Our first view of Camp Firewood in over fourteen years comes with a voiceover that states, “Camp Firewood is more than a summer camp. Camp Firewood is an idea, a promise, a way of life.” In the almost decade and a half since Wet Hot American Summer has come out, this has proven true. After failing at the box-office in 2001, Wet Hot American Summer became a cult hit that just happened to feature some of today’s biggest stars. The fact that we get to visit Camp Firewood once again is incredible enough, but the fact that this world remains just as hilarious as we left it is close to a miracle.
I remember the first time I watched Wet Hot American Summer vividly. I had bought a VHS copy without having seen it from a bargain bin at a Sam Goody, a sentence in hindsight that makes me sound so old, I should be brushing aside my long, grey Dumbledore beard to type this. But watching Wet Hot for the first time on a car trip as a teenager presented a whole new world of comedy to me, an absurdist wonderland that would inform my sense of humor to this day. Showing WHAS to friends would be a test to see who got it (people who I would keep as friends) and people who didn’t (idiots). For me, Camp Firewood is more than a movie or a summer camp, it is an idea, a promise and a way of life.
I mention this because whenever the recent “greats” of comedy receive an update or a sequel, it seems like the audience’s consensus is that it’s just not as good as the original. When Arrested Development’s fourth season was released on Netflix, I know many people who watched a few episodes, then decided to stop, as not to taint the near-perfect first three seasons. (They should’ve kept watching—the fourth season is fantastic.—Ed.) When Anchorman 2 came out, it fought a losing battle, trying to live up to the pop-culture icon that Anchorman became. But Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is the rare follow-up that doesn’t disappoint and actually adds depth and humor to the world that we’ve already loved, rather than tarnishing its reputation.
Taking place eight weeks before the first film, we see all of our favorite Camp Firewood counselors at the beginning of the summer, before SKYLAB threatened to wipe them out and before Gene had the courage to say he likes to fondle his sweaters. Our counselors are told that if they can make it to the end of camp without skin-on-skin contact between counselors, they’ll get to see Alan Shemper at the end of summer talent show. We know the conclusion of these stories, but First Day of Camp is incredibly fun in the way it fills in the beginnings in ways that we could’ve never assumed prior.
The majority of this first episode is merely introducing us to the new characters that we’ll experience over the next seven episodes, yet it brings us these new faces without feeling like it’s just dropping a ton of exposition. The camp staff now features two people we’ve never seen before, the boy’s head counselor Greg (Jason Schwartzman) and the camp’s owner Mitch (H. Jon Benjamin), who just so happens to sound a lot like a certain can of vegetables and is allowing chemical waste to be dumped on the camp’s property.
But most of these introductions also serve to let us know where exactly these characters are relationship-wise at the beginning of camp. We meet the evil Camp Tigerclaw—which was briefly mentioned in the film—filled with prep school turkeys like Warner (Eric Nenninger), Graham (Rich Sommer) and Blake (Josh Charles), who just so happens to be dating Katie (Marguerite Moreau). Soon after Andy (Paul Rudd) rides in and jumps off his still-going motorcycle, he becomes enamored with Katie, largely because her “mosquito bites” have turned into “big, juicy tarantula bites.” Also someone gave her the memo to ditch the braces.
Strangely enough, camp begins with Coop (Michael Showalter) not interested in Katie at all, but more concerned about finally seeing Donna Berman (Lake Bell) for the first time since last summer, when they hooked up on the last day of camp. He claims that the two of them are an item, but Donna’s reactions to him don’t make them seem like a couple.
Since Camp Firewood loves its musical theatre, Susie (Amy Poehler) and Ben (Bradley Cooper) plan on putting on a musical on the first day of camp. The two have brought in Claude Dumet (John Slattery) as a special guest director for Electro City, the story of a man who moves from the country to the city to become a star and is immediately sent to the electric chair for a crime he didn’t commit…or did he? And I’m sure you’re wondering if Susie and Ben are still an item and the answer is…yes. Yes. A thousand times yes.
If this first episode has a weakness, it’s the new campers Kevin (David Bloom, the young surrogate of Coop), Amy (Hailey Sole) and the villainous bully Drew (Thomas Barbusca). The campers aren’t bad, but most of their greatest moments involve the cast we already know, such as when Kevin is advised by Coop on how to deal with Drew. When there’s so much already going on, it’s a bit hard to stay as interested in these younger cast members.
This first episode, especially in conjunction with the second, works excellently at setting the stage for where these stories and these characters are at so that the show can fluidly move into the more insane stories that are to come. In doing this, Wet Hot American Summer impressively keeps the exact same tone as the film, but with that added bonus of adding to the depth of the film. If you haven’t watched the series yet, I can’t recommend enough watching the film, watching the entire series, then watching the film again. You’ll be amazed at how perfectly this series works as a prequel and how much from the film is hinted at, then followed up on in the show.
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is a relief that it’s this good. For the first time in a long time, the sequel more than meets the lofty expectations set by its predecessor.
It’s always fun to visit Camp Firewood. Even if it’s just for four hours.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. He’s also the burp fight king of Westchester. You can follow him on Twitter.