'Wet Hot American Summer': The crazy story behind the cult classic | EW.com


'Wet Hot American Summer': The crazy story behind the cult classic

Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, and other now-famous stars of the strange summer-camp comedy remember the good times, the bad times, and the drunken times

Wet Hot American Summer, A.D. Miles, ...

(David Wain)

These days most comedy directors would consider themselves fortunate to attract, and be able to afford, the combined talents of Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, and Elizabeth Banks. Back in the spring of 2000, first-time filmmaker David Wain not only hired those actors for his anarchic summer-camp spoof Wet Hot American Summer, but he got away with paying practically nothing for the film’s massive cast, which also included Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Molly Shannon, and Christopher Meloni. Or, in the case of Paul Rudd, literally paying nothing. ”I’m not sure I got paid,” the actor says. ”I’m not kidding. If I did, I would have gotten the very minimum. But it was such a small production, and stuff falls through the cracks.”

”Small” is the right word. Wet Hot American Summer cost a mere $1.8 million to make. And even at that price, it managed to be, in Wain’s own words, ”a financial disaster.” The movie grossed just under $300,000 when it was released in July 2001. And critics? Many torched it like a marshmallow. Salon.com described the film as ”a model of how not to make anything.” The Oregonian called it ”agony on a stick,” and gave it an F. ”There were reviews of the movie that were passionately hateful,” says Michael Showalter, who co-wrote the film with Wain and played the lovelorn camp counselor Coop. Over time Wet Hot American Summer acquired a cult following, particularly among Hollywood’s comedy cognoscenti. Indeed, it is partly thanks to Wet Hot that so many of its cast members went on to become such huge stars. Rudd says the film helped him land his role in director Adam McKay’s Anchorman. ”He was a fan,” says Rudd. ”When I met him, he was like, ‘Yeah! Wet Hot American Summer!”’ Adds Banks, ”Seth Rogen told me the same thing after I got cast in 40 Year-Old Virgin. It’s a great calling card, for sure.”

This summer the movie is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a clutch of screenings around the country, and Wet Hot American Summer-inspired art is currently on display at Gallery 1988 in Santa Monica. ”It was an incredibly humbling thing to see,” says cast member Joe Lo Truglio (Superbad, Role Models), who attended the art show’s opening night earlier this month. ”I just didn’t realize how many people this movie has touched.”

Of course, the real miracle of Wet Hot American Summer isn’t that its popularity seems to grow each year or it launched a number of careers. It’s that the movie got made at all. ”We acted like juveniles in every way,” says Poehler, recalling the month the cast spent shooting in Pennsylvania. ”All we would do all day — all we would do all day — is talk about what we were going to drink and smoke at night. All. Day. Long.”

Summer Begins
David Wain and Michael Showalter were somewhat famous for being members of the comedy troupe The State, whose eponymous Monty Python-esque sketch show ran on MTV from 1994 to 1995. After The State went on permanent hiatus, Wain and Showalter wrote a screenplay inspired by their own childhood camp experiences (in Maine and the Berkshires, respectively). The pair hooked up with an independent film producer named Howard Bernstein and started looking for financing. The quest would last three years. ”Over and over again we were told, ‘We’re giving you the money!”’ says Wain. ”Then these people would disappear. I remember trying to track someone down in their office in the East Village to confront them. And the ‘office’ was someone’s house, and there was no one there by that name.”

Wet Hot American Summer follows the adventures of mostly teenage counselors at the fictional Camp Firewood on the last day of camp in 1981. It boasts jokes that would not be out of place in Meatballs or Airplane!, and a mile-wide streak of good-heartedness. But the film is very eccentric, and at times extremely dark. In one sequence, a trip into town degenerates into a heroin-fueled phantasmagoria straight out of Trainspotting. In another, counselors played by Bradley Cooper and Michael Ian Black have sex in a wooden shack. And then there are the two scenes in which Rudd’s character, Andy, allows children to drown, and on each occasion throws their respective swim buddies out of a moving van in an attempt to cover up his negligence. According to Wain, early drafts were even more extreme. ”In the original script, when one of the swimming buddies drowns, Andy takes the other one into the woods,” he says. ”He’s like, ‘We’re going to go on a pizza party, just close your eyes!’ Then he takes out a gun, screws on a silencer, and shoots him, two bullets in the brain. My father read the script and said, ‘If you do that part, I’m disowning you.’ He was quite wise about that.”

Stars Align (And Get Discovered)
Though Wain’s father may have had doubts about the script, Rudd did not. The actor, who’d appeared in Clueless and The Object of My Affection, was keen to tackle something that dovetailed with his own off-kilter comic sensibilities. He swiftly bonded with Wain when they met in 1998 at a New York City performance of the play Sex a.k.a. Wieners and Boobs, which was written by and starred Wain, Showalter, and Lo Truglio. ”He gave me the script [for Wet Hot American Summer] not long afterwards,” recalls Rudd, who has gone on to make three more movies with Wain: The Ten, Role Models, and the forthcoming Wanderlust. ”It was the funniest script I’d ever read. I thought it would be fun to play this total douche.”

Wain had been familiar with Poehler from her work with the comedy sketch team Upright Citizens Brigade. ”I knew she was a kindred comedic spirit,” he says. Wain, Showalter, and casting director Susie Farris found Banks and Cooper through the audition process. Both were essentially unknown at the time. In fact, Cooper (who declined to be interviewed for this story) was still studying at New York City’s Actors Studio Drama School and ended up missing his graduation ceremony because he was shooting Wet Hot. As the Hangover star explained to James Lipton earlier this year on Inside the Actors Studio, ”I was having sex with Michael Ian Black in a sports shed.”

Meloni (”Who’s Bradley Cooper? Doesn’t ring a bell”) also auditioned for his role as the camp chef, a deranged Vietnam vet whose closest companion is a talking can of mixed vegetables. ”I recognized it as a new wave of comedy,” says Meloni, who had just finished the first season of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit when Wet Hot began filming. ”To be honest, some stuff I didn’t understand, and some things I thought, ‘That’s so f—ing out of bounds, it’s got to play.”’ Wain handed other parts to Molly Shannon, Janeane Garofalo, and David Hyde Pierce, who jokes that he did the movie for the big paycheck (”I was wrong!”). The director also roped in State-mates Lo Truglio, Black, and Ken Marino, and rounded out the cast with Judah Friedlander (30 Rock), Marguerite Moreau (Shameless), Zak Orth (Melinda and Melinda), and A.D. Miles (currently the head writer for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon). Even at the time Wain knew that he had secured a cast to die for. ”There was no question this was an incredibly special group of people.”