Rebooting beloved artifacts of pop culture—the entertainment trend of the moment—has become a fool’s errand. It’s to Netflix’s advantage, then, that Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp just happens to assemble Hollywood’s greatest and most talented fools.
As the old showbiz saying “Everything old is new again” begins to cannibalize itself—reboots, remakes, and reimaginations of old TV shows and movies have become so common they’re no longer creatively adventurous, but a tired trend—nostalgia-mandated resurrections of pop culture mainstays have begun to reliably trade rampant fan excitement for woeful disappointment.
There are the shows that fans’ enthusiasm brought back from the dead, like Arrested Development, that failed miserably at re-conjuring the magic of the original outing. There are cult staples like Veronica Mars that fans were so insistent come back for another go-round that they even invested in its revival on Kickstarter—literally putting their money where their mouths are—but then still ignored the movie when it hit theaters.
Then there are family-friendly classics like Boy Meets World and the upcoming Full House that are brought back to life by the adults that fondly remember watching while kids, but who then criticize the revival’s content for not aging with them. From 24 to Dallas to Knight Rider, there’s an entire graveyard of TV reboots that bombed critically, commercially, or both.
Yet, somehow, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, Netflix’s eight-episode prequel to the 2001 cult favorite film, works. But then again, the success of this particular reboot always seemed like a sure thing.
There’s the star-studded returning cast from the 2001 movie—a Who’s Who of comedy including Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, and Paul Rudd—and the original creative team once again calling the shots: David Wain and Michael Showalter.
And there’s the fact that Wet Hot American Summer is part of any pop culture conversation at all 14 years after its initial release, a kind of Hollywood miracle that’s bound to continue delivering its comedic blessings. Because, for all the hipster fondness and cool-movie-guy obsession for Wet Hot American Summer now, it was, as most cult favorites are, a total bomb when it first came out.
When it was released in 2001, it was being shown—at its peak—in a mere 12 theaters, earning just $295,000. That is not good! Not only were the likes of Poehler, Cooper, or Banks not box office draws at this point, but their mere presence in a film didn’t carry with them, as it does now, bonus points with critics—cutting some slack for bad material because of their movie star likability. Critics mostly reviled the film. (Roger Ebert’s one-star review is legendary, calling the movie “cinematic torture.”)
But despite operatic levels of failure, the film had several things going for it.
First and foremost was a universally relatable concept: the seize-the-day euphoria and sweaty, ridiculous drama of life in the last days of summer camp in 1981. The hormones, hilarity, and hijinks all served as perfect fodder for a cast of already-bonded young, energetic, and fresh-faced actors, most of whom had already worked together as members of the comedy troupe The State, or had roots doing improv at Upright Citizens Brigade.
Still, as silly as it was, and often impressive in terms of physical comedy and character work on the part of its stars, it wasn’t so much funny then as it is fun to quote now. (It’s certainly not the only film that this is the case for, right, fans of Anchorman? Or Zoolander?)
The film was as much a coming-of-age comedy in a canon of films about summer camp as it was a spoof of both genres, and there was something sort of refreshing and pleasing about the slapdash nature of it all: the go-big-or-go-home spirit of throwing various comedy bits at the wall to see which ones would stick. Many didn’t (Showalter’s turn as a Borscht Belt comedian). But many did (Janeane Garofalo reading the campers’ Jewish last names, or anything Rudd and Banks did).
The more you watched Wet Hot American Summer, the funnier the things that didn’t work so well became. (Maybe your college roommate insisted on a viewing, or you moved to Williamsburg and went on a date with that cute and aimless barista who was obsessed with it, or discovered the wonders of The State later in life and went on an obsessive journey through their other works.)
Molly Shannon’s teacher, who seeks relationship advice about men from young campers, is a good example of this. Or anything Christopher Meloni does as a PTSD-afflicted chef. And some things only became funny because the people in the scenes became so freaking famous. Would Bradley Cooper and Michael Ian Black’s gay sex scene be as legendary as it is now had Cooper not graduated to become a “serious” actor with three Oscar nominations?
But whereas fond memories of the original outing and what made it funny can lead to crushed hopes and dreams when a revival tries to live up to those memories and fails, it’s actually the memories of the original Wet Hot American Summer, its various bits, and our evolving relationship with them that make First Day of Camp work so well.
Watching First Day of Camp is like putting together the doofus-y, imbecilic, and therefore regressively hilarious puzzle pieces that make up the big set pieces in the first movie 14 years before. Puzzles, it turns out, are a great camp activity.
First Day of Camp opens with a title card specifying the date: June 24, 1981, 11 hours before the first day of camp. Knowing that date and then watching everything that the characters say, do, and fret over is all the more hilarious already knowing the events that will happen on the last day of camp just weeks later. (All of this is even more surreal considering the fact that the characters all look 14 years older in this “prequel” than they do in the movie, which takes place after the events in the show.)
It’s all very silly and slight and seems to be scrapped together haphazardly, which is fine because that’s all anyone who will tune in to First Day of Camp wants. That’s the luxury that this reboot has over other attempts at revivals: There is significantly less pressure to make something perfect, because there was never any pressure on Wet Hot American Summer in the first place.
The big feat here isn’t just wrangling the most in-demand actors in the world to revisit such a ludicrous pop culture enterprise. It’s the fact that these actors—who would go on to become Oscar nominees, some of SNL’s most influential cast members, star in blockbusters, and appear on countless magazine covers—could all reunite for a TV series and there be no other expectation than for it to be juvenile fun.
We’re not saying such juvenile fun was easy to accomplish. In fact, we think it was probably a near-impossible task for Wain, Showalter, and the cast to achieve. But the challenge pays off. First Day of Camp looks like it was a hoot to be a part of.
That’s probably why a guest cast that is arguably even more famous than the bold-faced names that appeared in the original gladly signed on to make cameos in the Netflix reboot. Kristen Wiig, Lake Bell, Jon Hamm, Josh Charles, John Slattery, and so many more are all on board for First Day of Camp, and fit in with the lunacy of Camp Firewood seamlessly.
Whether it’s this new crop or the original counselors, there is a bit of delirium in seeing these stars, now in their 40s, playing characters that are teenagers—and not even attempting to pull the wool over our eyes. (Showalter, for example, who famously dropped weight to believably play a teenager 14 years ago, did nothing of the sort this time around, to hilarious results.)
Basically, we’re watching the most famous comedic actors in the world goof around and barely contain their own laughter while they do it. Reboot or not, that’s television gold. And that’s the reason First Day of Camp is a success. It recaptures the spirit that explodes from 2001’s Wet Hot American Summer.
In 2001, there was the excitement of comedy’s most promising talents relishing the opportunity to be set loose and turn a summer camp into their own comedy playground. Now, that same excitement is there from those same people, but this time they’ve weathered the industry and as such are even more tickled about having the opportunity to do it all again—and they’re simultaneously embarrassed and giddy about how ridiculous they look while doing it. It’s a mirror to fans’ own disbelief and bliss over the fact that this is all happening again.
We’re all in this together—the stars, the creative team, the audience—and it’s a hilarious bonding experience. Just like camp.