‘Let’s Do Whatever the Fuck We Want’: How ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ Changed Comedy Forever
Director David Wain takes The Last Laugh podcast deep inside his game-changing comedy movie that nearly came and went without making a splash.
When I reveal that I have just rewatched Wet Hot American Summer for probably the 40th time since it was released in theaters 20 years ago this week, director David Wain has just one question: “Was it still funny?”
The answer is an emphatic yes. Like a small handful of top tier cult comedy classics, Wet Hot— as its creator and fans affectionately call it—only seems to get funnier the more you watch it.
“I just showed my kids for the first time,” Wain tells me on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast. “They’re 10 and 13. They loved it. They really laughed. So it’s amazing that it still holds up.”
The indie film, which featured future movie stars like Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler before they found fame, famously bombed at the box office, making just $300,000 on its modest $1.8 million budget. But as Wain explains in our conversation, the dedicated comedy nerd fans who embraced the movie over the years simply refused to let it fade into oblivion.
After their college sketch comedy group The State “crashed and burned” on MTV in the mid-’90s, Wain says he and the film’s co-writer and star Michael Showalter “were trying to figure out what we could do with our careers in the ashes of that.” They landed on the idea of making a summer camp movie that was deliberately devoid of the type of “jokes” audiences might expect.
The results confounded critics and derailed their careers until audiences started to catch on. Twenty years later, their straightforwardly absurd comedy style, which people had never seen before, is everywhere. And the movie that started it all is still very funny.
Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation and you can listen to the whole thing—including the ridiculously prescient casting process—right now by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.
I feel like the key to the movie is really the tone and you just maintain this perfectly absurd tone throughout the entire film. How did you kind of get all of the actors who were coming from these different worlds—Bradley Cooper coming from theater school, and then you guys coming from The State—on the same page in terms of what that tone would be?
It was my first time really shooting anything with a crew. But our calling card was The State. That was the only thing we had to show people and say, this is the kind of humor. The guiding light for us in making it was this movie was sourced in our own experiences at summer camp. And even though it’s obviously funny and absurd, I think then as now the only barometer was, does it feel true and funny to us as we watch it on set, in rehearsal, in the edit, whenever?
One of the things that made that perfect storm of Wet Hot American Summer happen in a special way is that we had essentially no studio, nobody watching us make this movie. We really felt like kids let out to do whatever we wanted. And all the crew and all the cast, we were all very young, largely inexperienced people, all living at this summer camp. And we were just like, let's do whatever the fuck we want. At the same time though, we were working from a script that had been honed over three long years where we really kept rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. And we did so many table reads, sometimes to try to raise money and other times just to work on the script. Michael Showalter and I had otherwise very little work during that time. I’ve never worked three years on a script.
It's like the band that spends their whole life on the first album.
Right, exactly, pretty much. And so by the time we got to set, it was really tight. Every joke had been through the ringer. So we were really confident in it. Even though what I like about Wet Hot American Summer is that it feels very slapdash and almost improvised. And yet it’s so clear to me it’s so not. It’s really thought through moment by moment. And so to kind of bridge those two feelings is fun for me.
I feel like there’s been so many stories about the debaucherous shoot and all of you staying at this camp when everyone was young and having fun. I was always kind of curious, as the director, whether you were able to really participate and enjoy that or whether you had to be the father figure of the whole thing and keep everyone on track?
I would say a slight combo, but leaning more towards participating. I'll tell you Christopher Meloni, who was a bit older than us, had moments where he was like, “Guys, I need to sleep!” All the main cast and crew were living in the infirmary of the camp, which had the slightly nicer rooms. And a lot of other people lived in all the bunks. And the infirmary was just really party central, all night long. I remember the scene with Janeane Garofalo talking to Amy Poehler and Bradley Cooper about the fact that they put the kid in the talent show, Janeane just didn't go to sleep. That was the first scene of the day. So we’re shooting that at like 7 a.m. and she just got dressed from not going to sleep. And that was not uncommon. Meanwhile, cut to many years later, we were doing the movie Wanderlust, also on location with a big group of friends and it had a very similar vibe with a lot of dance parties and hanging out. I was not involved in any of that, because that movie was very challenging to make. We spent every second working on figuring out what we’re doing, writing and trying to sleep. And then also I had a little 4-year-old at the time.
You do wonder whether, as the director, if you're partying with the cast, if they will then take you seriously when you need them to.
To me, we were so young—I mean, relatively speaking, we were like 30—but the experience of being at summer camp but not being under anyone’s rules was insane. Although the people who ran the camp were furious at us because everyone was acting that way.
What were you doing that was upsetting the people at the camp?
It seemed like such a party and no one really knew what you’re supposed to do. And so for the first couple of days, I think people just had coolers of beer on the set all day. And finally our producer was like “Guys, we can’t do that. This isn’t the ‘70s where they were just openly doing cocaine all day on sets or whatever.”
