When I came up with the idea of interviewing David Wain for the 10th anniversary of Wet Hot American Summer — the 2001 cult comedy he directed and co-wrote (with Michael Showalter) about a 1980s summer camp — I sincerely believed that I was being unique.
“Nobody else will have thought to do this,” I smugly assumed. And then I saw that big feature in Entertainment Weekly, where they interviewed every-fucking-body in the Wet Hot cast, and I realized that I’m just as original as the guy who blogs about the Green Lantern movie. But that’s always been the magic of Wet Hot American Summer. It’s made countless people just like myself feel smarter than we actually are. When I first saw Wet Hot at a Chicago theater, with maybe four other people in the audience, I thought, “Holy Christ, I’m the only one in the world who realizes just how fucking hilarious this movie is.” Of course, that wasn’t in any way true. Despite the fact that its initial U.S. release grossed a paltry $300,000, and DVD sales are so nonexistent that Universal declined to release a 10th anniversary special edition (“Nobody cares,” a studio exec apparently told Wain), it’s still widely considered to be one of the best movie comedies of the past ten years. This summer, there are anniversary screenings happening all over the country, including a much-coveted (and already sold out) one at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on July 26th, where they’ve promised plenty of surprise guest stars. (Like Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper and other A-list names from the original cast? I don’t know. Talk to a Brooklyn scalper and you may find out.) Despite being embarrassingly late to the party, I called Wain to talk about the Wet Hot anniversary anyway. For at least the first half of our conversation, Wain was walking his bike across the 101 Freeway in Los Angeles. I suppose it’s possible that he was using a walkway rather than the more dangerous and direct path, but he wasn’t specific.
Eric Spitznagel: Are you sick of talking about Wet Hot American Summer yet?
David Wain: I’m really not, for two reasons. One, I never get sick of talking about myself. That’s always fun. Two, I really do love that movie. It was a special time and a special project. I just watched it again for the first time in many years, and it really holds up.
Your lack of fake humbleness is refreshing.
I am not one of those guys who pretends to not enjoy his own work. I purposely make movies that I enjoy, and are fun to think about and talk about. With this ten year anniversary, we’ve done so many interviews that I’m starting to remember things I’d completely blocked out.
Like, uh… [Long pause.] I don’t really remember anymore. You’ll have to jog my memory again.
Do I need to bring out the child rape doll and ask where you were touched?
[Laughs.] Maybe. I guess that’s not the worst idea. It was a pretty dirty shoot. That’s the one thing everybody in the cast and crew seems to remember. There was a fair amount of drinking and partying and everyone was kind of jumping around from bed to bed, and bottle to bottle, because it was pouring rain all the time.
When you’re doing the media rounds, do you ever just make up stories because you’ve run out of things to say?
Yeah, sometimes. Especially when it’s a press junket. You’re sitting in a chair and a different journalist comes in every five minutes and asks the same questions. And the poor camera guys are stuck in the room with you the whole time. So my goal is, how can I change my answers just enough every time to keep them interested?
Give me an example?
When I was promoting Role Models, pretty much everyone asked me who my role models were. I made it my practice to just say a list of names and see what came out my mouth. “Well, my biggest role models growing up were Jelly Roll Morton, Calvin Coolidge, Cheryl Ladd, Mika Brzezinski…”
Of all the Wet Hot anniversary events happening this summer, my favorite was the art exhibit at LA’s Gallery 1988.
That was just unbelievable. It was far more cool than I anticipated. It wasn’t just a bunch of people drawing shitty pictures as a joke. It was real artists, being inspired by Wet Hot American Summer in really weird, creative, unexpected ways.
Did you buy any of the art?
I did buy one piece by Megan Stratman. It’s a paper cut-out of Janeane Garofalo’s character with a little moose on her head. Another one that I loved that (Wet Hot line producer) Jill Rubin bought was a very beautiful and simple drawing of the entire camp as it existed in the movie but with no people in it. It was all in green pencil, and really kind of awesome.
If you created an original art piece inspired by Wet Hot American Summer, what would it be?
A big piece of doodie in a tupperware jar.
That’s… not what I would have guessed.
Wait, is this Vanity Fair? Oh wow, I have the wrong phone call. I thought this was my interview with Justine magazine.
Let’s talk about the big Wet Hot celebration at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. On the movie’s official website, it’s promised that there’ll be “tons of GUESTS and SURPRISES!!” The all-caps and extra exclamation point suggests that there might be legitimate surprises.
There will definitely be legitimate surprises. Some of it’s going to be surprising even to me.
You do know that if Paul Rudd or David Hyde Pierce show up, that’s not an all-caps surprise. That’s like promising a surprise at a Star Wars screening and then Carrie Fisher walks out.
So what would be an actual surprise?
If the cast of Meatballs challenged the cast of Wet Hot American Summer to a summer camp Olympics.
That’s probably going to happen. This is the most I can promise. The girl from Meatballs will be there.
You know. The girl.
I really don’t.
The girl who didn’t appear in another movie before or since. The brunette.
That’s literally every actress in Meatballs.
You’d know her if you saw her. But sadly, there’s like zero chance of that happening anymore.
If there was an Olympic-style showdown between the Meatballs cast and the Wet House cast, who would be Camp Mohawk?
