November 12, 2019

A-List stars return for ‘Wet Hot’ prequel

If you’re reading this, you probably already know some “camp people” — people who talk about camp in superlatives, elevating camp memories to the level of scripture: The time one camper convinced another that she was singing on a cassette tape, when it was really Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner.” That other time when a particularly clueless Israeli staff member was left behind at a rest stop during a field trip. Two campers who started calling a third “Raoul,” “Duke” or “Marcia” after randomly deciding she might have multiple personality disorder. 

No doubt about it — camp is also super-weird.

Camp alumni remember those days as a mix of adolescent awkwardness, obsession with camp activities, peer pressure, friendship and (especially for the boys) fart jokes. This essential DNA of summer camp is also the twisted helix of “Wet Hot American Summer,” a 2001 film that plunged deep into the strange, identity-forging and utterly unforgettable last day of the fictional Camp Firewood. 

Just like some of the awkward campers who blossomed over the years, “Wet Hot American Summer,” or “WHAS,” started out slow but eventually found its footing as a cult comedy. And thanks to Netflix, “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp,” a season of eight prequel episodes, launches this weekend.

The “WHAS” head counselor (or in Hollywood language, writer-director) is David Wain, known for collaborations with Michael Showalter (Wain’s co-writer and co-creator on the Netflix series) and Michael Ian Black, both of whom appeared in the film and are back for the prequel series.

The original film featured a stellar cast of actors who were relatively unknown in 2001. Today, though, Paul Rudd is Ant-Man, Bradley Cooper is a multiple-time Oscar nominee, Amy Poehler is a powerhouse, Elizabeth Banks is a director, the list goes on. To interest this star-studded a cast in a reunion project might have seemed impossible, but Wain, who lived in New York for 26 years and moved to Los Angeles two years ago, had been setting the stage for a potential “WHAS” revisit for years in small ways. 

“I’d run into people and say, ‘Someday we’re going to do a prequel,’ ” he said in a phone interview. “When we made the determination that we want to do it as a series on Netflix, we called everyone and everyone said yes.”

The prequel episodes also incorporate some new characters, including Lake Bell as a girl who has just come back from Israel, Jon Hamm as a government assassin, and Wain as an exotic and ludicrously tan Israeli counselor. 

“An Israeli counselor seemed like an obvious important thing to add to the mix,” Wain said. “It was such a memorable part of my camp experience, drawing a specific type of person who didn’t necessarily want to be there but got a deal to travel in the U.S. if they worked at camp.” 

Wain tapped into his camp memories to play the role. “There was a specific brand of arrogance that I always remembered — I channeled that accent and attitude.” 

Hebrew-speaking “WHAS” fans might have seen a hint of Wain’s new role in the trailer; in listing “FDOC’s” stars, the last one is in Hebrew — “v’gam [also] David Wain.” 

“I would love to say that I had anything to do with it, but Netflix people came up with the entire trailer themselves,” Wain said. “It’s the first time in my experience where they showed me the trailer and I said, ‘That’s great; no notes.’ That’s what you want when you’re working with a studio — it makes a difference.” 

Wain admits that the inspiration came from his and Showalter’s experiences in summer camps — for Wain it was Camp Modin in Maine and Camp Wise in Ohio. 

“It was easily my most positive and lasting Jewish experience,” Wain said of camp. “My favorite things about being Jewish were the way they celebrated Shabbat at camp, that they set off one day in a different way. Midday Friday, people start to take a shower for the first time in a week, then we had dinner and singing; it was more relaxed, everyone was together. It was cool to have that and a beautiful Havdalah service under the stars. That’s the kind of Jewish thing that I relate to. I don’t think I experienced that in any other part of my life.” 

Fans will be happy to revisit the wacky reality of Camp Firewood, and get the “origin stories” for most characters, answering questions we didn’t even know we had: How did Gene (Christopher Meloni) become the deranged camp cook? How do Andy (Rudd) and Katie (Marguerite Moreau) get together? What kind of connection do Susie (Poehler) and Ben (Cooper) really have? Will Coop (Showalter) ever find true love? And why is Lindsay (Banks) even there? 

Thanks to Netflix and this TV binging cultural moment, newbies and superfans alike can watch the film and the series back-to-back — all told, this journey through the Camp Firewood canon should take about seven hours. 

The prequel provides plenty of opportunities to misdirect viewer expectations and to subvert and play within the clichés of movies — a cataclysmic event threatens to destroy everything; a cabin in the woods hides a secret; a boy likes a girl but is afraid to tell her. But throughout, the writers call our attention to the absurdity of it all, reminding us repeatedly that most characters — even the counselors — are supposed to be 16 years old (even though most of the actors were in their 30s the first time around). The timeline — with the movie and the episodes each representing a solitary day — is also outrageous, and yet resonant for those who know that in camp, a single day can be a lifetime. 

Fans of other off-kilter comedies that were resurrected for Netflix will remember the disappointment of “Arrested Development’s” fourth season; the producers took a risk with an inventive approach different from that which fans had come to love, spending each episode focusing on one character’s perspective, and the result wasn’t what the fans had hoped for. Based on the six episodes available to the media for prescreening viewed by this writer, the new “WHAS” series has taken great care to weave together several stories in each episode, creating an overall narrative arc that is more linear than that of “Arrested Development.” The episodes can certainly be seen as individual episodes, but the action progresses like a film with occasional breaks. 

Will this be the last we’ll see of Camp Firewood? As we all know from our camp experiences, a lot can happen between the first and last day of summer, setting the stage for future installments. So will there be a “WHAS: Color War” or “WHAS: Visiting Day”?

“If this goes well,” Wain said, “it’s possible.”