comedies are “good” is tough, especially so in the case of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. The eight episode Netflix mini-series is great, but the how and why of it are kind of elusive. Beyond being an impressive casting stunt in and of itself: Paul Rudd vows to “fart his way right into that snatch” just as his tentpole superhero flick Ant-Man continues to top the box office, RECENT ACADEMY AWARD NOMINEE Bradley Cooper has a not insubstantial role, and about 1/5th of the Mad Men cast shows up. WHAS:FDoC (whew) is really funny in about the exact way the 2001 film was. The key to the show’s success seems to be that it, uh, doesn’t really give a fuck.
The original Wet Hot American Summer‘s genius was in how it not only pitch-perfectly satirized Meatballs-style eighties teen sex comedies, but in how it shoots way past that into full-blown nonsense. The gags play off camp movie clichés, but also catch you off-guard with weirdness like H. Jon Benjamin’s self-fellating sentient can of vegetables or a chunk of Skylab almost killing everyone.
First Day of Camp doubles down on that by making the premise even more absurd, to the point that it’s almost like a satire of internet age continuations of cult comedies like Arrested Development than it is horny camp counsellor hi-jinks. FDoC has its cake and eats it too by delivering on the demand for a sequel to Wet Hot and, naturally, going about it in the most deliberately counter-intuitive way possible. Not only is the cast is now fifteen years older and playing even younger versions of themselves, plotlines go out of their way to over-explain the origins of the characters from the film. Can of Mixed Vegetables gets a multi-episode backstory! Elizabeth Banks’ Lindsay is retconned, hilariously, to be a 24-year-old rock ‘n’ roll reporter posing as a teenager for a story. Netflix released four hours of programming where, by design, nothing in the plot has any real meaning or consequence. That’s honestly pretty impressive.
The most visceral pleasure Wet Hot offers is an army of celebrities slumming and, man, does it ever. And that’s ignoring a returning cast boasting the likes of Amy Poehler and the aforementioned Bradley Cooper. Jon Hamm continues his against-type funny guy renaissance as hilariously conspicuous government assassin “The Falcon,” John Slattery parlays his practiced mentor sleaze as “Broadway actor-director” Claude Dumet, and a practically unrecognizable Chris Pine shows off his (wildly underrated) comedy chops as a burnt out rock star recluse.
Something that carries over from the film is the series’ ability to really commit to eighties pastiche, to the point that it kind of just hate-fucks you with referential jokes. Characters are constantly wearily making references to, say, AVIS rent-a-car commercials as if someone’s holding a gun to their head. When Michael Ian Black’s character brings up Fantasy Island, Benjamin drops a spot-on “Yeah have you seen that?” A character describes the government’s evil dumping of toxic waste on the campground as “the biggest scandal since Watergate, which was about seven years ago.” It’s hilarious in the way that Walk Hard‘s perpetual thudding biopic riffs were.
Speaking of Walk Hard, something else that FDoC shares with that film is an impressive soundtrack of original sound-alikes courtesy of Craig Wedren, featuring everything from the Pat Benatar-alike “Heart Attack Love,” to Steely Dan-clone “Hey 1981,” to suspiciously Pretenders-esque “Brass Muscles.” The show even offers up new version of “Higher and Higher Wind” from the movie, here performed and expanded on by Chris Pine. Wedren peppers the episodes with legitimately solid tunes and, aside from being pretty clever and catchy riffs, they really ground the show’s period piece atmosphere (such as it is). It’s not a surprise that First Day of Camp‘s best gag, a hastily assembled camp production of rock-stupid rock opera Electro City, merges the show’s penchant for music with outright non-sequitur weirdness (Amy Poehler describes it as “the story of a young man who moves from the country to the city to become a Broadway star, and is immediately sent to the electric chair for a crime he did not commit…or did he?”).
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp works when it logically shouldn’t. It’s a prequel to a movie that doesn’t need one. Despite being broken up into episodes, you’d be hard pressed to remember FDoC as anything but essentially one long movie. But all of this only adds to the gleefully surreal viewing experience David Wain and Michael Showalter have put together. First Day of Camp‘s commitment to non-commitment is as admirable as it is perplexing and I loved every minute of it.
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is now streaming on Netflix.