Welcome to Nick Picks, a regular column by Nick Spake. There are countless important questions regarding the current state of cinema and I’m here to answer them.
When Wet Hot American Summer came out in 2001, it bombed at the box office and bombed even harder with critics. A decade and a half later, the comedy has accumulated a huge cult following and Netflix even recently released a prequel series. Part of the film’s newfound success can be attributed to its ensemble. Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Bradley Cooper, and Amy Poehler have all gotten a lot more famous since the film’s initial release. The cast aside, however, it’s possible that Wet Hot American Summer had an even bigger impact on comedy than we realize.
Animal House, Porky’s, and various other R-rated comedies from the 70’s and 80’s largely influenced When Wet Hot American Summer. This might not sound like anything original or special, especially considering that this genre was already starting to see a revival with American Pie. When Wet Hot American Summer wasn’t exactly a parody, homage, or rip-off of classic teen/college comedies, though. It also wasn’t really obvious with its humor and references like Scary Movie, Not Another Teen Movie, or the other spoofs we were getting at the time. The film just kind of existed in it’s own little bizarre world governed by random occurrences.
Much of the humor derives from playing with the audience’s expectations. For example, there’s a scene where it looks like a group of underdogs are going to challenge a rival baseball team for the championship. Instead, they just surrender before the other team even gets off the bus. Perhaps the funniest moment occurs towards the end when it appears the awkward Coop is finally going to win over his crush, Katie. Instead, Katie tells Coop that she’s sticking with her jerky boyfriend because she’s sixteen and only cares about sex.
Where some jokes poke fun at familiar tropes, others jokes come out of absolutely nowhere. The climax of the movie involves one student demonstrating his physic abilities to conjure wind at a talent show while a group of nerds develop a device to stop a piece of NASA’s Skylab from killing everyone. Um…what?! How did a movie about a summer camp work up to such an insane final act? We don’t know, but it’s hard not to laugh at this ridiculous turn of events.
In the years following Wet Hot American Summer, we would get a ton of original content on Adult Swim and YouTube with this same unpredictable, nonsensical humor. Shows like Aqua Teen Hunger Force created universes that were basically free of logic and story structure. Any random thing could happen as long as it was hilarious. Although such comedy can be hit and miss, there is definitely a massive audience for it now. This brand of humor has even evolved with shows like Adventure Time and Louie, which are both funny and weird, but also strike a strong emotional cord and provide wisdom.
Wet Hot American Summer might not have been the exact origin point of this type of comedy. As a matter of fact, you could argue that off-the-wall humor already exited decades ago with Monty Python, which could be silly and ingenious simultaneously. Given the large boom of surreal comedy we’ve been seeing as of late, though, Wet Hot American Summer was ahead of its time in many respects and arguably helped get the ball rolling. Perhaps this is the real reason people are finally starting to appreciate it and why the franchise is celebrating a second life.