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Q&A: ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ creators talk about their days ‘at camp’ during filming

Michael Showalter and David Wain, creators of ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’

Michael Showalter and David Wain are shown at the world premiere of their Netflix series “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp” on July 22 in New York.

(Dave Allocca / StarPix)

To the delight of comedy nerds the world over, “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp” -- the eight-episode revival of the 2001 cult favorite starring Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler and Elizabeth Banks -- premiered Friday on Netflix. 

As recalled to The Times by cast members and co-writers Michael Showalter and David Wain (the latter of whom also directed), the making of the original film was an arduous but rewarding experience (made more enjoyable by copious amounts of Jack Daniels). But the movie’s blink-and-you-miss-it theatrical release and bruising critical reception was decidedly less pleasant.

Below are additional excerpts from The Times’ conversation with Wain and Showalter, in which the comedians discuss their comedy influences, their formative days with “The State” and their take on the brutal critical reaction to "Wet Hot American Summer." 

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You’ve been making comedy together for a long time. How did your collaboration begin?

Showalter: We met through the sketch comedy world at NYU as undergraduates in 1988. David was a sketch comedy group at the time called the Sterile Yak. I was in a sketch comedy group that was short of an offshoot called the New Group. it eventually became The State. Most of the members of The State were in the New Group when we were all freshmen in college. 

Wain: We all were compadres in terms of liking a lot of the same things and feeling like we thought each other were funny. Michael and I particularly bonded during my junior year in college when I did a visiting semester at Brown where he was at the time. I remember driving back and forth from Providence to New York to do shows  with our sketch groups and quizzing each other on “Saturday Night Live” trivia and talking about comedy.

You wound up with a show on MTV for a while. What made your comedy different?

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Showalter:  When we did “The State,” you could still kind of draw a straight line through the sketch comedy troupes that had existed throughout history. You could look at Monty Python, “Saturday Night Live,” “Kids in the Hall” and then “The State.”  Now that the Internet has given this great platform for everybody, it seems like sketch comedy has become a much bigger thing but at the time, being a sketch comedy group wasn’t nearly as normal. Just being a sketch comedy troupe alone was kind of a big deal. 

Wain: Also, we were not part of any scene like Second City or Groundlings. And so I think a lot of what we learned we just learned from each other. So I think that resulted in a specific voice that was different.

Showalter: We were all truly Gen X kids. We were all in our early 20s in the ‘90s and had grown up very much as part of that culture. And so I think our voice was uniquely in that demographic.

Wain: And yet somehow I’m still in my 20s. 

Showalter: And I just turned 35. I do think the big thing that was different about us, compared to, say, “SNL,” we were more like absurdist and silly, our influences were very much like Monty Python, early Steve Martin, early Woody Allen. British humor. We were not as satirical or as topical as, for example, “SNL.” Our sensibility was very much towards the silly and the absurd.

Wain: Also, half of us were at film school and so we had a more cinematic sense, we were always, long before YouTube, doing these short videos a lot  We were also from day one interested in keeping things tight and punchy and structured, maybe more than others would have done.

So how’d you get from “The State” to “Wet Hot American Summer”? 

Wain: In the late ‘90s, after we left MTV, there was a series of events involving an ill-fated attempt to move to CBS and a bunch of other things that led to The State becoming more inactive although technically we never broke up and we still work together in various configurations. We all started thinking about what to do after having spent quite a few years pretty much doing nothing but The State. Among other things, Michael and I just started thinking about movies and writing screenplays.

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Showalter: We had written this other movie. Then David and I started writing another script, kind of a bigger, more ambitious idea. We finished a draft of it and in between that script and doing the rewrite of that other script we were like, let’s just write this summer camp thing.

Wain: We initially conceived it as something that we write and shoot incredibly quickly because it was all outside during the day and we could just cast our friends. A part of the inspiration was our friend Sam Seder had just made this movie “Who’s the Caboose?” He was working just from an outline and he got his funny friends to come and improvise the scenes. “Wet Hot American Summer” eventually turned out to be nothing like that process at all. It evolved into a traditional screenplay that we ended up working on for three long years while we were trying to find financing and having a lot of false starts with that. 

Did you think of “Wet Hot American Summer” as a parody?

Wain: With "The State” and “Wet Hot American Summer," we leaned a lot towards genre parody or spoofing the tools of storytelling itself more than specific television shows or movies. 

It was really sourced in the experiences that Michael and I had at our respective summer camps, and not so much camp movies. When people refer to “Wet Hot” as a spoof of ‘80s summer camp movies, that wasn’t at all how we thought of it. It’s certainly not to me the kind of movie where it’s like, “here’s this reference to this movie."  I don’t even think of it as a spoof movie at all, really.

It took a while to get it made. What was the delay? 

Wain: It was a time in New York City when there was a booming indie film movement. There were a lot of characters that were wanting to get into the business and pretending to have access to money but it was never as straightforward as they made it out to be. It wasn’t a simple genre template that people could understand enough to be like yes, let’s finance it. Mainly we were trying to capitalize that we had Janeane Garofalo attached. That was our main draw. Then somewhere in there we got Paul Rudd involved.

What kind of challenges did you deal with on set? 

