2001 in the world of film was heavily based in franchise flash and cinema spectacle. Future billion dollar tentpoles like the adrenalised popcorn rush of Fast & Furious, the adult joke-laden kiddie fare of Shrek, the engrossing fantasy of The Lord of the Rings, the young adult magic of Harry Potter, and the slick eternal cool of Ocean’s Eleven fully embraced a “less isn’t more; More is more” approach. Bloated CGI projects such as Pearl Harbour, Planet of the Apes, and Jurrasic Park III were simply too big to fail, and they were rewarded with monster box office receipts despite middling reviews and an overall minor impact on culture.
Comedy films in 2001 also wallowed in their own form of brash and shallow maximalism. Not Another Teen Movie and Scary Movie 2 represented the first push of barrel-scraping parody flicks, while Rob Schneider’s The Animal was so bad that Sony had to make up a fake critic to give it a good review. Stoner comedies like How High and Super Troopers appealed to their core audience and no one else, and actual quality films like Legally Blonde had to fight against schlock like Saving Silverman. Obvious jokes and toilet humour were in; highly conceptual and bizarrely specific alternative comedy was most assuredly not.
The executives at USA Films must have been cognizant of the shifting tides in tastes. They had little faith in their contribution to the comedy world that year, a half-spoof/half-self referential summer camp satire that was filled with mostly no-name underground actors, and so they decided to cut their losses on the already modestly budgeted film by providing almost no advertising and distributing it in less than 30 cities.
When Wet Hot American Summer premiered on July 27, 2001, it bombed hard. With a box office take of under $300,000, the film lost its investors nearly $1.5 million. Critics savaged the film, and after being pulled from theatres once the summer months turned to fall, it quickly faded into the recesses of the comedy landscape, never to be seen or heard from again — at least that was what was supposed to happen. However, something bizarre began to unfold. From Bradley Cooper to Paul Rudd to Amy Poehler to Elizabeth Banks, nearly everyone in the film became either A-list celebrities or beloved figures in the comedy world. The State, of which director David Wain and stars Michael Showalter, Ken Marino, Michael Ian Black, and Joe Lo Truglio were alumni, began developing a cult following. As the 2000s rolled on, the potency and star power of Wet Hot American Summer took on mythical status. How could this many funny people be in such a bad movie?
The truth, of course, is that Wet Hot American Summer is an incredibly funny movie. Its offbeat sensibilities, running gags, deliberate distaste for continuity, and kitchen-sink approach to comedy flew over the heads of most critics at the time but became fodder for comedy nerds in the years to come. You’d be hard-pressed to find another film that packs in as many jokes per minute as Wet Hot American Summer, and the fact none of the comedy is easy or obvious lends a timeless aspect to the movie. It encourages you to watch it again to pick up what you missed the first time. It encourages you to reel off one-liners like “You taste like a burger” and “The phone, the phone, where’s the fucking phone?” over and over to your friends. It encourages you to get lost in its singular warped worldview where drowning kids and clearly apparent stunt doubles are just as hilarious as any verbal punchlines.
The weirdness of Wet Hot American Summer is usually the biggest hurdle to manoeuvre for the uninitiated. Deliberately unfunny jokes from a Catskills comedian that gets rapturous laughter, a can of vegetables that talks and claims it can suck its own dick, a training montage that serves no apparent purpose, a significant love subplot that doesn’t have any resolution, the constant switch between sunny and stormy weather that goes unexplained. For those not already familiar with the alternative sensibilities of Wain and Showalter from their work on The State, these can seem like poor writing and filmmaking choices. But when you’ve bought into the film’s wanton silliness, it becomes clear how purposeful and how necessary these gags are to the film’s appeal.
The lack of initial success or adulation for the film also plays heavily into its legacy. Other great comedies from 2001, like Legally Blonde or Zoolander, had the immediate impact that guaranteed their own form of staying power. But Wet Hot American Summer had to grow throughout the years, from its nearly anonymous origins to its undeniably star-studded cast to its eventual cult status. Twenty years on, despite its prevailingly mediocre Rotten Tomatoes score, Wet Hot American Summer is so beloved and canonised that it routinely gets fit with the narrative of “How could so many people have been so wrong about this movie?” It has multiple sequel series’ on Netflix, a litany of famous fans, and it routinely shows up in both ‘Best of the Decade’ lists and ‘Best Comedies of All Time’ lists. Not bad for a bomb.
It’s tempting to call Wet Hot American Summer ahead of its time, but it seems to exist out of time in a strange alternate universe of its own design. It has its own language, its own rules, and its own approach to what constitutes comedy that didn’t line up with what was popular in 2001, or 1981, or 2021 for that matter. It requires you to look past what usually reliable figures like Roger Ebert think. But once you do, you get rewarded with what just might be the funniest movie of the past two decades. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go fondle my sweaters.