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.''