Brow Beat

In Praise of the Original Wet Hot American Summer Trailer

The new teaser for the Wet Hot American Summer eight-episode miniseries, which will hit Netflix this summer, is pretty straightforward. It’s a laundry list of the series’ bold-faced names—the likes of Elizabeth Banks, Bradley Cooper, Janeane Garofalo, and Amy Poehler—projected over footage of little red cabins and sunny camp lawns. The camera cruises slowly toward one of the bunks, zooming in on a wall where the words “Camp Firewood ‘81” are scrawled in chalk.

The teaser has the same faded, summery tint that longtime WHAS fans will recognize from the original movie, and it makes sense that Netflix would focus squarely on the star power of the cast. After all, part of what makes this small film seem immortal a decade and a half later is that so many of these cast members have since skyrocketed to fame. The reboot, also directed by David Wain, will most likely be great. But this teaser should make us nostalgic, too, for an unheralded cultural gem: the original Wet Hot American Summer trailer.

There are several reasons why this movie became a classic. There’s the way it moves so seamlessly between wholesome summer camp clichés (kids splashing in a lake, counselors sneaking beers) and loopy surrealism (kids getting hurled out of speeding vans, counselors passed out in heroin dens); the way it paints summer camp as a place that is at once blissful and, in its parentless delirium, slightly menacing; and most importantly, the rowdy chemistry of its young cast. And all of this, in the 2001 trailer, was compacted into two minutes that—unremarkable as they may seem—managed to distill exactly what made the movie overall so good.

Needless to say, back then the cast was not, as a whole, very famous. Janeane Garofalo was probably the biggest name, and Molly Shannon had been on SNL, but the ensemble was a ragtag crew of cult figures who (as the legend goes) mostly just got drunk in the Pennsylvania woods during filming. Paul Rudd had done Clueless, but his comedy chops were still developing and he was on something of a rom-com tear that would last until Anchorman helped rebrand him. For those who had never watched The State, Michael Ian Black was best known as the sidekick on Ed.

So that 2001 trailer opens with a shot of campers in the grass, their heads touching in a circle, as a voiceover declares, “This summer, take a trip back to 1981 …” And then the mayhem descends: Ken Marino’s van careening into a tree, counselors screaming in a flatbed truck. No one is particularly spotlighted—Amy Poehler sways anonymously in a group, Michael(s) Showalter and Ian Black are briefly visible in a crowd. Then all-caps text introduces the major players, not by name but by camp faction: THE CAMP DIRECTOR, THE COUNSELORS, THE KITCHEN STAFF, etc.

Sometimes comedy trailers string together too many visual gags or use up all the best jokes prematurely, but this one strikes a perfect balance. The overall effect is a little sloppy and very charming in a weirdo stream-of-consciousness way. It plays half like a promo video for a summer camp from hell, half like a highlights reel of rookie comedians running amok, winging it before they got big. Ideally, Netflix won’t slick-up WHAS’s production value or rely too heavily on the wattage of its stars. One of the best parts of the original, after all, was that they didn’t really seem to know what they were doing.