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By Adam Nayman
In the exciting climax of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp—the eight-part Netflix prequel to David Wain’s 2001 cult comedy about a Jewish summer camp circa 1981 infested with horny teenagers portrayed by paunchy grown-up comedians—the counsellors face down none other than Ronald Reagan (played by co-creator Michael Showalter). The 41st President of the United States is on site to authorize a nuclear strike on the cabins, but, after a prolonged standoff, he calls off his troops and returns to Washington, humbled by the rhetoric of friendship and honour directed at him by the “unlikely group of misfits” (to quote the original Wet Hot American Summer) in front of him. They may not be able to field a competitive baseball team or keep their young charges from drowning, but the staffers of Camp Firewood come through when it counts: they win this one against the Gipper.
The question of whether the release of First Day of Camp represents a larger and potentially Pyrrhic victory has been on the minds of many fans since Wain and Showalter announced the production of a prequel. It might seem ridiculous to compare a microscopically budgeted ensemble farce with Star Wars (1977), but the same basic problems apply to its brand extension as they did to The Phantom Menace (1999): the practical and theoretical traps of reverse-engineering elaborate narratives in the name of continuity. As Patton Oswalt famously carped in his 2008 stand-up routine “At Midnight, I Will Kill George Lucas With a Shovel”: “I don’t give a shit where the stuff I love comes from, I just love the stuff I love.”
In that same monologue, Oswalt said that his “geekiness was getting in the way of [his] nerdiness,” which would place him squarely within the niche demographic that embraced Wet Hot American Summer in 2001, when the biggest stars in its cast were Janeane Garofolo and David Hyde Pierce, an Emmy-winning representative of the network-television comedy establishment. Aside from Paul Rudd, then in the midst of being unsuccessfully packaged as a bland leading man—c.f. The Object of My Affection (1998)—the other featured players were mostly just unassuming ingénues, including Amy Poehler and Bradley Cooper as drama instructors.
And, mixed in amongst these fresh faces, were various alumni of The State, the early ’90s comedy developed and dropped by MTV as a hip in-house competitor for Saturday Night Live via Mr. Show and The Kids in the Hall. These included Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino, and Michaels Ian Black and Showalter, the latter of whom took the film’s ostensible lead role as the geeky, nerdy, and sweetly lovelorn Coop, helplessly smitten with his platonic-hottie pal Katie (Marguerite Moreau) and unable to tear her from the hypnotic thrall of her asshole boyfriend Andy (Rudd). Doddering daily critics slammed the film as weird and unfunny—Roger Ebert’s grandstanding pan ranks as one of the meanest things he wrote in 40 years. As it turns out, the film’s mostly abject reputation was the best thing that ever happened to it. Wain and Showalter wrote Wet Hot American Summer as a joking homage to ’80s movie comedies, and not only were they ahead of the curve in terms of parodying genre marginalia, but they also tapped into a sense of solidarity not unlike the bonds that get forged in the forest on cook-outs and camping trips. For an influential millennial cohort of comedy fans and comedians, Wet Hot American Summer became a code word or a secret handshake—a film that bestowed a sense of ownership and investment upon its fans.
Wain already had a following from The State and his follow-up comedy series Stella, which starred him alongside Showalter and Black as a trio of black-suited morons stuck in a loop of aloof alienation. He was also among the first comics to exploit the potential of YouTube in his micro-budget, faux-autobiographical web series Wainy Days, which was basically an excuse for him to make out with a who’s who of funny women (and men), including his real-life wife Zandy Hartig. Indeed, Wain’s career is exemplary of how somebody can gain traction in the industry without necessarily selling out; after Wet Hot’s flop, Wain’s work grew increasingly commercial, from the goofy riff on The Decalogue of The Ten (2007) to the surprisingly robust Role Models (2009), a troubled studio production rewritten by the director along with Rudd and Marino and released into a post-Apatowian zeitgeist where its dick jokes found considerable purchase.
