Like basically everyone I know, the announcement that Netflix would be releasing a prequel to David Wain’s 2001 box office flop turned cult success Wet Hot American Summer made me curious. It was something of a surprise, this reappearance. The show, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, is about the first day at Camp Firewood, set two months before the events of the film. David Wain and Michael Showalter asked everyone involved in the original to come back. The cast, now verifiably star studded and in their forties, all quite readily agreed. What does this resurgence mean, exactly?
I knew, in the back of my mind, that Wet Hot was an important film, somehow. I wasn’t even sure that I’d seen it or whether I’d just kind of osmosed the idea of seeing it from the tastemakers around me (I had, as it turns out, but I watched it again a few more times to just make sure). But it’s that kind of film, comfortable and familiar but still oddball. Or at least, it’s that kind of film now. It wasn’t always.
The film signals the introduction of alt comedy into the mainstream, a slow build that has taken around fourteen years to fully integrate. The series, and its success, represents this absorption. These days, a lot of people disavow the split between mainstream and alt comedy, calling the labels all butuseless (the Nerdist gives a decent overview of the arbitrary nature of the terms). Sarah Silverman’s quote ‘it used to be that alternative comedy was alternative to something. It isn’t anymore’ is indicative of just how much the two genres have converged.
The biggest star of the original film, Janeane Garafalo, is considered a central figure in the rise of alt comedy. A stand up and ‘90s actress darling, Garafalo’s career began in alt comedy rooms (although meeting Ben Stiller in a deli didn’t hurt either). In fact, most of the connections and friendships that lead to Wet Hot were formed in alt comedy rooms – coffee shops, rock venues, improv theatres, any space in which comedy was performed that wasn’t a comedy club. The gigs were usually free, and the performers unpaid, taking the pressure off and allowing more freedom to experiment and diverge from the standard set up/punch line structure. Traditionalist Bill Burr angrily describes these spaces as ‘comedy wombs’ that ‘distill the horror of trying to be a comedian’. But such safe spaces led to a confidence in experimentation and inclusion that in turn led to Wet Hot. The film and the series replicated the freedom of an alt comedy room. Wet Hot was the first production of many involved, and as such it was a passion project. The same is true of First Day because, despite its now-beloved source material, it’s a project no one expected. There were no petitions and no kickstarters, Wain and co simply decided ‘hey, let’s do more of that.’
The film took David Wain and Michael Showalter three years to write. Showalter said that they wanted to create an atmosphere that ‘fits everything. It incorporates everything I find funny and that David finds funny’. The broad spectrum of humour present in the film is certainly one of the hallmarks of alt comedy. What starts out as a parody of camp movies turns into a typical experience at a Jewish American summer camp (like those attended by Wain and Showalter as kids), all offset by an undercurrent of the absurd. Its foundations are the absurd, the impromptu and the unsavoury. In the film, these three key elements are embodied by most scenes, yet the trip to town really encompasses all three. The camp counsellors head into a nearby town, and a montage sequence shows their journey from cigarettes to heroin. At the end the characters appear fresh faced and clean. ‘It’s fun to get away from the camp, even if its just for an hour,’ remarks J.J. (Zak Orth). It is in a way the turning point of the film, after which the pretence of genre parody disappears. Note that the ‘unsavoury’ is synonymous with low brow, dark and offbeat, like Andy (Paul Rudd) repeatedly throwing campers out of the van, rather than racist, sexist or homophobic. Both despite and because of its wide ranging comedic reach, Wet Hot bombed at the box office and was panned critically.
Slowly though, an audience gathered. College students started midnight screenings, and after a few years it achieved cult status. Liking it was an indication of taste, and as David Wain delights in telling almost any interviewer, people began discussing it on first dates to test compatibility. By 2015, it was something we’d all heard of, and could most likely quote, even if we hadn’t seen it.
Two things brought about this change, which is symbolic of the mainstream’s acceptance of alt comedy. The first is the internet. The second the use of improv sensibilities in scripted televised comedy – everything from sketches to sitcoms. In terms of the former, you can consider basically any major cultural shift over the last twenty years as partially caused by the internet. Much like alt comedy rooms, the internet is a breeding ground of reasonably safe spaces to experiment, refine and share art. The latter is integral not least because it launched the careers of most of the original cast (everyone from Amy Poehler to David Wain), thereby paving the way for an audience who were more prepared to have their expectations subverted. The impromptu, the unsavoury and the absurd are all stretched even further by the series than the film. Elizabeth Banks’ character Lindsey goes from a hot girl besmirched by barbecue sauce to an undercover rock journalist who learns the meaning of friendship and back again. First Day mimics Wet Hot’s structures, elongated by the series format. Coop (Showalter) attempts to help a camper win a girl’s heart, the boy pouring his heart out in front of her only to be rejected, just as Coop does with Katie in the film. It’s a rom-com gesture with a real world response. The audience know what kind of people these characters are by the end of the summer, and the back story that First Day provides makes the antics of the last day all the more absurd. The importance of intertext and context are clear. The audience have a stronger sense of being in on or prepared for the joke, without actually being able to anticipate the joke itself.