High Camp: WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER and the Seriousness of Irony

WHAS

I first encountered Wet Hot American Summer in a fashion typical of the time—someone had a DVD in college, so we gathered around the collective bonfire of the glowing television, drank beer, and watched it. I came across Super Troopers this way; a halcyon time when “file-sharing” necessitated actually procuring a document to pass along. The movie had already been out for a few years by that point in my life, but the satire, irony, and postmodern elements each seemed to resonate as I watched the preposterous narrative unfold. In this memory I recalled another, a decade previous, watching with dead-seriousness a whole slew of camp-related hijinks movies on VHS. At the time, without any actual experience of camp with its forced fun, extreme heat, and suffocating mosquito population, a sense of what was possible in a “summer camp” was on full 1980’s display.

The term, and these “summer camp movies” in their original form, represented aspirational movie-watching for a young boy, a wish-fulfillment saga geared towards the future: of long nights spent sneaking beers and necking in the woods; of hearts won and lost; and a denouement towards a school year that felt already too close, to0 real, from the waning days of July. All these memories are important to me. For the first time, in most young people’s life that is often dictated by control and stripping of agency, I felt that someone, somewhere, was just l-i-v-i-n, and they always seemed to be at Summer Camp. Pure escapism made “true” from a TV screen. Life would be best if one could just leave and head towards a cabin by a lake.

Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp came out on July 31 on Netflix, and it essentially does exactly what the original movie did but in a series form. The usual camp-movie elements are there—the Nice Guy, The Jock, The Jerk, The Nice Girl, The Overly Horny Guy/Girl, and the never-ending quest towards love, or in most cases, sex. The driving element of the plot, of toxic waste spilt around the edges of the camp, fuels the narrative but often feels less important as the relationships of each individual character. All of the usual “camp-movie” elements are here, but what WHAS: FDoC does masterfully is play on our own memory, lightly making fun of the viewer while at the same time taking the form very, very seriously.

Self-reference aside, First Day of Camp takes itself very seriously as a convention of the genre, and only through our own knowledge and reference to other works is comedy able to be mined. A particularly astute (and funny) scene comments how packages/gifts on Television are always wrapped in that weird, top is wrapped and placed on the bottom wrapped box, a form never utilized in the real world. A character quietly mutters, “It helps makes opening easier for multiple takes.” This is the type of comedic stuff we are dealing with here—if everyone is crazy, isn’t nobody? The series is low stakes irony and postmodern comedy at its best.

WHAS-6310.CR2

The original placed a huge ensemble together, a cast of relative unknowns working together to make comedy. Many now are outright megawatt Capital-S Stars in their own right (Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd to name a few), and the ensemble coming together to make a series, based on a little known and after-the-fact watched movie, seems downright impossible. Supported by Jon Hamm and John Slattery from Mad Men fame and a host of other performers I’d like to save for your viewing pleasure, the cast features numerous cameos in addition to a sprawling cast. The show typifies Netflix’s Arrested Development-esque strategy towards reinvigorating fan passion pieces—throw as many ingredients in the soup as possible, and don’t worry if it tastes good.

But!

There’s a lot to like here, volumes in fact, and if you enjoyed the movie’s sense of farce, of irony, of in-jokes and callbacks, then The First Day of Camp is for you. Don’t expect a joke a minute, nor any real moments of pure hilarity. Rather, a steady stream of comedy flows, ready to kayak upon while you and your bunkmates talk about who’s the cutest. This isn’t necessarily a problem, per se. Binge-watching the scant eight episodes is the best strategy here, and the binge-watching ethos can plaster over a lower quality show’s flaws (I see you too, Walking Dead), and propel them into my regular viewing schedule. Watching almost any show, even a bad one, seems more palatable en masse. Narrative, and comedy in this instance, flows more easily—sins of pace and characterization more readily forgiven. FDoC is an easy four-hour stretch of silliness with a surprising amount of heart.

WHAS Paul Rudd

I found myself feeling oddly satisfied from this series, as if my diet consisted mainly of Doritos and Dr. Pepper without the subsequent indigestion. As the last frame rolled, I felt wistful. For some reason, this nonsense got me. It called back to long forgotten days of youth, days bursting with possibility, when the biggest problem in my life seemed to be the waning summer and impending school year. By offering nostalgia wrapped in irony, the series felt bittersweet in the truest sense of both parts of the word. I was transported back in Time, no small feat from a series predicated upon making fun of the very genre it is representing. My “adult” sensibilities were being taken advantage of for comedic effect, and it felt good to laugh at my childhood memories while at the same time reliving them. Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is serious and stupid; silly and nostalgic. While watching, I was able to be at once both aspirational child and wizened adult. Peter Pan grew up, bought a modest home in the suburbs, married, two kids. He drives a mid-size, gas-conscious SUV and works as a project manager. But every now and then he longed for Neverland, and every once in a while, remembered how to fly.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Daly Planet on Patreon!