And what exquisite dick jokes! For this critic, it will always be a toss-up between Joe Lo Truglio’s invitation to his comrades to “tenderly touch our tips” (he’s talking about fake broadswords, you see) and Seann William Scott’s explanation of the buried subtext of Kiss’ “Love Gun” (“See Ronnie, his dick is the gun!”) as to which is that film’s best penis-centric gag. A ribald but tender fable of male arrested development with a truly inspired climax set in the LARP community, Role Models was far more accessible than Wet Hot American Summer even as it was palpably the work of the same comic intelligence, a sensibility at once cynically cognizant and refreshingly unashamed of cliché. Just as Wet Hot gleefully sent up—and in some cases tore down—the tropes of summer-camp movies, Role Models satirizes the mechanical structure and redemptive arc of sentimental Hollywood dross like Big Daddy (1999) while consistently hitting its marks as a movie that worked—not in spite of its characteristic digressions and non-sequiturs but in tandem with them.
The closest Wain has come to the uncontrolled craziness of Wet Hot American Summer in his film work is probably the uneven but underappreciated rom-com pastiche They Came Together (2014), which bombed, possibly because viewers thought they were going to see an actual rom-com starring Rudd and Poehler and were rewarded instead with prolonged Abbott and Costello-style dialogue routines and Michael Shannon swinging a samurai sword. They Came Together doesn’t work the way Role Models does—it never quite finds a way to reconcile its affection and contempt for its chosen cinematic targets, and a lot of the jokes are really, really stupid—but it’s also one of the most liberated American comedies of the last decade. When Christopher Meloni delivers an anguished monologue to a group of people at a Halloween party trying to account for why his character’s spandex costume is covered in poop (yay for shitting on superheroes!), it’s so desperately dopey and yet matter-of-fact that it could be Buñuel.
It’s a little difficult to describe exactly what it is about Wain’s comedy directing that distinguishes him from other filmmakers with good casting agents and/or famous friends. It’s tempting to pit him against his Wanderlust (2012) producer Judd Apatow, whose aspirations to realism in This Is 40 (2013) and Trainwreck have led some to hail him as the new James L. Brooks, while Wain’s work in They Came Together and on the wonderful Adult Swim series Childrens Hospital (seven glorious seasons and counting) is more in the ZAZ vein: zany, not hip; absurd, not relatable; anarchic, not cathartic.
This isn’t to suggest that Wain is sloppy. His assignments directing episodes of Party Down and New Girl are trim and skillful, and the loose, communal vibe of Wanderlust belies the precision of the cast’s line readings. It’s more that he indulges his whims—and those of his actors, especially his pal and supreme collaborator Ken Marino—in a way that’s distinct from Apatow’s brand of wait-and-see master-shot filmmaking. Reviewing Trainwreck, Richard Brody praised Apatow’s willingness to let the camera stay in one place until it “fills up with his ideas and moods.” By contrast, Wain treats the dead air in his scenes like a gas leak: it’s variably stifling and combustible. My favourite scene in Wet Hot American Summer is the bit where Coop gives Katie his flannel when she’s cold and then asks for it back that Ebert used to contextualize his slam, and yet it’s a marvelous bit of filmmaking. The sweet romantic tension between the characters is heightened by the awkwardly slow pace of the dialogue and undermined by Coop’s schizophrenic non-chivalry—all topped off by the couple’s long-delayed first kiss and a slow pan to the camp goat, whose presence is inexplicably touching.