That’s an excellent question. I have no idea. We would be the ones who are 30 years younger. So I think we’d have a slight advantage.
Also, there’s a pretty good chance that Bill Murray wouldn’t show up at all.
That’s right, yeah. They’d just have that girl with the feathered hair. Ol’ what’s her name. And the kid from My Bodyguard.
Growing up, I had a distorted sense of summer camp awesomeness because of movies. I went to my first summer camp thinking it’d be like Meatballs, but none of the counselors were Bill Murray and there was no rivalry with a rich snotty camp across the lake.
I had the opposite experience. I went to camp and then I saw the movies. And I actually never really saw many movies about summer camp. I saw Meatballs and Little Darlings. But Wet Hot was much more inspired by my and Michael Showalter’s real-life camp experiences.
I went to this very disorganized Jewish summer camp in Maine called Camp Modin. Neither the campers nor the counselors really did all that much. You mostly just hung out all summer. It’s funny, if you went to a camp in the north-eastern quadrant of the country, your summer camp experiences were probably very universal. And yet most people think their camp was the only place on earth like that.
Was Camp Modin ever in danger of being obliterated by the NASA Skylab?
Not specifically that camp, but I went to another summer camp in 1979 in Cleveland, Ohio. That was the summer when the Skylab was rumored to be falling from the sky and nobody knew where it was going to land. So at camp we were always like, “Maybe it’s going to fall here!” You always kinda had an eye towards the sky, just in case. I remember all of that so vividly. It’s funny, a lot of people who saw Wet Hot have no idea that Skylab was a real thing.
Whether it was because of movies or gossip among other campers, I had this expectation that summer camp was going to be like Caligula. But best case scenario, you were lucky to get a dry handjob while listening to Billy Joel’s Glass Houses.
Huh. [Laughs.] That’s a very specific detail.
Am I revealing too much about myself?
What’s better than a dry handjob with some Billy Joel? [Sings.] Honesty, it’s such a lonely wweuauuuaaaaaarll! [Orgasm sound.]
Wow. I have no idea how I’m going to translate that to the page.
My camp expectations were just incredibly low. It was enough just to see some amazingly beautiful girl in a bikini for a minute on the beach. For a ten year old, that was the equivalent of having an orgy. It was the greatest summer ever if I just had a moment like “oh my god, I got to make out with someone!” Or “oh my god, this girl held my hand!” Or “oh my god, I got to roll around in bed with somebody!” That was everything to me. Everything.
If Camp Modin had a reunion, would you be curious enough to show up?
Absolutely! There was a reunion earlier this year. They have one every fifteen years, and I saw most everybody from those days. We all gathered together in New York.
Did you see anybody and think, Oh wow, I totally based a character in Wet Hot on you and didn’t even realize it?
No, because I was very aware of which characters I based on Camp Modin people. I remember all of that explicitly. Camp was very, very important to me. My first summer at camp, I begged my parents to come pick me up and take me home. And they said, “Trust us, stick it through.” It killed them, but it was ultimately a good idea, because I ended up being obsessed with camp and going back for six more summers.
Six? I assume a few of those were as a counselor.
Yep. And then when I was nineteen and too old to be a counselor, I formed a rock band just to go back and tour different summer camps around New England. We were called the Rockin’ Knights of Summer. That’s K-N-I-G-H-T-S.
And that was a real job? Actual summer camps paid you to come and perform for their campers?
Oh yeah, lots of them. Here was the pitch. We arrive at your summer camp in the afternoon. We go around and ask the campers, “What are your favorite songs?” We learn a couple of new tunes. And then later that night, we set up our equipment in the dance hall or wherever. We put on a show and everyone has fun. The kids are dancing, or we drag them onstage to sing. You know, “Parents just don’t understand!” That kinda thing. And then we sleep at the camp.
Not with the kids, I hope?
No, no. There’s usually an empty cabin, and they let us sleep on the floor next to the drum set. Then we’d wake up and they’d give us breakfast. We’d do a workshop with the kids, which was pretty much just, “Look, here’s a guitar, here’s a drum.” And then they’d pay us $300 and we’d go to the next camp. It was an amazing summer.
That’s a brilliant idea. You found a way as an adult to live at camp for a summer without being creepy.
Exactly. It was an enterprising way to achieve two goals. One was to go back to summer camp and the other was to be in a touring rock band.
Was it just for that one summer?
Yeah, we only lasted one summer. It’s a shame, because it was an incredible amount of fun. I’d still be doing it today, if I could.
I feel like the Knights need to reunite.
They really should. I actually think that’s a great idea. How awesome would that be?
Have you kept in touch with the other Knights? Where are they now?
I know one of them lives in Boston. I think they’ve all stayed more involved in music than I ever did, but none is a rock star or anything.
You want to talk about all-caps SURPRISES for the Williamsburg Wet Hot American Summer screening, a reunion performance by the Rockin’ Knights of Summer would be the mother of all surprises.
There you go. But I don’t know if that’s the reunion everyone is hoping for. There’s not as much of a mass cult following for the Rockin’ Knights of Summer as for Wet Hot American Summer. But that doesn’t mean we won’t get the band back together anyway.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)