So talking about the reception of the movie, which I know was a disappointment at the time, what were your expectations of releasing the movie versus what actually happened?
The goal for me was to get it finished and then somehow have it reach some audience. And truly my real dream was that it would get a theatrical release and a review in The New York Times. That was the bar and the dream for me. And so when we took it to Sundance and there were no offers and no one wanted to buy it, that was deeply disappointing. But then we did get this sort of last-ditch pity offer from USA Films months later. And it came out in two theaters and that’s what happened. It came and went.
Did it get a New York Times review?
It got a New York Times review, which was one of those short reviews where you couldn’t even tell if they liked it. And then of course it got many, many savage reviews where people were just like, “I can’t come up with the words for how bad this or how unfunny it is” and “I wanted to put nails in my forehead.” And then it got some reviews that were like, “This is incredible or before its time.” And clearly, I knew I loved it always. I never felt like the movie didn’t work. I was super psyched about it. And so I knew that it would reach some level of its own audience no matter what, but it definitely didn’t make any money in the box office and it was done. Then the DVD came out and even then it was like, OK, the DVD’s out. And then people started talking about it and then people started passing the DVD back and forth. It was probably 2003, two years after the movie came out, and suddenly I’m looking around like, there’s something going on here.
How did you know that something was going on?
Just little things. You start getting that vibe of there’s a fan thing that's not just like, “Oh, I saw that movie, it was good.” It was like, “I’m really into this movie, I’m watching it over and over again.” And then we started doing these midnight screenings in New York around then—packed screenings of a two-year-old indie bomb. And people are dressed up and people are screaming and yelling. And I was stoking those fires as much as I could. I loved the movie too, and I wanted to keep it going. I think it just slowly but surely, ever since then, kept growing and growing and growing to the point where, by the time we pitched the prequel to Netflix in 2014 and when it came out, the reviews of that were so funny. They were like, “The unanimously beloved of all time classic Wet Hot American Summer.”
I do wonder if the cast getting more famous through other projects helped the movie have a longer life. I mean, when Amy Poehler’s on SNL and all these other people are blowing up.
Of course! I mean, Elizabeth Banks and Bradley Cooper, this was their first ever job. That’s massive. I think people who love those actors look backwards and find this stuff. And I also just think it benefited big from not having been a hit. So there was a lot of proprietary feeling, like, I’m introducing this thing to you that only I know about.
With the reviewers, do you feel like they just didn’t get what you were trying to do? Or do you think that it was just such a new sensibility for people?
I think there’s a few things. One is that they couldn’t categorize it. Because it definitely wasn’t funny in the way that you would expect a summer camp movie to be funny, or any big comedy. And very deliberately. They were like, “There’s no jokes, what is going on?” And so just because it didn't fit into the mold, I think some reviewers just could not log on. And then I think for other people, it’s just not their thing, which is fine. There’s plenty of people who see it for the first time now who are just like, “I don’t get the hype, this is not funny.” It’s not designed to make everyone on Earth laugh and that’s fine. But I think what’s great about something like this is that for the people that it hits, it hits really hard.
What was the effect on your career, both in the immediate aftermath when it didn’t do well, and then as it started to pick up steam? It must have been a rollercoaster.
Yeah, it was bad. The short answer is it was bad. Which is to say after the movie came out. Michael Showalter and I together tried to mount a number of other projects. We were living in New York, but traveling to L.A. regularly to pitch and develop movies, TV shows. And we did so many things. And I remember once, in a moment of depression, listing them all out and counting 32 projects that were attempted and fizzled. One of which was They Came Together, which we developed at Universal in 2003 and it fell apart and then it took me 10 years of finagling to finally make that movie later. But it was a rough time. Basically between Wet Hot, which we shot in 2000 and finally the Stella series getting made in 2005, that was a very rough five years for me, financially, career wise, just trying to figure out what to do. The result on my career of having made Wet Hot during that time was there were some people in the industry that were big fans of it, but they did not feel like it could translate into anything helpful for them. And so we would get a meeting with some studio exec who was like, “Oh my god, this movie is so funny. Now, can you do something that’s nothing like this?”
They saw that it didn’t make money and that’s all they really care about.
Right. We would get hired or be in talks to write a script for something and they were like, “But wait a minute, are you going to make it like Wet Hot? I hope not!” And we’re like, “OK, we don’t have to…” But it was hard to even convince people we could. And then we actually had a company that was going to make They Came Together at one point around then, and we were locked and loaded, ready to shoot that in Toronto and then at the last minute, the producer saw Wet Hot American Summer and was like, “Oh my god, these guys have no idea what comedy is!” And the whole thing got shut down. So, yeah, it took a long time.
Next week on ‘The Last Laugh’ podcast: Stand-up comedian and host of HBO Max’s ‘FBoy Island,’ Nikki Glaser.