How famous did “Wet Hot American Summer” make Michael Showalter? Underwear famous.
Describing a recent attempt to return some Tommy John merchandise he ordered by accident, Showalter said that at the end of an email exchange with a customer service representative, “They wrote, ‘If by any chance you are the Michael Showalter from “Wet Hot American Summer,” I very much look forward to watching the new episodes on Netflix.’”
Even this much celebrity is more than Showalter and David Wain could have expected some two decades ago when they started to write “Wet Hot American Summer,” an absurdist period comedy about an ensemble of misfit counselors living it up on their last day of camp in 1981.
Despite its willful goofiness and a cast that included young talents such as Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks and Kansas City’s Paul Rudd, all soon-to-be stars, the film was a flop upon its 2001 release.
Fourteen years later, it has found a sufficient following — not just among undergarment makers, but a small though intensely loyal audience of comedy fans — to spawn a prequel series, subtitled “First Day of Camp,” which Netflix will release on Friday. The series accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of reuniting the film’s cast — those who achieved A-list status, those who once had it and those who never came near it.
But for Wain and Showalter, their return to “Wet Hot American Summer” is not just a chance to reconnect with friends and revisit an (eventually) beloved property. The making of the prequel was, like the creation of the original, a reminder of the perseverance and good fortune required to achieve even cult success and the need on such projects to claim victories where one can find them.
Recalling his frame of mind during the movie, Wain, who directed the film and the TV series, said, “Despite everything, if it just gets made and gets seen by those who care to see it, then we’ve won. And I still feel that way.”
Wain and Showalter were among the displaced members of the sketch comedy troupe the State who were looking for new projects after their MTV series ended in the mid-1990s. Though they tinkered with a script for a high school comedy, they gravitated to a satire of the summer camps they attended in the ’80s. (Showalter is an alumnus of Camp Mohawk in the Berkshires, while Wain went to Camp Modin in Maine.) “Everything feels so heightened,” Wain said of his experience. “You’re with your friends 24/7, and you’re away from home. It’s a real petri dish of activity.”
It took them three years to find independent financing for the movie, budgeted at $1.8 million, during which time, Wain said, “We had a lot of false starts and met a lot of colorful, shady characters.”
The casting process was easier, drawing in other members of the State (like Michael Ian Black, Ken Marino and Joe Lo Truglio), friends and fellow comics (Poehler, Zak Orth and Janeane Garofalo) and actors starting to make their marks (Rudd, Banks and Cooper).
The monthlong shoot, at Camp Towanda in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, seemed ill-fated — it rained nearly every day — but a kind of bonhomie prevailed.
“I was certainly drunk a lot,” Garofalo said. “I must have slipped and hit my head 8,000 times. I say that with no pride whatsoever. I don’t drink anymore.”
While the “Wet Hot” actors pitched in eagerly, several of them suspected it had little chance at reaching a wide audience. (Perhaps a comedy in which the counselors’ afternoon of off-campus escapades descends into heroin abuse was never meant for the multiplexes.) Black recalled, “I thought to myself, ‘This thing is going to absolutely tank at the box office — if it even gets that far.’” As his professional experiences had taught him to that point, he said: “You put things out. Nobody watches them. And then three years later, everybody tells you how much they loved them.”
Initially, “Wet Hot American Summer” followed that pattern when it opened in the same summer as “Rush Hour 2” and “Jurassic Park III.” According to boxofficemojo.com, the film sold $295,000 in tickets.
But in the years that followed, the movie found devotees, through the continued efforts of Showalter and Wain, who supported it at comedy film festivals and midnight screenings, and through DVD sales and on-demand services like Netflix.
It did not hurt that cast members like Poehler (“Parks and Recreation”) and Banks (“Pitch Perfect”) became sought-after comedy stars, while Cooper became an Academy Award nominee for “American Sniper,” “American Hustle” and “Silver Linings Playbook.”
For fellow actors who did not achieve that level of success, “It’s absolutely devastating,” Black deadpanned.
