“I believe this movie will be the Caddyshack of the new millennium,” Janeane Garofalo said sanguinely on the set of Wet Hot American Summer. Spoiler alert: it was not.
Although it is now beloved by many, Wet Hot American Summer was not well received at the time of its release. “Wow, I hate it.” Roger Ebert quipped bluntly in his review. Shawn Levy at The Oregonian wrote that it was “by far the worst movie of the year,” and Washington Post critic Stephen Hunter lamented, “it was so depressing I almost started to cry.”
Fans of the film know it’s intentionally, overwhelmingly silly, but the absurdist humor did not play well with critics. Despite selling out four screenings at Sundance in 2001, Wet Hot American Summer received abhorrent reviews and was a commercial bust, grossing just below $300,000 on an estimated $1,800,000 budget.
While it seemed like it would die with that failed release, Wet Hot American Summer has now successfully secured its place in the cult movie hall of fame. This longevity is due at least in part to the long-lasting friendships that developed on set between the now-mega famous actors. The closeness of the cast motivated them through some hiccups in production and gave the more ridiculous aspects of this movie an element of surprising sincerity
The first of its many obstacles was finding the money to produce Wet Hot American Summer. Despite coming off another cult favorite, the MTV sketch comedy show The State, the movie’s writers, David Wain and Michael Showalter, were still relative newcomers. It took over three years to secure funding, and it wasn’t until a few big-name actors, such as Garofalo and David Hyde Pierce, came aboard that financiers saw potential in the film.
The rest of the iconic cast was made up of a lot of Wain and Showalter’s castmates from The State, including Michael Ian Black, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, plus other well-known actors, such as Paul Rudd, Christopher Meloni, and Molly Shannon, and rising stars like Bradley Cooper and Amy Poehler.
Once the primary cast arrived on location at Camp Towanda, things immediately started to go wrong. “We thought perhaps shooting a movie on a low budget like this, we could sort of count on a little bit of luck, and that luck we were counting on was that it wouldn’t rain every fucking day for the entire shoot,” Wain chuckles in Hurricane of Fun: The Making of Wet Hot, a 2015 documentary chronicling the difficulties the production faced. “It’s a movie about summer camp and summer, but it’s really much more a rainy, freezing, awful winter.”
With harsh weather completely changing the landscape of an ordinarily idyllic campsite, Wet Hot American Summer had the potential to fall apart entirely during the shoot. But instead of letting the elements negatively impact their experiences, the cast took it as an opportunity to bond. Rain, mud, and freezing temperatures in May? The only thing to do was to hunker down in the bunks and “drink beer and run lines,” as Marino so aptly puts it.
“[The rain] made people bond. It physically made us have to sit together and be in the same room and be close,” Poehler describes her first film experience. “We’re all at camp with no rules, but now we’re all in our thirties, so we really know how to party.” And party they did; they drank a lot, stayed up late, and even set off fireworks on the beach volleyball court, much to the camp director’s chagrin.
The cast took it as a chance to connect and get to know each other’s comedy styles. Living in close quarters in the bunks for a month gave them ample time to hone the absurd script into something unique and hilarious. Part of the film’s popularity can be attributed to its many bizarre moments and quotability: think of the tongue-heavy near-constant making out, the innocent trip to town that ends in a heroin den, and the inspirational talking can of vegetables. The most endearing part of the film’s charm is knowing that the friendships playing out on screen, which feel wholly sincere, are the result of off-screen bonding.
Additionally, the fact that the cast is comprised of so many stars who are now household names may explain why the film found its footing with a new generation. Audiences are drawn to the kind of movie where they can see their favorite actors in early, unexpected roles. Take Cooper, whose role in Wet Hot American Summer was his first on the big screen. “The sense of friendship you see on screen is all real,” he said of the film as a young, enthusiastic newcomer. Now a seven-time Oscar nominee, it’s a treat for fans of the film to watch his breakout performance. Cooper even skipped his graduation from The Actor’s Studio in New York to go up to camp. (This is the moment one might say… a star was born?)
When the film finally wrapped, after suffering through 23 days of rain out of a 28-day shoot, everyone involved was hesitantly hopeful for its release. They all felt that they were a part of something special, even if they couldn’t quite see the scope of it yet. Unfortunately, the film was a bust when it first came out, but Wet Hot American Summer eventually found its audience. It began amassing a small yet passionate fanbase through midnight shows and screenings on college campuses, where fans often dressed up as the degenerate camp counselors, short shorts and all.
Older critics may not have fully understood what the film was trying to do, but it resonated deeply with younger audiences. As more and more people began to see it, Wet Hot American Summer began its transition into an underground favorite that still garners new fans today. With a whole generation of diehard fans further solidified by the resurrection of Camp Firewood through two follow-up Netflix series (one a sequel, the other a prequel), Wet Hot American Summer has overcome the odds to become the cult classic that it was always destined to be.