When Wet Hot American Summer hit theaters a decade ago, the film—a sketch-based comedy set in 1981, on the last day of the fictional Camp Firewood—came and went faster than a hormonal teenage boy. But then something amazing happened: Thanks to the movie's ahead-of-its-time absurdist humor, a cast stocked with relative unknowns who blossomed into marquee names, and the magical word-of-mouth power of DVDs and Netflix, Wet Hot became a cult classic.



For this complete-ish oral history in celebration of Wet Hot's 10th anniversary, we asked director and writer David Wain, his cowriter and creative partner, Michael Showalter, and stars including Janeane Garofalo, Paul Rudd, David Hyde Pierce, Elizabeth Banks, and Amy Poehler to reminisce about the shoot, the living conditions, the kids, the notoriously horrendous weather, and the hilarity (and debauchery) that took place off-camera. Throw another log on the soaking-wet campfire—theirs is an epic tale of camaraderie and survival in the heart of Pennsylvania darkness.

DAVID WAIN, cowriter-director: Michael [Showalter] and I met at NYU. He was one of the freshman members of a comedy group, and his group, the New Group, as it was once called, was the group that we thought—as the older sophomores at NYU—would never reach the professional heights of our group, which was called the Sterile Yak.

MICHAEL IAN BLACK, McKinley (counselor, secretly gay): I met Michael and David my freshman year of college. Michael and I helped cofound a sketch-comedy troupe known then as the New Group but eventually known as The State.

DAVID WAIN: We held an orientation session for incoming freshmen who were interested in sketch comedy, as if we at that time knew everything. We gave rather patronizing speeches to the freshmen, explaining the ins and outs of comedy to them.

MICHAEL IAN BLACK: David was kind of a cock.

DAVID WAIN: When we saw the first New Group show, the Sterile Yak immediately disbanded because they were so much better than us.

JOE LO TRUGLIO, Neil (counselor, nerd): I was in a dorm room directly across the hall from Michael Showalter. I wasn't really interested in comedy, but he was. We became fast friends.

KEN MARINO, Victor (counselor, hazardously heterosexual): David was a roommate of a guy I went to high school with. David finagled his way into the New Group. He started by just making posters for the show, and then finally we were like, "All right, Dave, you can be in the group."

MICHAEL SHOWALTER, cowriter/Coop (counselor, all-around good guy): I don't remember any moment where he was like, "Can I be in the group?" It just seemed like a very organic thing for him to join up with us.

DAVID WAIN: It started off as a college activity, but we were from the start extra-serious about it and spent most of our time doing that instead of our schoolwork. I think we had a very healthy group ego.

KEN MARINO: We were so young. We had comedians that we looked up to, Monty Python and stuff, but we ultimately wrote and did stuff that made us laugh. We didn't know that there were rules. I think that defined us a little bit, that we were kind of too stupid to know any better.

MICHAEL IAN BLACK: When I was 17 years old and full of myself, I coined the term "American Surrealism." To myself, not to anybody else. It was propulsive comedy that had a lot to do with taking things to totally wild and unexpected places. We were reacting against the very traditional observational comedy that we were seeing around us in the eighties.

MICHAEL SHOWALTER: We believed in being silly and absurd over being topical or doing impersonations. We were more interested in being bizarre.

MICHAEL IAN BLACK: We really thought we were the shit and had a legitimate chance of being the new thing in comedy. We were very mistaken.

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In 1994, The State began a two-year run on MTV, which ended when the group "decided to leave the network for many reasons" (per their online FAQ)—at least one of which was to pursue a series on CBS, allegedly designed to challenge Saturday Night Live for late-night supremacy. Their 1995 debut, a Halloween special, was well-received but given little to no promotion. Virtually unwatched, it would be the first and last episode of The State on network television. The next step for the group seemed a bit unclear.

DAVID WAIN: After The State kind of petered out, Michael and I decided to try to write a movie script together.

MICHAEL SHOWALTER: Honestly, we weren't busy doing anything else.

DAVID WAIN: We spent quite a bit of time writing something called Cleveland Rocks, which we were hoping would be our epic classic high-school movie. It was sometime in 1997. And we were hoping to shoot the movie that fall, and we realized that we were not going to get it written.

MICHAEL SHOWALTER: In between writing the second draft of that movie, we said, "Hey, let's throw out some ideas for a movie about summer camp"—just to clear our heads from working on the other script, really.

DAVID WAIN: We called it Camp. We just put all of our summer-camp stories in the hopper, and that's basically how we started writing.

MICHAEL SHOWALTER: Early in the process, it was like, "I'll play Coop, and you'll direct the movie." I was basing the character off of certain ways I might have felt when I was that age. His perception that he's the nice guy. And good guys finish last.

DAVID WAIN: I was at camp in 1979 when Skylab actually fell. It was in the news that it had slipped out of orbit and was going to fall back to earth. Kids like us were like, "Oh my God, do you think Skylab's going to fall on our camp?" And then we'd see a piece of metal and it was like, "Do you think that's a piece of Skylab?"

MICHAEL SHOWALTER: There's a whole sequence [in the script] where they go into town—that was something at my camp that you did sometimes. It was considered a big, awesome thing, kind of like going off campus at high school. Every character and idea is based on something that was paradigmatic of our summer-camp experience, but for me there's no specific story line.

DAVID WAIN: When Victor drops his kids off and runs back to camp in the van because he wants to see a girl, and then the van crashes, and he's screwed, and he can't go see the girl? That's exactly what happened to me.

MICHAEL SHOWALTER: We also talked a lot about the kinds of movies that we wanted this movie to reference. Meatballs and John Hughes movies, like Sixteen Candles. Animal House, an ensemble film made in the late seventies about the early sixties.

