Few things are more tedious than over-explaining a bit of goofy comedy in an attempt to analyze how it works and put it in some kind of wider pop-culture context. One of those few things is the self-important “Am I the only one?”-style takedown of something, as if it’s a crisis of cultural degradation just because other people like something that you don’t.
I’m going to do both anyway, since Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is really neat. I don’t just think it’s funnier than the movie, I think it’s a lot smarter and even retroactively makes the movie better. Plus I think it may be the best example so far of how Netflix is really doing stuff that “normal” television can’t.
So yeah, to get it out of the way: I’ve never liked the movie. This weekend is the first time I’ve been able to watch it in full, and it was only thinking of it as preparation for watching the series that I was able to finish it. I liked the general concept behind it. I liked what they were trying to do with a lot of it. Paul Rudd is so innately charismatic that it’s impossible for him not to be entertaining in anything. But every time I’ve tried to watch it in the past, I’ve just gotten bored and frustrated.
To me, it feels like it treats being in on the joke as a valid substitute for actually making jokes. It looks like it’s going to be an absurdist non-parody of 80s summer camp movies, like Airplane! and Top Secret! were for Irwin Allen and World War II movies — where parodying the “source” material isn’t the point so much as using it as a jumping-off point for an absurd gag. But it’s made by people who’ve already seen Airplane! countless times and heard the gags and one-liners repeated incessantly over twenty years, so that even that is over-familiar. As a result, the fact that they’re not making the joke you’d expect becomes part of the joke. Surely this can’t be humorous.
But it does work, sometimes. It’s pretty much the same tone as Childrens Hospital, and that show is occasionally brilliant. The problems are that even at fifteen minutes, the show can feel meandering as it struggles to land a joke; and because it’s so far removed from wanting to parody its source material, there’s not much of anything holding it together. Apply that to a feature-length movie, and the effect is that I really wanted to like it, but it just felt flat. It often seems as if the fact that we all know what’s supposed to happen in this scene makes up for the fact that nothing really does happen.
I enjoyed the hell out of First Day of Camp, though, and it’s pretty much exactly what I’d hoped the movie was going to be when I first heard the concept. This article by Andy Greenwald on Grantland covers a lot of what I like about it. He also articulates that preoccupation with being in on the joke, but he calls it “sitcomity” and is a lot more charitable towards it than I am. He might also have explained why the series works for me where the movie didn’t: I’m an unabashed fan of Arrested Development, and maybe that’s just a sign I need to have the high-concept-as-basis-for-lowbrow-humor spelled out for me explicitly.
But whatever reason, the high concept finally works for me. One of the implicit gags in the movie is that a bunch of actors in their mid-to-late 20s were playing teenagers alongside actual teenagers. Which on its own, especially when it’s presented without comment, is kind of funny. But when you’ve got the same actors in their 40s playing even younger versions of those characters, it’s hilarious. And then they take it a few steps farther, when Abby has her first period and becomes a woman, and when Lindsey goes undercover as a teenager at a summer camp even though she’s obviously in her mid 20s. (I actually respect even more that they’ve got Paul Rudd right there, and they still don’t even bother with the “he looks younger than he really is” joke).
Most of the “structure” of the series is built off that basic idea: paying off on jokes they started 15 years ago. Which makes it kind of a masterpiece of comic timing. Stuff that feels like it was probably the result of a random comment after a bong hit in the late 90s is now given an overly elaborate backstory and justification. Stuff that felt like a throwaway gag in the movie, or a desperate attempt to come up with a punchline for a scene, is stretched out and forced into the shape of an actual character arc. Even stuff that would’ve just been fanservice references to the movie (e.g. “Jim Stansel”) gets turned into sub-plot. It actually made me nostalgic for a movie that I didn’t even like all that much.
Plus, it looked like a ton of fun to make. They didn’t just get (as far as I can tell) every adult member of the original cast to come back, but they added what seems to be every single actor working in comedy (and/or Mad Men) today. The movie’s gotten a reputation over the years for being the first film for a lot of people who went on to become super-famous, so “he‘s in this, too?!” becomes itself a sort of call-back. I got the sense from the movie that it might’ve been more fun to make than it was for me to watch, but the series feels like they’re letting me in on the fun.
And the last thing that impressed me was how well it was structured as a series. I read a comment online from someone saying it was basically just a four-hour movie, but I don’t agree. All of the series that I’ve seen on Netflix and other streaming services have been too beholden to either broadcast TV or movies: either they’re structured exactly like a series that was intended to broadcast one episode per week, so binge-watching really does feel like an overload; or they’re structured like super-long movies somewhat arbitrarily broken into hour-long segments. First Day of Camp is the first I’ve seen that actually uses it as a storytelling device instead of just an artifact of distribution. That familiarity with how episodic television works becomes part of why the story’s engaging (which is part of what Greenwald’s “sitcomity.”)
The whole style of the series (and the movie, and every one of David Wain and Michael Showalter’s other projects that I’ve seen) is “punchline-averse.” It often seems as if they think the traditional structure of setup and punchline is such an obvious crutch that they’ll do anything they possibly can to avoid it. Including stretching a scene out for minutes by having the characters draw attention the fact that they’re not delivering a punchline (like with The Falcon’s final scene, or the embarrassed teenager having to stand through a price check on everything except the condoms and lube). It can sometimes feel 1990s-style reactionary: we’ll comment on how tired and overused this thing is, without really putting anything in its place.
But each episode of First Day of Camp has a cliffhanger ending, a cold open, or both. They force the scenes to end on a big moment, and even in something that’s deliberately and self-consciously not meant to be taken at all seriously, it’s exactly what’s needed. For one thing, it just helps the pacing: scenes can still have funny moments piled on top of each other and veering off in different directions, but it doesn’t feel like the whole thing is just meandering while waiting for something hilariously funny to happen. (Plus the pacing is just better overall: possibly my favorite gag in the entire series is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot to a sheet of paper on which someone has written “(PHONE) NUMBER”).
More than that, though, it feels constructive instead of dismissive and reactionary. It acknowledges that you don’t have to be genuinely, deeply invested in the dramatic developments of an intricately-constructed plot, but you can still be curious to know what happens next. And that, plus everything inherent to the concept of making a prequel to something you’ve already seen, meant that I did get invested. How were they going to take this ridiculous concept and pay it off? How would they get rid of this character who clearly wasn’t around by the time of the movie? How would they explain this setup that was directly contradicted later on? It doesn’t have to be meaningful or profound, or even make sense at all, for it to be satisfying to see how all the pieces fit together. It doesn’t have to be High Art, just basic storytelling.
Of course it’s possible for something to be so obsessed with working on an intellectual level that it’s not funny or interesting (see: this blog post). But you can also go the opposite direction, so averse to pretense and protective of being-stupid-for-stupid’s-sake that it just falls apart. For me, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp was just smart enough to be hilariously stupid.