Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp Review

Please forgive me Lord for I have committed a mortal peccadillo. For my transgression, I’ve repented and said ten “hail marys”. My sin, for which I am eternally condemned, was that I had never seen the cult classic Wet Hot American Summer until this weekend in preparation for the prequel series First Day of Camp. I was fully cognizant of the reputation but I hadn’t experienced it before. The verdict?

While it is clearly a faithful parody of raunchy sex comedies on a shoestring budget like Meatballs and other aestival films, it is sketchy and only a sporadically funny one-joke premise. Paul Rudd is hilarious as he groans in a petulant manner when a counselor asks him to clean up his cafeteria mess. The Bad News Bears subplot about the underdog sports team almost clashing with Camp Tiger Claw is also a side-splitting lampooning. On the other hand, the shorthand of chewing-gum as a preamble before making out, Amy Poehler’s theater auteur and Molly Shannon’s lovelorn arts-and-crafts teacher’s shtick with her emotionally intuitive students, are awfully thin, gossamer material to pivot upon.

Now the reunion has been released on Netflix with all the original cast members back for the 8-episode run. It’s a common practice for people in their 20’s and 30’s to play teenagers. Now the ensemble is in their 40’s which is the overriding in-joke. Given my non-predilection for the overhyped 2001 film, how does the limited-time resurgence fare?

The film was an uneven, kitchen-sink spoof that satirized sitcoms, training montages, climactic talent shows and 50’s science-fiction-panic pictures (the Devil’s Canyon Rapids sequence). It mocked Richard Linklater, Ivan Reitman and even Zucker Bros. absurdist humor. For the show, David Wain and Michael Showalter have whittled their scalpel to a fine point. For instance, I found Christopher Meloni’s deranged chef Gene Jenkinson to be pointless in the 2001, but his sleeper-cell backstory is mandatory to the facetious surroundings now.

Although I don’t have an affinity for the earlier film, it is surreal and nostalgic to see the cast back together (especially superstars like Rudd and Bradley Cooper). The passage-of-time jokes with Zak Orth’s overt wig and Michael Showalter’s obesity are amusing seams. Ken Marino is still ideal casting for the obnoxiously sex-starved virgin Victor.

Considering the slice-of-life nature of the property, the episode structure is more apposite for Camp Firewood. The volume of characters can navigate their witty arcs in unhurried snippets such as Andy’s (Paul Rudd) infatuation with Katie (Marguerite Moreau), toxic waste disposal near camp and Lindsay’s (Elizabeth Banks) Never Been Kissed undercover assignment for Rock & Rock World Magazine as a camouflaged 16-year-old. New additions like John Slattery, John Hamm, Jason Schwartzman and Josh Charles acquit themselves well among the addlepated zaniness.

The percentage of hitting the burlesque target is much higher in this. A barbed jab at Tootsie-esque drag farce with Cooperberg (Showalter) as a Patty whose fetish is defecating in swimming trunks is a prime recreation. Likewise with the popped-collared William Zabka snobs at Tiger Claw who are elitists from across the lake.

The euphoric energy of the cast, the subtle skewering of outdoor-recreation cliches (during a spooky campfire tale about Eric (Chris Pine), Banks conspicuously transcribes on a typewriter), volcanically funny nonsequitirs (The Falcon’s (Hamm) blithe holocaust of rebel punks) and splurged production values contribute to an appreciably funnier, richer, weirder experience. I feel honored to be included within the throngs of fans of this off-kilter spin-off.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5

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