These types of films were mostly popular in the late 70s early 80s and then had a brief resurgence at the beginning of the 90s. They fall into three distinct genres: comedy, horror and nostalgic drama, the best example of these would be Meatballs, Sleepaway Camp and Indian Summer.
The interesting and unusual thing about Wet Hot American Summer is that it was made in 2001 but is set at the end of 1981. Unusual because this was the directorial debut of David Wain from 90s MTV comedy group 'The State' and stars many of the members of that group too and it's odd they would pick not only such a random genre but also that they would purposefully do, essentially, a period piece. That is until you watch it and realise that it's a stroke of genius actually. The setting is obvious for the weird, surreal, character based and slapstick comedy that The State specialise in and setting it when they did didn't exactly take a lot more than the clothing (how much have camps changed in the last 30 years?!) and it allowed them the ability to both feel authentic but also subtly pastiche the films that came before. To their credit there are not a lot of obvious and easy 80s music & hair based jokes, the costumes are just subtly ridiculous.
For those not in the know, this is one of those films that didn't do well with the critics on its initial release and gained a cult following on video. Watching it back now I can see why both is true because while I am a fan of The State and much of their work since (The Ten, Role Models, Wainy Days, Reno 911), this maybe isn't as funny or as satisfying, over all, as it could and should be. However, by the same token, the individual set pieces or sketches are memorable, odd and the sort of thing that if you were discovering surreal comedy for the first time would draw you in.
Any sketch comedy troupe that attempt the move to film are always going to be compared to Monty Python, or maybe on this side of the Atlantic, Kids in the Hall and WHAS certainly has both somewhere in the mix of influences however, for my personal taste, I find that this film just misses a beat somewhere and isn't as clever or sharp as it could be but that is maybe the point. A lot of the humour is derived from adults acting like stroppy or emotional kids either that or taking everything from drug use to gay sex to the graphical extreme. I think the uneven tone and unclear story leave the film unsure of what it actually is.
All that said, the performances are very strong by members of The State and other notables like Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, David Hyde Pierce, Janeane Garofalo, Molly Shannon, Amy Poehler and even a young Bradley Cooper but the person who easily steals the show is Christopher Meloni as the strung out vietnam vet chef. Considering his performance in this and other smaller roles I have seen him in, it's a wonder he is not a well renowned comedy character actor instead of playing a generic cop on some Law & Order spin off.
All in all then it's well worth an hour and a half of your time, especially if you are at all interested in where a lot of the current wave of non-SNL comedic performers, writers and directors come from. It's just, it's a bit sloppy in parts, they have all subsequently done better and it's not as strong as a Holy Grail or even a Brain Candy when it comes to the first films of sketch comedy troupes.
I would check out The State first too, either clips on YouTube or invest in the DVD box set. For fans of sketch comedy it's a must!
7 out of 10 talking cans of mixed vegetables