When Wet Hot American Summer hit theaters in 2001, it seemed people either hated it or didn't even know what it was. But the absurdist comedy, from creators Michael Showalter and David Wain, managed to find a second life thanks to DVD, word of mouth and, oh yeah, the fact that the majority of its then-relatively unknown cast has become some of Hollywood's biggest stars over the past 14 years.
Now, Showalter, Wain, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks and the rest of the Camp Firewood staff are back for an eight-episode prequel series, First Day of Camp, premiering Friday on Netflix.
TVGuide.com spoke to Showalter about how Wet Hot went from box office bomb to one of the most anticipated shows of summer, what it was like to play 16 again and whether there will be more trips to Camp Firewood in our future.
When did you start noticing Wet Hot getting this cult following?
Showalter: I feel like it was a year or two after the movie kind of came and went in theaters. I guess it must have come out on DVD. And I started to hear about college campuses having Wet Hot screening parties or some kind of alternative-y movie theaters having midnight screenings. And you'd see people Facebooking pictures of themselves in Wet Hot costumes at Halloween, things like that. And then people stopping me on the street and just starting to get the sense that it had some kind of generational appeal, that it was connecting in a really deep way. And I've mentioned this before, but people would say it was kind of a litmus test for how they chose their friends and relationships. If you went on a date with somebody and they didn't like Wet Hot, it was kind of an indicator of whether or not you were compatible with that person.
Did that reaction and resurgence surprise you at all?
Showalter: I can't say it surprised me. It didn't not surprise me either. It was like, "Oh, that's cool." I guess I'm not very self-reflective in that way. Maybe a part of me didn't totally believe it, I would say.
Do you remember when you first started thinking about the idea to do some sort of sequel or prequel?
Showalter: We've kind of been talking about it in one way or another for a pretty long time. But we started getting very serious about it around the 10-year reunion of the movie.
Was the idea always to have the next iteration set on the first day of camp?
Showalter: No. There were many discussions of what it could be, including that it wasn't even in the summer. It was in the winter, which we thought was funny. But once we got to Netflix, we did decide that we wanted to do a prequel and that it would make the most sense to start it at the first day of camp.
Did you worry about the challenges of trying to get the whole cast back together?
Showalter: There were at the very, very earliest stage of thinking we wanted to do it. But we contacted the cast right away before we even approached Netflix and said, "This is something we're thinking of doing. Is this something you'd be interested in?"
Obviously, all of the new characters who are around during the first day of camp — including Jason Schwartzman, John Slattery and Lake Bell — aren't there by the last day of camp. So are these absences going to be explained on the show at all?
Showalter: Yes. But if I say more, then I'd be giving away some of the secrets, because there's a lot of big surprises in the show.
There are a lot of surprising backstories in the show. Was it fun for you to retcon all these characters?
Showalter: Yeah, totally. It's fun imagining who these people are and what these story lines are and where they came from and where they're going. That stuff is really, really fun.
Is there a certain character's backstory that's your personal favorite?
Showalter: I think it is no longer a secret that Elizabeth Banks' character is not who we think she is. And I think that's a story line that I really love, that she's an undercover reporter for a magazine not unlike Rolling Stone.
What was it like for you to slip back into playing Coop again?
Showalter: It was fun. Obviously, you know, Coop hasn't changed a bit. He looks exactly the same. He hasn't aged at all. But no, it was cool. It took me a couple of days to remember what the character of Coop is, what his personality is like. It did, at a certain point, click in a little bit. Oh, I kind of remember he's this very, very sort of unbelievably sincere-to-a-fault character. And once I remembered that it was really fun.
Who do you think had the easiest time or the most fun getting back into their character?
Showalter: It feels like everybody jumped back in. Paul Rudd and [Amy] Poehler. I think for everybody, these characters are really specific and really, for all of us, fun characters to play, whether it's Ken Marino's character Victor or Chris Meloniplaying the chef. I think for all of us, there's a little piece of us that we always remember these characters. They're big, cartoon-like characters and I think we all really enjoyed getting back into the costumes and the world and stuff.
What was it like the first time you saw everyone together back in costume?
Showalter: It was so crazy. It was very surreal. In a certain respect, it felt like no time had gone by, which was kind of weird. It was a total time warp. You know, 15 years goes by and all of the sudden there we were again. It was like no time had passed. It was pretty cool.
How did the vibe on set for the show compare to the vibe on set for the movie?
Showalter: It was similar in that it was really fun and loose. It was different in that we're all now older and have families and a lot of responsibilities. You know, when we did the original movie, we were young and single and had nowhere to go. So it was a slightly more professional atmosphere, I would say, but also really fun and a lot of camaraderie. Just not as much partying, basically.
There were a lot of great child campers in the movie. Did you find ways to bring them back?
Showalter: Oh, yes. The Indoor Kids have a great scene in the TV show.
What has been your favorite part of this experience?
Showalter: I think just revisiting this universe and being with these characters again and telling more stories about them. I have a lot of affection for the characters of Camp Firewood. As a writer and a creator, it's just been really, really fun to go back there and bring them back to life, so to speak.
Critics were really harsh on the movie when it premiered. Are you expecting a much different reaction this time around?
Showalter: There's already been a first wave of reviews and they've all been pretty good. So hopefully that trend will continue.
Why do you think the movie didn't connect very well when it first came out?
Showalter: I can only guess, you know. I don't know. I feel like part of it was an expectation of what people thought the movie was going to be versus what it was. ... I think people thought it was going to be a very conventional, raunchy teen comedy in the vein of American Pie or Revenge of the Nerds or what have you. The meta component I don't think was something people expected or necessarily understood. ... Taking those cultural touchstones and these other storytelling devices that we have ingrained in us and deconstructing them a little bit. I think that first wave of people who saw it didn't understand that's what we were doing, which was kind of disheartening to me. Because I would think a movie critic would be the one person who would understand that and be able to write about that. But it was quite the opposite. It was a visceral kind of like, "What is this? This is terrible. What do these kids think they're doing?"
Which was really a bummer because Wet Hot is a fun silly movie that I think celebrates freedom of expression. It's a positive movie. And so people who had such a negative reaction compounded a feeling of disenfranchisement. That's part of what the cult audience picked up on — it's that this movie actually has a really big spirit and a really big heart and very much the message of the movie is [to] be who you are. If you're a freak, be a freak. It's all good. That's kind of Gene's message with the fridge. And summer camp is that. Summer camp is about being who you really want to be and having that be accepted.
Would you be open to doing more in this universe?
Showalter: Oh yeah, absolutely. We love it.
Do you think you'd do it as a show again or as a movie?
Showalter: I think it would be cool to stay at Netflix and keep doing Wet Hot with Netflix. We've really had a good experience with them.
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp premieres Friday at 3 am ET /midnight PT on Netflix.