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Wain: It was not only my first feature, it was really one of the first times I’d ever worked with a crew. Most of what I had directed for “The State" before that, it was me with a camera on my shoulder. I was definitely nervous and intimidated as a director. Then of course we had the classic issues that any low-budget independent film has in terms of trying to cut corners. Then we had the extra surprise element that shooting in the spring in Pennsylvania was unexpectedly extremely cold and pouring rain nearly every day.

It was the first of a lifelong mixed feeling about the job of being a director. I remember thinking wow, this feels right that I’m doing this but also like, wow, this is hard. It’s challenging physically, it’s challenging just to stay alert and to juggle so many things in your brain. And added on to that, the daily challenge of like OK, yet again, it’s pouring rain, the camp is covered in mud. This is all supposed to take place on sunny single day in August. Which scene can we move inside? Which scene can we pretend it’s not raining and hope it doesn’t show up on film?

But it also sounds like it was a pretty fun time for everyone.

Showalter: We were really kind of at camp for 6 weeks. It was pretty crazy. we were all still in our 20s or early 30s, making a movie for the first time, staying at summer camp.

Wain: The line between being at camp and making a movie about camp was very gray and we were all living in the camp bunks. I think somehow the constant rain almost bonded us even more. But certainly the fact that we were all away from home, most of us were single, it was a crazy time. Many of us, both cast and crew, were working on our first feature. There was a level of excitement that permeated for everybody.

Showalter: There was a total disconnect between the kind of movie we thought we’d made and the way that it was being received. One of the things that David and I really find funny and is in all the stuff that we’ve done together is this certain kind of stilted dialogue that is overly scripted, borderline-bad, and to me it’s really funny. And the reviews would be like, “God, this movie has such bad dialogue.” Like, OK, you don’t get it. You don’t understand what we’re doing. That’s what I took away from it -- this feeling of this isolation from the audience.

Wain: Maybe I’m rewriting it in my brain, but I certainly feel now like, if you didn’t get it, you didn’t get it, it’s OK. I can’t tell you you should have laughed at something if you didn’t laugh at it. I know that from the get-go that a lot of people totally got it and loved it. That was enough for me, to have this small group of people who really loved it.

Showalter: There was a small contingent of people that got it and loved it, and the larger audience was like, this is horrifyingly bad.

Wain: [To Showalter] Now that it’s outlasted a lot of those movies you hoped it would be, do you feel differently? Do you feel better about it? Of course, I’m saying how I feel, which is that it never got that mainstream box office, but it seems to have stood the test of time and is now considered to be a true touchstone.

Showalter: It would be very emotionally helpful if I felt that way but I don’t. I still feel bitter about it and I still feel very, very stung by it. It was devastating. This is a common theme throughout the three big early things that David and I did together -- “The State,” “Wet Hot,” and [the short-lived Comedy Central series] “Stella” -- this rejection by the mainstream and then there’s a cult audience, which is great. But for me, I don’t understand the animosity. That’s where the hurt is for me. These reviews that would come out about it that were like vengeful, almost. We’re coming from literally the most silly, goofy place. It would be one thing if we were taking shots at the establishment and like Lenny Bruce, trying to push buttons. We’re so not. We’re just like a talking can of vegetables and slipping on banana peels.

Wain: I definitely did take it differently. Some of those early reviews were so, so hostile. they would say things like “I would rather shove spikes into my head than ever watch this movie again.” I had to laugh. I saw it as something of a badge of honor. The movie was just not falling into categories that some people understand. I think the hostility comes from people seeing it and being like why is anybody laughing at this?  They’re like sucking the air out of every moment purposely. What the ... is going on?

The movie premiered at Sundance. Was the reception there as bad?

Showalter: I don’t want to be the guy that’s all negative. I’m really proud of the movie. if anything I’m that parent that’s like overly protective. But my memory was that the screening was not good.  Especially when you’re doing comedy, you can feel when a screening’s going well. There’s a collective energy that gets going. It didn’t feel like that. It felt like the audience was kind of unsure how to react to it. I do think the packaging of the movie and the way that the movie was presented, I think people were expecting “Meatballs,” essentially. They weren’t expecting something as meta as “Wet Hot.” If you look at the poster for it, it looks like a big, fun, straightforward ensemble comedy. The movie is so heavy in the deconstruction of those kinds of movies that i think there was a collective “What is this?”

Wain: I of course had a totally different view. I remember there were four screenings and to me there were laughs from top to bottom.  They were sold out.

When did you decide to revisit the movie?

Showalter: We had a 10-year reunion around five years ago, and that kind of brought a lot of us back together all at once. That kind of got everybody percolating. When were were feeling like wow, it’s been 10 years and there’s still this interest in the movie. It felt like wow, we’re still relevant. Obviously the success of our cast is a huge part of that.  I think around that time is when we started to have serious conversations around another project. It started as maybe we would do a film project, as we were working on that Netflix started to get on our radar and that’s when David suggested it to me and we started thinking about it and it felt like this could be a really cool way to do a next project as a multipart thing on Netflix rather than just a one-off feature. 

Was the process easier this time? 

Wain: In many ways it was easier or just different, because of course we’ve had 15 years of experience. We were coming to it in some ways very differently.... We were shooting on the West Coast instead of the East Coast, we were shooting on digital instead of film. We were shooting knowing what the distribution would be already. But even more of it was, interestingly, the same. It’s the same world and the same sense of humor and the same people in front of the camera. It was refreshingly, and wonderfully, the same.

Follow @MeredithBlake on Twitter.

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