Wet Hot American Summer: a cult classic reborn on Netflix

It tanked at the box office, but the summer camp movie is coming back with the original cast, as Generation X drenches pop culture in a wave of nostalgia

Cooper, Banks, Rudd, Poehler.

Four actors who no longer need first names. Put them in one movie and you have the makings of a summer blockbuster whose every casting announcement, trailer, and even lowly teaser trailer would merit mention in the entertainment blogosphere soon to fill the Twitter timelines of excited fans. The funny thing is that the movie already happened – and it wasn’t a blockbuster at all. Now, thanks to a Netflix reboot of Wet Hot American Summer everyone gets to go back to camp and see what all the fuss was about.

Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks and Bradley Cooper still needed to use their full names when Wet Hot American Summer came out 14 years ago. The David Wain-directed comedy, which also starred Janeane Garofalo, Christopher Meloni, David Hyde Pierce, Judah Friedlander, Ken Marino, Molly Shannon and many more, was set at Camp Firewood in 1981 and filled with camp crafts, dining hall tete-a-tetes, feathered hair, short shorts and solemn promises to meet again in 10 years.

Despite the nascent star power, the film that Wain co-wrote with his The State troupe partner Michael Showalter was a box office dud, bringing in less than $300,000. Wet Hot American Summer was critically panned, too, with (a 31% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) Roger Ebert penning a fairly brutal, albeit rhyming, critique set to the tune of campfire song “Hello Muddah” with lines like, “Thoughts of Meatballs/Cruelly hamper/Attempts by us to watch as happy campers.” In short, the film was a bust.

Until, of course, it wasn’t.

Like Jason Voorhees coming back after an ill-fated summer at Camp Crystal Lake, Wet Hot American Summer rose again, developing a committed cult following who staged live readings, midnight screenings and marked anniversaries one by one. Now the cult classic is getting a second life on Netflix. The film is transforming into an eight-part series set to premiere this summer, as announced late last year. Now, each additional piece of news about the project sends Twitter into a frenzy, thanks in part to the diaspora of Wet Hot American Summer’s now-famous cast members with their own impressive Twitter follower counts. And, yes, the series already has its own Twitter stream.

Netflix announced on Tuesday that Cooper, Rudd, Poehler, Banks and the rest will once again don their knee socks, short shorts and counselor name tags and make good on their promise to meet again — give or take a few years. For fans of the film, it’s no real surprise that the actors were willing to carve out time in their undoubtedly busy schedules for another visit to camp. While we may have enjoyed watching the romp, it’s clear the actors were having more fun than anyone.

Along with most of the original cast, Camp Firewood will play host to an impressive roster of additional stars like John Slattery (Mad Men), Josh Charles (The Good Wife), Michaela Watkins (Trophy Wife), Jayma Mays (Glee), Randall Park (The Interview) and Childrens Hospital stars Lake Bell, Rob Huebel, and Paul Scheer. As the AV Club points out, with 30 confirmed cast members and only eight episodes in the series, that means each character will get roughly 90 seconds of screen time. Maybe there will be a lot of team sports?

As the name, Wet Hot American Summer: The First Day, implies, the new series is set to take place on the first day of camp in 1981. That means that cast will be playing slightly younger versions of their characters. It’s a good thing that Paul Rudd doesn’t age and that Cooper’s acting bona fides are well established at this point. (Think he’ll wear his short shorts to the Academy Awards?) The series will be directed by Wain and co-written by Wain and Showalter.

Of course, Wet Hot American Summer isn’t the only childhood favorite making a comeback. It was announced yesterday that Paul Feig has made good on his promise to cast an all-female Ghostbusters reboot. Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate MacKinnon will be picking up their ghostbusting gear and heading to wage war against the supernatural in the revamp of the beloved 80s film. That’s not all, either: Turns out that Mulder and Scully and Fox are all onboard with a reboot of The X-Files and David Lynch and Mark Frost are heading back to Twin Peaks with a new series forthcoming on Showtime. Has Hollywood run out of ideas or are they just giving viewers what they want?

Wet Hot American Summer was a subtle parody of the summer camp specials watched first on BetaMax, later on DVD in basement rec rooms by a generation of latchkey kids. After spending countless afternoons spent watching the Meatballs, Little Darlings, Poison Ivy and Gorp oeuvre, Wet Hot American Summer struck a chord with Gen X and Gen Y viewers, which helps account for its slow rise to cult classic status.

Now, that generation is all grown up and thanks to the advent of social media they can have a loud and active voice in which movies or series generate buzz, what’s going to be a hit, and what gets greenlit by studios. Plus, some members of that generation grew up to be the power brokers – they are making the movies, producing them, buying them, selling them, starring in them and writing about them for the media. Gen X is feeling nostalgic for summer camp, so Netflix is making Wet Hot American Summer: the First Day and the entire original cast is coming back, because they are feeling nostalgic, too.

Sorry, Baby Boomers and millennials, but Gen X is in charge right now, and if they want one more day at camp (or in Twin Peaks, or facing off against Zuul, or digging through the FBI’s dusty files) they are going to get it. The media (social and otherwise) will go nuts for it. And you’ll probably like it.


Melissa Locker

The GuardianTramp

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