There’s nothing quite so sweet in First Day of Camp, which is hard to evaluate as a fan of the original, even though it’s next to impossible to imagine what the uninitiated might think. The basic conceit of it as a prequel takes what was once implicitly funny—the advanced ages of the actors as compared to their characters—and turns it into a running joke. Showalter’s moon-faced bulk is startling in comparison to the more graceful aging of Cooper, Rudd, and Moreau, but it helps to better sell the joke that Coop is pretty obviously not 16 years old. Some of the callbacks are excellent, and others are laboured, while the new characters and plotlines are as hit-and-miss as you’d expect (Childrens Hospital vet Lake Bell does the best job of fitting in with the old gang, while Mad Men Jon Hamm and John Slattery goof around likeably). The biggest change is that Andy has been recast as a bit of an underdog hero instead of a villain, and while Rudd’s in fine form—like he’s ever not good—it just doesn’t feel right. (The same goes for having H. Jon Benjamin on hand in corporeal form before he resumes his rightful place as the voice of a can of talking vegetables.)
Whether First Day of Camp finally equals or tops its predecessor or represents the further mainstreaming of an unruly comic outlier are topics worth thinking about, as Wain may be the major American film comedy director of the 21st century. He has a recognizable style (baggy), a set of thematic preoccupations (communal living, role-playing, making out), and he’s found the sweet spot between glib cruelty and basic decency that keeps his work from being easily pegged. His commitment to his mostly B-plus-list collaborators and avoidance of topical subjects and trendy references means that he probably won’t ever have an Apatow-sized hit, but he seems to be the freer artist, and not only because his films sidestep the conservativism that comes with seeking closure (contrast the endings of They Came Together and This Is 40, and ask yourself which is a more honest movie about the compromises of monogamy).
Trying to ascribe political intentions to comedians is always risky, even when they’re asking for it, which Wain is not. But Wanderlust’s gentle ribbing of hippie extremism comes darkly shadowed by scenes with Marino as a repulsively jocular McMansion yuppie—a credible late-capitalist grotesque. And while both versions of Wet Hot fairly luxuriate in Reagan-era nostalgia—the lingua franca of synth-pop and rotary phones and The Bad News Bears (1976)—they aren’t remotely reactionary, and the original film features one of the most erotic gay sex scenes in American non-pornographic cinema, with Bradley Cooper grinding Michael Ian Black so hard from behind that he lifts him off his sweat-socked feet! So it probably doesn’t mean anything that Showalter plays Reagan in First Day of Camp—it’s just another silly bit of business from a troupe that’ll do anything for a laugh. But it’s nice to know that David Wain, whose filmography is a testament to keeping his friends close, knows the enemy when he sees him.
Cinema Scope: There was a big story on Wet Hot American Summer: First of Day of Camp in The New York Times. Are you feeling vindicated these days?
David Wain: It is definitely an interesting and bizarre thing. I don’t feel so much like it’s vindication. That’s not exactly how I think about it. But we had a premiere last night and it was sort of shown to me, in stark relief, how different things are now from the way they were back then. The expectation, the press, the marketing…everything behind this version of Wet Hot American Summer is huge. When the original film came out, it was like a little bit of piss on the street. Nobody cared at all. So I’d say that it’s nice. It’s a good feeling. And for my money, the new series is very much the same thing, a companion piece to the film, but it’s being released into an environment that’s far more receptive.
Scope: I wonder if you’ve ever read Michael Atkinson’s review of Wet Hot American Summer in The Village Voice in 2001. He said, and I quote, “The film will be loathed but it might be ahead of its time.”
Wain: I think that’s very interesting, and I agree. It’s weird to talk about being ahead of anything, but I’d say that we had the great fortune to be able to make a feature film in a bubble. We didn’t have to emulate anybody else, or connect to some committee’s sense of humour. And we were coming out of doing The State, which was also a show that we made inside a bubble. We weren’t coming from Second City or the Groundlings, or anything like that. I think that we had a particular sensibility that had very strong antecedents in a lot of things, but also that we were different, and that was what was exciting to us about making it. And I agree that basically those who were getting it and excited about it at the time were few in number, but also loyal and vocal. It couldn’t be more gratifying that it’s grown the way it has over time, not only the film itself, but also other things that are like this film, and in some cases clearly influenced by it. That’s pretty cool.
