From “The Hobbit” films to “Better Call Saul,” prequels have become increasingly popular. Normally, the writers and directors in charge of these projects take extreme amounts of care to make sure the continuity between all of their projects line up neatly.
The series serves as a prequel to the aggressively absurd 2001 cult classic “Wet Hot American Summer,” which starred Showalter, Paul Rudd and then-unknowns such as Elizabeth Banks and Bradley Cooper. The original featured actors in their late 20s and early 30s playing high school camp counselors, and the two episodes screened last night made it clear that Showalter and Wain made no attempt to hide the fact that the actors were all noticeably 15 years older — except for the seemingly ageless Rudd — playing teenagers two months younger than they were in the original. The timeline only gets more gleefully convoluted as the series progresses, with unlikely but hilarious backstories emerging, completely unconcerned with whether they track with the original.
“I find that exposing the infrastructure is funny, and it is sort of satisfying as an audience member, to have the illusion broken for you sometimes,” Showalter told Variety about their hanging a lampshade approach.
The original film received dismal reviews at first, including a legendarily harsh pan from the late Roger Ebert, and didn’t have much box office success. But Showalter, who co-wrote the original alongside Wain, who directed it, noticed that in the years since the film’s release, it found its rightful audience.
“We started hearing about screenings on college campuses, midnight shows, costume parties, and we would hear about people on Facebook who would have it in their favorite movies,” he said, adding that people would write on social media that “I went on a date with someone and I asked them if they liked ‘Wet Hot American Summer,’ and based on their response I could tell whether it was going to go well or not.”
His film became, he said: “The sort of litmus for a personality test. When I started hearing about that, I started thinking maybe this is more than just people liking the movie. It means something. It represents something.”
With the continued popularity of their film, Wain and Showalter approached Netflix about doing a prequel series. Though billed as a TV series, “From a process and production point of view, more than anything we had to approach it like a four-hour movie,” Wain said. “We had a giant script, we shot it all out of order, and only later in the post-production process did we start looking at it as separate episodes.”
The pair managed to get everyone from the original series back, even now megastars like Cooper and Amy Poehler, as well as new faces like Lake Bell, Jason Schwartzman and Jon Hamm. “Over the years it’s been shocking how many celebrities and big people in the business have not only seen it but love it,” said Wain. One of the big celebrity gets of the first film was “Frasier” star David Hyde Pierce, who returns as his astrophysicist character. He explained to Variety why he and many other actors click with Showalter and Wain’s irreverent approach.
“Even though they have absurd things going on, they play it very close to the belt, they play it sort of for real,” he said. “That’s what got me excited about it. That’s what makes it funny.”