DAVID WAIN: One of the main impetuses was to come up with something where we could work with all of our funny friends.

ZAK ORTH, J.J. (counselor, Belushi-esque): They had a couple of Wet Hot table readings that I was a part of.

DAVID WAIN: One reading was at William Morris, for financiers to come and hear the script. I believe Mary Louise Parker was in that one. There was one at my house, and I think we had Amanda Peete in that, maybe? And then there was one at my manager's office at a conference table.

ZAK ORTH: I have a vague recollection that Dan Castellaneta was there.

JOE LO TRUGLIO: Yes! He might have been reading Meloni's part. I think I was reading Paul Rudd's part. I wanna say there might have been two characters that were similar jerks that were combined. Those table reads were about trying to find how this was a complete story and not just a series of sketches. Which in a way, the movie still is.

MICHAEL SHOWALTER: It's a lot of sketch premises tied together. It does have a plot, obviously, but it was sort of a natural progression.

DAVID WAIN: Over three years of trying to get this movie made, we put a little bit of time into creating an arc. My computer has thousands of files of scripts. We had the blessing and curse of having so many false starts. We had financiers sit and tell us, to our face, "This is a go, green light, we are doing this, let's have a drink." You never heard from them again. Every time that happened, we went back and rewrote. Finally, one came through, which was not until about two or three months before we started shooting it, in May of 2000.

•••
Thanks to the fight for financing, some primary casting was done with the understanding that getting the movie made was contingent on having a few higher-profile cast members in place.

DAVID WAIN: We had written one of the more obvious typical-male-camp-director characters. We came up with the idea of it being Janeane Garofalo, and we rewrote the character for her, just because we loved her, and we knew her well enough from the New York scene to get the script into her hands.

JANEANE GAROFALO, Beth (camp director): I knew Michael, Michael, and David from The State. I might have met them on the Jon Stewart Show on MTV [1992's You Wrote It, You Watch It], if you can dial back the time machine that far. I think even prior to reading the script I wanted to do it, just because I wanted to work with those guys.

DAVID HYDE PIERCE, Henry (neighboring astrophysicist): I was in the middle of Frasier. It was really hard to find scripts that weren't basically Niles—and frankly, most of those scripts were not as well-written as the Frasier episodes. I read the [Wet Hot] script, and I thought, "This is really funny—if these guys know how to play the material." There's a scene where I discover that Skylab is going to come crashing down on the camp, and I have the line "Oh, fuck my cock." When I first read it, I thought, "Okay, that, weirdly, is one of the greatest lines I've ever read."

DAVID WAIN: He immediately called me on the phone and said, "If Janeane is doing this, and if you're going to play this straight and deadpan, and if this is the script, then I'm in."

DAVID HYDE PIERCE: I had done SNL with Janeane, and I really liked her a lot, so the fact that she'd be playing opposite me was a big draw.

JANEANE GAROFALO: I think he's being polite.

CHRISTOPHER MELONI, Gene (cafeteria chef, fucked-up Vietnam vet): I was doing Law & Order: SVU, just starting it, but deep enough in that it was a steady gig for me. I had a little downtime in between seasons, and I got a call to audition for this comedy. When I read the script, I thought, "Wow, this is really fucking weird."

MICHAEL SHOWALTER: I'd actually seen Christopher Meloni in a Julia Roberts movie. Runaway Bride, I think. He's really funny in it.

CHRISTOPHER MELONI: I heard other actors in the audition room, and I heard how they were doing Gene, and I went, "No, that's not the guy." I was pretty confident in my gut about what the character was quote-unquote supposed to be. I didn't think of him as bombastic or threatening. I saw him as a whacked-out, cuddly Rambo.

DAVID WAIN: So many of the characters we came up with, it was like, "Yeah, there's gotta be, like, a fucked-up Vietnam-vet chef, right?" There wasn't a lot of thought in that.

CHRISTOPHER MELONI: I grew that facial hair out for four months. I didn't shave. I gained weight. I didn't get as chunky as I wanted to. I did the do-rag intentionally to have my ears stick out and give me an elfin quality. Everything had a purpose. It was very clear. And again, I think it's because I understood Gene.

JOE LO TRUGLIO: Christopher and David Hyde Pierce were, for many of us, the actors that validated this crazy circus. I was thrilled just to be in the movie.

MOLLY SHANNON, Gail (art teacher, recent divorcée): I was doing SNL, and David Wain and I knew one another. We actually grew up in the same town, Shaker Heights, Ohio. My manager told me about the part. It just sounded great, original and funny. And then David and I met—I think we went out and met for coffee, somewhere in the West Village. I just thought he was so funny, and I wanted to do it. It was real simple like that.

DAVID WAIN: I hadn't seen a lot of SNL in that period, for whatever reason, but when I went to see Superstar, I thought it was so funny. We also sort of knew Paul Rudd, who we'd met the year before when he came to see a play we had done called Sex a.k.a. Wieners & Boobs.

PAUL RUDD, Andy (counselor, douchebag): I had just finished [Baz Luhrmann's] Romeo + Juliet, which was how I met Zak Orth. I went to the show with Zak, who was friends with Showalter, and I hung out with David and Michael after. I remember thinking, "Oh. I'll be friends with these guys." I read the script and thought it was hilarious. I remember just saying to David, "Andy!" And he said, "You want to play Andy?" And I said, "Yeah, that would be great." So it wasn't like I auditioned or anything.

DAVID WAIN: Paul was a tiny name, but a name at the time.

MICHAEL SHOWALTER: I'd seen him in other things besides Clueless, and I thought it would be interesting to see him play against type.

PAUL RUDD: I was excited to play Andy. You read it, and you go, "Sweet. I already know what this guy wears." You just try and have fun within those parameters of douchebaggery and bandanna-ism.