It’s kind of crazy that Netflix ever green-lit Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp, to begin with. The eight-episode mini-series acts as a prequel to the 2001 film Wet Hot American Summer: Last Day Of Camp which, after making squat at the box office, ended up becoming a minor cult classic thanks to a second life on DVD and Netflix. But even the movie’s most ardent fans probably never imagined anyone cared enough to justify rounding up the entire original cast for another trip to Camp Firewood. I am very glad that Netflix did, though, because we could really use more comedies like Wet Hot American Summer.
What sets First Day Of Camp apart from most comedies I’ve seen over the last decade or so is that it is completely contemptuous of its own plot. It’s the enjoyable kind of contempt; the series is not self-deprecating or nostalgic, but rather shares the same exaggerated lunacy that runs through the original movie. The original cast is willing, as ever, to make fun of themselves and lean into their idiosyncratic, hilariously obnoxious personalities on an even grander scale. Everyone is playing a teen while being 15 years older and fatter than they were the first time around, and that’s a big part of the fun.
The thing about a comedy that works in a narrative instead of relying on one is that it pledges no fealty to anything but jokes. Watch any Judd Apatow movie and you can imagine it chugging along just fine without the jokes. These are plot- and character-driven stories that focus more on telling a larger story than making you laugh at every turn; often the funny parts are just a nice bonus they run through the trailer in order to get you in the theater. But Michael Showalter and David Wain—the writing duo responsible for both the Wet Hot American Summer movie and mini-series—don’t seemed to be concerned with putting anything on screen unless its purpose is to make you chuckle. Wain and Showalter’s sense of humor is impossibly goofy, but always clever and never relies solely on the sort of pandering slapstick that goes hand-in-hand with being silly. This isn’t necessarily innovative angle for a pair of comedy writers to operate from, but it’s a remarkably refreshing one.
That’s how I felt while churning through all eight episodes of First Day Of Camp: refreshed. The total runtime of the series is a breezy four hours, and I could have easily watched them all in one sitting. That’s because Wain and Showalter did away with the things that so often slow comedies to a crawl, those interminable middle acts in which the audience is supposed to connect with the characters who are finally learning Lessons—manchild learns about friendship, manchild learns about love, manchild learns about adulthood—and the story’s arc begins to take shape. Instead they give things that could run the span of an entire episode three condensed minutes of knowing, tongue-in-cheek comedy. Entire backstories and spin-off scenes are introduced and resolved with a few quippy lines. Even the most trope-y storylines in First Day Of Camp don’t waste any time on anything that isn’t explicitly a joke.
This isn’t to say that First Day Of Camp is bereft of any overarching storyline. As a prequel, the action of the mini-series is beholden to the work that was already done setting up the movie, but Wain and Showalter make this condition liberating rather than constricting. A series that could have been a simple bridge from point A to point B is turned into a Rube Goldberg Machine thanks to the gleeful, defiant inclusion of as many new characters, weird vignettes, and cameos as possible. The gymnastics required to align the mini-series with the movie push the entire concept of a prequel to its absurdist limit, and it all works perfectly because, in the end, the plot doesn’t really matter at all.
The mini-series’ ethos is most neatly captured by the inclusion of Jon Hamm, who is brought on to participate in a subplot that adds up to nothing—no, really, his role in the show ends with him refusing to explain his nonsensical character arc to Janeane Garafolo—save for two or three well-executed gags. And that’s totally okay, because he, an otherwise scene-stealing star, was only thrown in for the fun of it. (Because, why not find a way for Jon Hamm to make a cameo?) This is the benefit of putting a comedy series in the hands of a group of writers and comedians who come from an improv background—Wain and Showalter are members of famed comedy troupe The State—a scene or character doesn’t necessarily have to make sense so long as it is funny.
There’s nothing wrong with comedies that treat its characters and plots more seriously, but I doubt I’m the only person in the world who’s felt a twinge of exhaustion while watching a trailer for the next Apatow-ian comedy that will be perfectly funny but also probably 30-40 minutes too long and probably just a little too self-serious. If you’ve ever felt this way, I’m here to tell you that Wet Hot American Summer will be your jam. All it wants is to make you laugh.
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