“Janeane at least was the zeitgeist for a minute,” he said with a laugh. “Can I just have that? Can I have my own ‘The Truth About Cats and Dogs’?” (Garofalo said that, since her Gen-X heyday, she found “a real knack” for making less successful, low-budget movies “where it’s like, ‘Can you bring some jeans from home?’”)
As a filmmaker, Wain has made hits like “Role Models” and misses like “Wanderlust” (both starred Rudd); on television, he is a producer and director of the Adult Swim satire “Childrens Hospital.” Showalter’s balance sheet as a writer and director includes the little-seen 2005 romantic comedy “The Baxter” (which he starred in) and the coming indie comedy-drama “Hello, My Name Is Doris.”
The desire to pursue any of these projects, Wain said, came from the satisfaction of doing them and not financial remuneration or showbiz glory. “If we based it in that,” he said, “I would be a very miserable person.”
Over these years, Wain and Showalter began to contemplate a follow-up to “Wet Hot American Summer” and floated the possibility in pitch meetings and interviews, particularly for their 2014 film “They Came Together,” a parody of romantic comedies that starred Rudd and Poehler. (Add that film to their shared loss column.) Privately, they were also reaching out to the “Wet Hot” cast members and asking if they would participate in a new project.
Describing the tone of these entreaties, Poehler said: “It was like, ‘It’s going to be kind of hectic. We’re trying to get everybody. We’re going to need all hands on deck.’” A turning point came last year when the still-embryonic sequel was picked up by Netflix, which gave Wain and Showalter an order of eight half-hour episodes, twice the storytelling time of a theatrical film.
Their decision to set the TV series on the first day of the camp season depicted in the original movie was intentionally silly —actors in their 40s would play younger versions of the characters they portrayed in 2001 — but also a sincere reflection on this adolescent rite of passage.
“This is your chance, your moment, to establish yourself as someone different than you are the other 10 months of the year,” Wain said.
The prequel structure, he added, meant the series could offer origin stories for characters “that nobody asked for,” from a sexpot played by Marisa Ryan to a talking can of vegetables voiced by Jon Benjamin.
It also required the TV series to provide plot lines for more than 20 returning characters — a mentally troubled chef played by Christopher Meloni; an associate professor of astrophysics played by David Hyde Pierce — plus many new roles played by Jon Hamm, Chris Pine and Lake Bell, among others.
And it required flexibility during a six-week shoot last winter at the Calamigos Ranch in Malibu, Calif., to accommodate the disparate scheduling demands of, say, Weird Al Yankovic and Cooper, who was doing Oscar promotion for “American Sniper” and starring in a Broadway production of “The Elephant Man.”
Some cast members said that other stars were on set for as little as one day and that green screen technology was sometimes used to make it appear as if two actors were in the same scene together.
Wain and Showalter declined to offer specific details, preferring to emphasize that all the actors found ways to participate despite their other commitments.
“Some people were there, definitely, more than others,” Showalter said. “I was there almost every day.”
Rudd, who reprises his role of a rebellious, self-obsessed counselor, said he was struck by the level of detail that went into recreating the set design and wardrobe of the original film, down to the bracelet and shell necklace his character wears.
“When I think back to the movie, I don’t think about those things,” he said. “And yet, putting on those things make it tangible in a way that even having scenes with Zak Orth doesn’t.”
Poehler said making the TV series brought everyone back to a humbler time. Recalling a scene from the TV show that required her and Cooper to dance in Raggedy Ann and Andy costumes, she said: “We had to learn these steps really quick, and he was doing it wrong. He was like, ‘I think we started too early.’ I was like, ‘No, dude, you started too early. You’re doing it wrong.’”
Showalter said he and Wain had no plans yet for a sequel to this prequel, “but it could be anything — it’s the characters that define it, as much as the setting.”
In the meantime, Garofalo said she hoped the TV series would be embraced more quickly than the movie. “I don’t have that long,” she said. “I’m 50. I don’t want to wait until I’m 65 to hear about it.”