Scope: Is it hard to climb back inside that bubble when so many members of the production are bringing all of these new associations with them? It’s very different to watch Bradley Cooper in 2015 than it would have been in 2001. The same goes for Amy Poehler or Paul Rudd. These people are all big stars now.
Wain: My experience in making it, and my hopes for people watching it, is that you forget about that stuff pretty quickly. You forget about the fact that the actors are decades too old for their roles. You’re hopefully just watching the story and laughing at the jokes. Watching people watch it, that’s what’s happened. I mean, there’s only so long that you can sit there thinking, “That’s Bradley Cooper, the Oscar nominee.” At a certain point, it’s just that he’s a great actor, serving his material, and you’re just watching the show.
Scope: Did you and Michael Showalter always envision bringing in other actors to join the ensemble? You’re right that fans will accept Rudd or Cooper because they know them as those characters, but now you’re adding all these outsiders to the equation. There’s some risk in that.
Wain: We definitely were aware of that, and we thought about that. We were careful. We could have cast every single new role with a famous person. We chose to mix it up. We tried to bring in some of the roles from, for lack of a better word, central casting. We wanted to make sure there was a balance. Bringing in the bigger names in the new cast was not a matter of getting star power, or anything like that. It was more that these were people who we loved and knew were awesome and could do justice to their characters.
Scope: I was wondering why you decided to play Yaron, the Israeli counsellor. Is this part of your ongoing attempt to play characters across the continuum of Jewish representation? I went to a Jewish summer camp, and I feel like I recognize this character.
Wain: So are you referring to, like, [Childrens Hospital’s] Jewy McJewJew? In my head, there isn’t a continuum there or anything. There was a very specific type of Jewish camp counsellor that I remember. Actually, not Jewish, but Israeli. They weren’t really all that Jewish or religious at all, but they had a very specific brand of arrogance that I will never forget. We were reading early drafts of the script in the writers’ room and I read the role of Yaron with no intention of playing it, or any of the other parts, either. But after channelling that accent and that attitude, I was heavily encouraged to do it.
Scope: You’ve already talked a lot in other interviews about how both versions of Wet Hot American Summer are based in memories, but in the prequel, there are also spoofs of things well outside the camp experience. It has these bits that are like a courtroom thriller, an action movie, or a rock musical. Why did you expand the scope of the parody for the TV series?
Wain: Our gut, when we’re in the world of Wet Hot American Summer, is the gut of Michael Showalter and me and what makes sense to us. That world is based on very true memories of summer camp in the ’80s, with this layer of absurdism on top of it. As we develop stories, they just sort of took us to the courtroom and all the other subgenre detours. It’s also a function of running time. If the original film had been four hours long, it would have had more of those things, too.
Scope: In sketch comedy, you don’t need to worry about continuity because you keep pushing the reset button. You mentioned absurdism, which is often opposed to continuity, and yet this thing has a four-hour running time, so you have to have it hold together as a story—it can’t just peter out at the end of every episode.
Wain: It’s three hours and 45 minutes total. It was a different medium, in terms of the length and how it’s chopped up. And one of our challenges was to try to understand that some people will binge-watch, and some people will watch all the episodes separately, and then to find a way to make it work for both groups. We definitely leaned towards the idea of an ensemble movie with multiple plotlines that play out from beginning to end. We wrote it and we shot it that way, and then we had to try and shape it. Netflix doesn’t have episode-length restrictions. We could have made these episodes as long as we wanted to, I suppose. But we made the decision to keep them under 30 minutes. Even 30 minutes is long for a comedy episode. Most comedy episodes on TV are 22 minutes. Part of the formula and magic of Childrens Hospital is how much we shove into 11 minutes, and how much discipline it takes to do that, to get from writing and directing these epic stories and then getting the length down. Without that restriction on Wet Hot, it was a different challenge, and we gave ourselves other blanks to fill in. The thing is that we’re doing a prequel. So everything that was going to happen had to line up with what we already know is going to happen with all of these stories.
