The Dream Logic of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp

At the very end of No Country for Old Men, Tommy Lee Jones’ beleaguered sheriff, who has been on the trail of a hardened assassin and an in-over-his-head mark, recounts two dreams to his wife. It’s an elliptical punctuation, but it’s really quite fitting—he’s been several steps behind Chigurh and Llewelyn the whole film, and his investigative approach and his telling of the dreams are equally measured and weary, resigned in dreary inevitability. His second dream, the one he remembers best, is about his father riding a trail and carrying fire in a horn in some unspecified olden time. The content too is appropriately melancholy and just outside coherence. These visions effectively conclude the film (and the novel) with an oblique thesis, providing a mainline into the character’s psyche and worldview, which is obscured behind a fixed hangdog glower. No matter if they are represented or simply recounted, dreams have this specific, tangible purpose in films. They are heavy with symbolism, yes, and they let filmmakers stretch their style and flaunt their influences, but they also provide the real value of squaring perspective. Because of this weight, they are so often presented as grave and contemplative, and marked with connect-the-dots significance that belies the rush of straight-up sensation dreamscapes can offer. Rarely do filmmakers do dreams justice—the uncanniness of the filmic medium is strangely outpaced by its concreteness at the very moment when it seems perfectly in its element.

It’s refreshing then to see dream logic used for wilier ends, and with more devious, veiled intent—that is, to see it used for the hell of it, with none of this practicality. David Wain and Michael Showalter’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, the Netflix series “prequel” (I’ll put it in quotes once because the absurdity of its take demands I do) to the 2001 cult comedy Wet Hot American Summer, isn’t so damned serious about exploiting the elastic potential of film and television (and theater). Despite lingering self-reflexivity, it’s never austere and never grasps at meaning. Such is the straight-forward absurdity of Wain and Showalter, dating back to their time working together on the MTV show The State and through their joint and individual work in Wet Hot American Summer, Michael Showalter Showalter, Wainy Days, Stella, The Baxter, Michael and Michael Have Issues, Childrens Hospital, Newsreaders, Wanderlust, Role Models and They Came Together. David Wain and Michael Showalter are masterminds of testing and exploiting vulnerabilities in genre boundaries, treating them like checklists, while spinning high-concepts into over-fluffed, rococo entertainment.

Dream logic is not just for somber surrealists, and Wain and Showalter prove this, employing elastic, artful verve to all manner of styles, high and low. In their hands, slapstick, fart jokes, backstage musicals, slobs vs. snobs romps, gentle romantic comedy, lumpy non-sequiturs, legal dramas, sociopolitical satires, and vulgar raunch can (and should) coexist. Armed with tenuous causality and upfront bizarreness, they are able to bring in disparate influences, elevate woebegone genres, and defame high culture. It’s pop-culture collage where dozens of clichés are fit in a small space just to see what sticks, and to delight as it all crumbles under the weight. And, with the addition of this new series, all these concerns are heightened and amplified, but are also turned inward more decisively.

But, WHAS:FDOC is less interested in crafting a thesis than in tinkering with science. Physics exists in this world—we know this because DHP’s PhD reminds us so—but it is not the same physics we know to be true. The laws are present only to be broken. In doing so, the Wet Hot universe approximates a dream state more skillfully. Everything is exaggerated but also tethered to some stretched conception of cognitive processing. The how and the why of our watching is always being prodded. Time is a chief concern on many levels in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, and plays into this process—the series jumps back in time, taking place two months before the movie, but, in reality, all the returning campers are fifteen years older, while the new batch of campers are proper summer camp age, and, over the course of twenty-four hours, an inordinate amount of things happen, and entire narrative arcs play out from beginning to end. Time is compressed and expanded at once. The actors are themselves, but not really; the characters are as they were, but not really. In some ways, they are playing younger versions of themselves, but also playing characters playing younger versions of their characters, or something like that. Despite the complications, WHAS:FDOC happens to summarize modern comedy and the changing landscape of the last twenty years with remarkable clarity. All the while, the intervening projects of the now-much-older actors add more layers and intertexts, compounding the gravitational pull of Wain and Showalter’s funhouse media multiverse.

Wet Hot American Summer was unique for hybridizing television sensibilities with filmic forms, but this is now ubiquitous; and this change is built into the new series. The confluence of media forms in the Wet Hot American Summer universe is an essential element and there are many more intersections this time around. The movie riffed on crude camp films from the ’80s, crafting itself in this disreputable style, but filtered through ’90s sketch comedy, leaning heavily on asides, loose-ends, and flourishes of unexplained pop-surrealism. First Day of Camp is a limited series, so the hybridization of film and television (combined in the streaming layout) is more pronounced but also more complicated. It has fewer episodes that a typical TV show, but runs longer than a film. Even still, it approaches limitation with reckless abandon, throwing far more characters and scenarios into the mix and making a game of the inadequate space. There is also the connection to theatrical production that runs through both projects—in the form of the preparation for the Camp Firewood talent show in the movie and “Electo/City” in the series— and this throughline is essential for understanding the dispersed poor-man’s-Brecht sensibilities of Wain and Showalter. The pliability creates the sense that anything is possible—like Reagan ordering a full-scale invasion of a remote Maine summer camp, for instance, or a sentient, well-meaning, self-fellating can of vegetables.

Just as WHAS:FDOC is a locus of media forms, it is also a compendium of cultural nostalgia, a particularly potent cognitive process that plays heavily into dream worlds. It catalogues era-appropriate (the series and movie take place in 1981, when Wain would have been 12 and Showalter 11, which is vital information) and anachronistic high and low culture alike. WHAS:FDOC fills in the gaps between then and the movie production and now, and highlights the particular lineage that leads us from the rise of low culture in the mainstream to the postmodern low-brow of today. Through a dense combination of cultural footnotes—from Marla Gibbs to Fantasy Island to CHiPs to Avis commercials to Full Metal Jacket to The Oak Ridge Boys, and beyond—it shows how we remember, how we forget, and how we filter and contort information to suit the times. If that doesn’t sound like a dream space, I don’t know what does. The WHAS universe is a grand exploitation/experimentation with cognition, but it’s too smart to be so transparent about it—conjuring through warped sense-memory.

Pop-culture is suffused within our brains. We react to routine and repetition, and we organize around genres and familiar narratives and character types. The WHAS universe flattens these to cardboard cutouts, and then reanimates them to absurd, heightened proportions. We are all embroiled in a waking cultural dreamscape, processing mediated information, cramming in filtered material, and reconfiguring after each data dump. WHAS helps and hurts this process, just as dreams do. Funny enough, though, when a layer of artifice is peeled back, Wain and Showalter show that there are infinite layers underneath. I need to tread lightly here because, to paraphrase a much-debated maxim, talking about comedy is “like dancing about architecture,” so by dissecting too much I’m delegitimizing my own points. But that’s the Wain and Showalter effect at work. Their worldview is not one-to-one; they choose funhouse immersion over clean metaphors, and are all the better for it. And, that is precisely the point: when you’re dreaming, you’re not searching for meaning. It’s about raw, unadulterated experience. The explication comes later. The Wet Hot American Summer universe dreamscape gleans a collective unconscious weaned on pop-cultural oversaturation, and it’s giddy about it. Wain and Showalter take up dream logic with an appropriately anarchic spirit, showing the elasticity and the way pieces from the outside trickle in and disperse to fill the contours of the subconscious. First Day of Camp is not just an absurdist expansion on the original film; it’s a prequel, a remake, a dream within a dream, a cross-media experiment, and a parody of a parody of a parody (of a parody?)—it’s a veritable low-brow hall of mirrors.

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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