When Wet Hot American Summer first came out in 2001, it was mostly summarized by critics as a parody of '70s and '80s teen sex comedies like Porky's and Meatballs, but the deconstruction went further than that. Anyone who has spent enough time with the post-State comedy of director David Wain (and his fellow The State and Stella colleagues Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter) knows that at the foundation of a joke is a complete irreverence for anything that could be taken even vaguely seriously in any other narrative, comedic or otherwise. It goes beyond just mocking a premise or a setup or a cultural trend, Saturday Night Live style. Line to line, gag to gag, Wet Hot American Summer was an idiotic, puerile, completely brilliant attempt to dismantle the entire grammar of popular storytelling.
The only other comedy cohort that has come close to such total anarchy is the South Park team, but Wain & Co. aren't as invested in topicality (though they are as enamored with the tropes of musical theatre). Even edgy topical humor is something that could be ripe for mockery by a Stella short. Wet Hot American Summer worked because on the surface it had fully committed to being a bawdy summer comedy, but it was throwing absolute nonsense in at every moment where there should have been stakes, with no consideration for the repercussions for its "characters' arcs."
Who is Jim Stansel — just "that guy"?
What makes Netflix's prequel series Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp so doubly insane is that so much of it is built around trying to explain that nonsense. For anyone who has cultishly memorized every line of the original film, no matter how meaningless (guilty), the rewards are plentiful: Why didn't Henry get tenure? Who is Jim Stansel — just "that guy"? Why does that can of vegetables speak with Jon Benjamin's voice? For newcomers — or even people who saw the film once, thought it was weird and funny, and never felt the urge to obsessively revisit it — I have to wonder how much appeal there will be for fan service as all-encompassing as this. Thankfully, there are enough cameos and stunt castings to merit a steady clip of "holy shit"s. (Most of these have been announced, but even if you're aware of them I promise they will still pop up when you least expect them, and therefore I feel obligated not to spoil them. Yes, there are three Mad Men alums in this show, and they are deployed perfectly.)
But even the returning cast is a stunt in and of itself: the original ensemble (which includes current-day big-timers Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, Bradley Cooper, and Paul Rudd, among countless others) were already well past their teenage years in 2001; in the first episode of First Day of Camp, their even more aged faces and bodies are the bulk of the humor — Poehler in particular seems to have a great time saying "I'm 16 years old" with utter sincerity at any given opportunity. It's a fine way to establish the absolute absurdity of the "world" of the show, but after the first couple of episodes — which also lingered on a couple sleepy storylines about the campers themselves — the story luckily moves on to richer, more unexpected territory.
Beyond the inside jokes, WHAS:FDoC succeeds because it doubles up on the nothing-is-sacred promise of the film, and proceeds to absorb every beat, cliché, or overused trope ever put to film in its [Andy voice:] "whatever, man" orbit. Let's be clear: there are now just short of four hours of First Day of Camp, versus 97 minutes including credits of Wet Hot American Summer. With that amount of runtime, the series is obligated to expand beyond the confines of Camp Firewood, and even Waterville, Maine. Imagine the still-perfect "going into town" sequence from the film, except reimagined as a conspiracy thriller, spy suspense, middle-aged romantic comedy, courtroom procedural, and journalist-with-a-hot-scoop-who-gets-in-over-their-head drama.
And as any prequel is wont to do, it becomes an origin story. Not that even the most diehard fans were clamoring to find out what made Coop, Katie, Andy, Lindsay, McKinley, Ben, Beth, Abby Bernstein, Victor Pulak, the Indoor Kids, or the anonymously evil Camp Tiger Claw the people they were by the last day of camp — it doesn't matter; origin stories are just another structural element for Wain & Co. to render ridiculous. The most hilariously involved threads are of Vietnam-scarred, fridge-humping Gene (the god Christopher Meloni) and makeout slut Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks). But the most ingenious is of Andy (Rudd), who has been recast as the hero of the show (inasmuch as one can be in such a crowded, talented ensemble). The First Day of Camp finds Michael Showalter's Coop in the same underdog position as he was in during the film, fighting to win Katie's (Marguerite Moreau) heart from some undeserving, socially superior asshole, and Rudd's still definitely the same Andy, wafting farts into Katie's face as a means of courtship (and Rudd is obviously the least-aged of any of the cast here), but now Andy's a genuine antihero.
That so much of the original ensemble (and equally many newcomers) would show up for this just-as-rink-a-dink Netflix show is evidence of the impact WHAS had on a generation of self-aware comedians. The comedy of Wet Hot American Summer, and Stella, and even parts of The State is a comedy of second-to-second paranoia — every now and then it lulls you into being invested in what's happening, before yanking the rug out from under you. Wain doesn't want you to think he's taking any of this seriously — even the desire to be funny. It's a kind of escape clause: nothing is stupid, because everything is stupid. To sustain that over the course of eight serialized episodes would seem like a recipe for implosion, but no matter how self-defeating it pretends to be, First Day of Camp can't help pushing outward, into weirder terrain that no conventional sitcom — streaming or otherwise — would ever be allowed to go. If you're a diehard, it will play out like a fan-fic stranger and more elaborate than anything even in the furthest reaches of Tumblr. If you're a newcomer, well, Paul Rudd's in it. And he's funny.