Scope: Is there a part of the origin story that you guys had been thinking about for a long time? Was there a kind of Wet Hot primal scene even before you started working on First Day of Camp?
Wain: Most of the real origin-story stuff only came up in the actual script as we were writing it. We had written a feature-film version beforehand that has the seeds of the storylines…there was always a version of the toxic waste stuff. That was one of the earliest things that we came up with. Once we had the overall design, we were able to rethink and rewrite everything.
Scope: Since you brought up Childrens Hospital, I’ll ask you about the episode “My Friend Falcon,” which is clearly riffing on Werner Herzog’s My Best Fiend (1999). There are a lot of obscure and niche references in your work, and I wonder if you consider yourself a cinephile.
Wain: I’m not as much of a film buff as other filmmakers are. I love movies. I love interesting and off-the-beaten-path movies, but I don’t see that many because of my lifestyle. I have kids and I work a lot! I guess when I do see something it sticks in my head because it’s really not crowded with that much else. The movies I love that are less mainstream that stick in my head…I feel like when I’m making a reference to them it really doesn’t matter if anybody else has heard of it before. It’s a bonus for those who have. “My Friend Falcon” is an example of that. I know that 95 percent of the Childrens Hospital audience is not necessarily going to get that reference, and I don’t care at all. Not because I’m like, “Screw the audience,” but because I don’t think that it matters.
Scope: No, it’s fine. What made me laugh the hardest in that wasn’t a joke, exactly; it was the specificity of the bit where your character, the director, is in the apartment talking to the new owners about the person who used to live there, like Herzog talking to the German couple in My Best Fiend. I guess I’m in the five percent you talk about, and it was just this terrific moment of recognition.
Wain: Those obscure references that some people are going to really love…yes, that’s something I love to do. In First Day of Camp, there are quite a few nods to the original film that you’d have to be quite a die-hard fan to pick up on. We did a bit in Wet Hot that was recreating a very random and forgotten scene in Animal House (1978), but we ended up cutting it out because it was too confusing. Doing a certain kind of parody is always fun for me, and I’m uninterested in the kinds of parody that end up in tedium—you know, for lack of a better umbrella term, the Scary Movie genre.
Scope: On the topic of spoofery, there was something about They Came Together that struck me as really double-edged. It has this absolute affection for mid-’90s romantic comedies and this absolute contempt for them at the same time. I wonder if you think that mixture is something that is often in your work, or in your spoofs.
Wain: I think that’s exactly right. And I don’t think that’s unique to me. I think that’s the essence of spoofs. The best spoofs of genres, or of anything, are coming from a place of really loving the object of the spoof and at the same time mercilessly pointing out all of the flaws inside. It’s hard to do it well if you don’t have both sides.
Scope: To get back to the idea of working in a bubble, and having that bubble punctured…when They Came Together was released in Toronto, there was a review in The Globe and Mail that singled out the scene where Rudd goes into a bar and has the endless, repetitive exchange with the bartender—“You can say that again”—as evidence of why the movie was unfunny. There’s a bigger risk in doing a gag like that in a movie with bigger stars, but I also wonder if you care at all that somebody—a critic, an audience member, anybody—has that reaction.
Wain: I definitely care. Whether I’m working with Michael Showalter or anybody else, we’re not in the business of saying, “We think this is funny and we don’t care what anybody else thinks.” If we screen the movie for a lot of people and nobody laughs at something, we’ll cut it out. But at the same time, it’s not totally about the audience. A lot of studio comedies will chop out anything that doesn’t get a response and double down on anything that does. I think that’s a terrible way to go. You have to go with your gut. Audience reaction can help to guide you. We know that scenes like that one in They Came Together will be polarizing. In the little makeshift, no-budget test screenings that we had, that proved to be the case! Half the audience said that it was their favourite scene, and half the audience hated it. It’s what they said about the trip-to-town scene in Wet Hot, or about the birth on the porch in Wanderlust. You have to decide where the line is. You don’t want to needlessly alienate a huge part of your audience for no reason, but you also don’t want to alienate the people who are there to see something like that.
As far as big stars go, it definitely mattered in They Came Together. It’s one thing to have Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty playing leads in Airplane! (1980) and another for it to be Rudd and Poehler doing it today. There’s a lot of confusion. These two could absolutely be in a real “romantic comedy.” We liked that. We leaned into it. I’m sure the movie suffered from it, too, because the expectations were hard to overcome. So one of the ways that we structured the final cut was to as clearly and as blatantly as we could explain to the audience that this was not a real rom-com, and that it was a joke, and that they should relax and take it as such. And when we did that, it helped a lot.
Scope: Are you referring to the stuff in the restaurant with Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper?
Wain: The framing device of the dinner was conceived and written long after shooting, yes.
Scope: The hardest I laughed in that movie is at the very end, when you’re fading out of the conversation in the restaurant and they’re talking about going to the museum and someone says they’re going to take the subway there: “One of the lines!”
Wain: That was an improv. I love that too.
Scope: I wanted to ask you about Role Models, and the way that its entire story gets resolved in the fantasy space of L.A.I.R.E. It seems like such a liberated approach to narrative, and it’s also sort of strange to have all these real-world problems get worked out while people are running around with fake swords and costumes pretending to conquer kingdoms.
Wain: I thought that that aspect of the final act of Role Models was really brilliant, and that structure, or the broad strokes of it, was already there when I came on to the project. The idea was already in place. So often in comedies you get to the third act and they stop the jokes, so that you can get into the climactic action. Here, the climactic action is under a layer of something that’s fresh and funny, because it’s being played out through the live-action role-playing. It was fun to write out how that works. What made Role Models work for me was that all of those victories still had stakes for the audience, out on the field. You knew that the characters took everything on the LARP field seriously. I’m not really a gamer. That wasn’t my upbringing, playing D&D.
Scope: I always assumed that there was an evolution from the Caped Kid in Wet Hot to Augie in Role Models, and that both of those kids were you.
Wain: It is me. I was that guy. I just wasn’t doing those exact things. I was that type of kid. I did magic tricks and made recordings and cassette tapes of weird radio shows with my friends, and then later videos and things like that. I was definitely not the sports guy. I wasn’t doing anything that would have made me appear to be cool at the time. I certainly related highly to Augie, and to Caped Boy.
Scope: A lot of your films have these lovelorn guy protagonists—that’s the structure of Wainy Days—but you’ve also written and directed a lot of funny parts for women, especially on Childrens Hospital, with Malin Akerman, Erinn Hayes, and Lake Bell. I don’t want to talk about the question of women in comedy, but I wonder if that sense of balance is something you perceive in your work.
Wain: I’ve never been a guy’s guy. I appreciate bro comedies but it’s not me. I grew up with three sisters and I’ve gravitated towards women as friends in my life, more than men. It just translates into the work. I know so many amazing and funny actresses who are underused. Any chance there is to let them shine I’ll fight for. But I’m not into giving a manifesto about women in comedy or anything like that.
Scope: Is it written into your actors’ contracts that they always have to make out with each other wildly in everything you write and direct? I feel like there is more making out in your films than anybody else’s. Making out is the structuring motif of Wainy Days.
Wain: To give you a semi-serious answer, I think that something stunted in me around 11 or 12. That was in 1981, which is when Wet Hot is set. I am probably still working out those things, that idea of wanting to make out with somebody. I’m still playing out those fantasies and fears in everything.
Scope: Lastly, I have the king of all abstract questions: Do you think you’re making art?
Wain: I think that to the degree that I care about it beyond the paycheque, that’s what makes it art. I could make a living some other way, and make more money, but I’d do this instead. Not because it’s lucrative, or even because it’s fun, but because I care about what I’m doing. So I guess to me that’s the definition of art. It has personal expression involved in it. It’s not world-changing, but it matters to me. The kind of art I care about matters to the person who makes it, and then something about it translates after.