With last Friday’s Netflix release of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, Blake Goble and Justin Gerber packed their swim trunks and mosquito repellent and headed back to camp.
Blake Goble (BG): Alright folks, welcome back to Camp Firewood. It’s the first day of camp, 14 years later!
Okay, let’s back up. With the arrival of Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, there’s a lot of questions to be asked. It’s a late-coming prequel – a look-back being made now with the full support of the 2001 cult classic’s cast and crew.
Why now? Why are David Wain and Michael Showalter making a prequel to an esoteric comedy? Did Wet Hot American Summer have more to say about its aged youths? Is there something to having 45-year-old actors play 16-year-olds? Does that make this worth the wait? What’s the deal with the format transition? A 90-minute lampoon is getting prequelized as an eight-part miniseries, or is it a four-hour long-form goof? And it’s on Netflix? Is this is a product of commercial familiarity to build Netflix’s growing brand, or is this a weekend hangout among increasingly famous friends and comics made tenuously filmic? Is this better or worse than the original movie? Will people enjoy this as a series, a movie, or a multifaceted star vehicle?
And frankly, is this funny?
Well, to say the least, yes, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp most assuredly is funny … sporadically. The new miniseries, like the original film, is an out-there spoof about a miniature slice of American pop culture, featuring brand-name absurdist comedy among friends. It’s uneven, and hard to sustain, but goodness, when First Day of Camp lands its jokes … gosh. Thinking about H. Jon Benjamin’s voice a talking can and Christopher Meloni going full lunch-room psycho … Justin, this thing’s a mess, but a funny one, right?
Justin Gerber (JG): It is, Blake. The sting that it isn’t as good as the original will likely dampen the experience for many, and I understand that. However, I think it will be appreciated in the future far more favorably than Netflix’s other resurrected property, Arrested Development. Should it be binge-watched? Absolutely not. It’s what I did, and I think it hurt the viewing process. This kind of manic, chaotic, over-the-top hilarity works best in short bursts. 90 minutes, sure. Four hours: It was a bit tough.
BG: Or better yet, 15-minute episodes like Wain’s own Children’s Hospital. But you’re right. Spread this out. The tangential humor gets taxing in concentrated doses. There’s a long narration joke at one point where Coop (Showalter) recounts all the wacky things that happened during this very long day. It’s cute as a joke, but as a viewer, you realize you may have just let this show get away with more narrative tangents than you should.
JG: Strategic viewing recommendations aside, I really wanna get to the funny, of which this movie is chock-full. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed most of the newbies, most of all the great John Slattery (Mad Men’s Roger Sterling) as visiting theater director Claude Dumet — a loser on “The Great White Way” but a hero in the eyes of Susie (Amy Poehler). I would argue the funniest moment of the entire series is when Dumet tears down a camper auditioning for a role in Electro-City (“You don’t have it!”).
Jon Hamm as assassin “Falcon,” Chris Pine as a mysterious hermit, and Bruce Greenwood playing it straight as a defense attorney all dominate every scene they’re in. It’s amazing how a movie that bombed upon its release has grown and grown in the years that followed. It’s a testament to David Wain and Michael Showalter’s talents that they were able to not only bring in great new blood, but returning A-listers. Blake, what returning characters worked for you this go-round, and who didn’t.
BG: It’s so weird, because while the characters are ostensibly the same, the actors playing them have also developed budding careers, personas, and comic styles since 2001. Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks are legit stars now, and they’ve grown into themselves. Rudd’s prick kid Andy from the original is now a douchey Brian Fantana variation with way too much to say. Banks’ Lindsay character has a wonderful, proactive backstory that makes no sense, but because she’s proven her chops elsewhere, Wain and Showalter probably wanted to show it off here.
Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, and a lot of the former State kids still got it. Hip comics like Janeane Garofalo and Judah Friedlander now feel kitsch. And honestly, that’s just my take on First Day of Camp’s potluck comedy. Others may love it. You look at the poster, and it’s got like 20 faces on it with distinct stylings all over the place. Surely one of them will work for each discerning taste and sense of humor that checks this thing out.
But this kind of speaks to the overall story’s success in humor. Who works and who doesn’t? It’s everything and nothing in comedy. First Day of Camp just wants to get out there and do a ton of stuff until the campers have to go home. Who cares if it’s a prequel when funny things happen in fits and starts. I can’t even pinpoint a strongest chapter because, again, the thing’s so disparate. One minute you have Reagan-era web conspiracies about toxic waste. The next, you have the awkward sexual awakenings of every character. And there are about two dozen little jokes to each instance.
Justin, is it me, or is this whole thing just too low-risk and too hodgepodge to go hard on? Or am I being easy on the sloppiness and silliness?
JG: I think my biggest issue is its length. I think if they had removed a lot of the goings-on taking place outside the campsite, it would make for a more successful piece as a whole. I love Jason Schwartzman, Garofalo, Michael Cera, and especially Greenwood in his role, but the whole toxic waste subplot is just something to fill the void of the space station that comes crashing down at summer’s end. Eliminate that, and you probably got a solid six-episode block.
There I go playing producer again. Let me be a little more clear.
The through lines that work best for me are anything involving Gene (Christopher Meloni), and that includes his WASPy alias at story’s beginning, the hunt for Victor, and his return to the bearded bandana madman we all know and love.
BG: Ditto. Meloni’s gifts and eccentricity are used to the fullest effect. Even if you don’t know Gene yet, Meloni earns your attention.
JG: I loved the Falcon, just about everything with the musical rehearsals, and the tribute to Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times book in the form of Lindsay’s journalist background. However, the actor who steals the movie is Pine as the rockin’ recluse, even if his big finale feels a bit like a forced call-back.
The movie is guilty of unnecessary call-backs of various lengths and implications. The most unsuccessful is the kid camper and his crush meeting the same outcome as Coop and Katie’s (ageless Marguerite Moreau) storyline from the original, and another whispered “my pussy” joke lands with a thud this time around. Filling in the blanks is one thing, but literally repeating the joke becomes tiresome after a while.
Blake, I had issues with the Coop storyline this time around. Am I alone here?
BG: I didn’t care for Coop’s whiny love triangle, no. Michael Showalter’s loveable, but not-that-loveable loser shtick was hokey, and yeah, Showalter’s Coop character may be terrific as a conceptual slaughter of nice-guy archetypes, but it doesn’t always make for funny watching. The whole fight with the Israeli kid (David Wain) over the affections of Lake Bell? Whatever. It’s comedy of torture, which is hard to make palatable.
Now, Showalter’s dad-bod being used purely for cheap physical comedy … I enjoyed the hell out of that. Sometimes the best jokes are the easiest, and the dumbest, because the laughs are the loudest. And that’s the thing: When one joke, or concept sputters, something else will bring the giggles back right away.
There’s a lot to work with because every sensibility is covered.
In the end, First Day of Camp is totally recommendable because regardless of how well it connects to and plays off the original film and how well some of the humor flies, the joke success ratio is just high enough. Comically speaking, there’s something for everyone. You can keep the Bruce Greenwood and Chris Pine cameos. I’ll take the teaspoons of toxic sludge.
JG: You got it, dude!
I’ve been a fan of Wain/Showalter/Marino/Black/Lo Truglio since their days on The State, and rarely have they let me down. There are A episodes in First Day of Camp, there are C episodes, and there are episodes in between. Not to harken back to a review of a film I saw earlier this year, but it’s similar to how I felt about People, Places, Things. I accept the fact that I don’t find it great, even though there is greatness to be found within the eight episodes and nearly four-hour run-time.
Similar to what I said in my People review, First Day of Camp is good, and that’s just fine. Now, excuse me while I go and fondle some sweaters.