Were you to imagine a follow-up to “Wet Hot American Summer,” David Wain and Michael Showalter’s 2001 absurdist parody of an 1980s summer camp movie, it likely would not be as a prequel in which all the members of the main cast, now 14 years older, return to play their old characters in a story set two months before original film. Granted, in 2001, you would not even have imagined a follow-up.
And yet, here it is.
The original film, set in 1981 on the last day of camp, was a commercial flop (even given its very low budget). But it has crept to cult status since its initial release, helped along by the growing fame of its cast and a growing taste for its brand of rude, extravagant, tangential-to-reality humor. It might legitimately be called ahead of its time.
Once again written by David Wain and Michael Showalter and directed by Wain, “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp,” premieres Friday on Netflix, where over the course of eight episodes it will weave its fantastically tangled, incredibly busy tale of a single day. (It is like the “Ulysses” of camp-movie parodies in this respect.)
It is a remarkably starry affair. Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Janeane Garofalo, Christopher Meloni, Molly Shannon, David Hyde Pierce, Marguerite Moreau and Showalter are among those returning from the original, along with Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio and Michael Ian Black, who played with Wain and Showalter in the 1990s MTV sketch show “The State.” Jon Benjamin, the voice of a can of mixed vegetables in the film, is also here, introduced in human form.
They have been joined by the nothing-to-sneeze-at likes of Jon Hamm, Jason Schwartzman, Chris Pine, Lake Bell, Kristen Wiig, Michael Cera, John Slattery, Jordan Peele, Josh Charles, Michaela Watkins, Randall Park, Paul Scheer and Wain. (That’s not counting anyone else who might arrive in the two episodes I’ve yet to see.) This is the comedy generation that shows up to the party; one senses that success may be incidental to their fun. But they are not just messing around -- nonsense only works when you take it seriously, when you play it straight.
The campers are all new, to keep them small. It’s sort of acceptable for people in their 40s to play 16-year-old counselors -- it’s funny at first, and then you get oddly used to it. But 30-year-old 13-year-old campers would be a weirdness too far.
Though it takes place later, you would do well to first watch the film (which is available on Netflix as well), which provides the set-up for some of the series’ jokes. The series is an orgy of origin stories, in which characters are comically recontextualized, to use a six-syllable word; but as an actual prelude to the movie, it’s a long gag about prequels. It’s also wilder and more wide-ranging than the movie, bringing in a government conspiracy, Charleston-dancing upper-crust campers from across the lake and a legendary missing rock singer, all somehow forgotten by the end of the summer.
I found it all funny, and even strangely compelling; it has crazy multi-thread narrative thrust. Still, any sort of humor will not be for everyone, and this sort of humor, one might say, even more so. To enjoy “Wet Hot American Summer,” which dances gaily along the fine line between stupid and clever, it will help to have at least a high tolerance for profane, scatological and sexual comedy and not to mind bad words spoken by actual children. (That the juvenile humor is appropriate to the characters provides cover for the adult exercise of juvenile humor.) This may not be for you.
At the same time much of the comedy is quiet, settled in lines that just turn in odd ways: “We’ve been to second base twice so that adds up to fourth, and he is so good at lacrosse.” Or “You may have uncovered the biggest government conspiracy since Watergate, which is about seven years ago.” Or, “It’s the only family I know, other than my own family.” Or “He’s a can of vegetables -- he doesn’t have to know.”
Robert Lloyd is on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd