When Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp hit Netflix over the summer, it came with plenty of baggage. While many fans of the cult 2001 comedy film (a movie whose unique genius wasn’t appreciated upon initial release) spent years pining for the long-rumored follow-up to the film, others — perhaps seeing how Arrested Development‘s fourth season on Netflix turned out — felt it was best left alone.
Happily, the TV prequel to Wet Hot American Summer was shockingly good — it’s not just rewatchable, it demands multiple viewings to soak in all the jokes.
As with the movie, part of the series’ charm is its pitch-perfect soundtrack, which convincingly oscillates between dead-on musical impressions of various ’80s subgenres.
Adding to auditory glee of the new Wet Hot was Electro-City, a sci-fi-themed musical central to the series’ eight-episode arc. The songs composed for Electro-City are bizarre enough to get laughs, but close enough to the real thing (regional musicals and futurist visions from ’70s/’80s rock bands) that the parody lingers in your mind.
Billboard spoke with Craig Wedren — who led the team behind the music for the series and also works on Blunt Talk and Fresh Off the Boat — about how the new music came together (quickly), his lengthy history with David Wain, and his hopes for the unforgettable Electro-City musical.
You and Theodore Shapiro did the music for the 2001 movie, so you have an insider perspective on this whole thing. As rumors built over the years that Wet Hot was going to get a sequel or a prequel, they died as quickly as they came. Were you shocked when it became a reality?
I was shocked when it actually happened, because there had been low-level chatter and a few times of “OK, we’re going to do it” and then “ah, no.” But I’m used to that because that’s how most movies and TV shows get made. But then, like most movies and TV shows, when it’s on, it’s zero to 300 in 10 seconds. We were all like, “We’ll believe it when we see it,” and then it was like, “OK, let’s do it.” To see it actually happen and then not suck was quite incredible.
Did you get any advance notice from David Wain?
Very, very little. Probably not too much before they made the public announcement. My team and I were starting to write around Christmas because they were writing in January, and one of the first things to be shot was the musical sequences — like, all of Electro-City and the “Higher and Higher” sequence.
They had a limited licensing budget, so I suggested what they give it to me and my team so we could write the original songs. We wrote 30 songs or snippets of songs in the style of the original era. Then there’s score and songs from the original movie, about four hours worth of score in various genres from romantic schmaltz to rock.
What was your role in making Electro-City?
Basically, David and Michael Showlater had sketches of lyrics in the script. Sometimes it was clear what they were going for. To clarify what they were hearing in general, they sent this epic, hilarious voice memo where they were singing and screaming the cadences they were thinking. And say, “We’re thinking Annie for this or ‘Mr. Roboto’ by Styx.” And basically said, “Do what you want with this.”
Some of the lyrics were so perfect in their idiocy I couldn’t bring myself to change them. In other instances, I changed them quite a bit or added to them, and then a teammate, Jefferson Friedman, an amazing composer, joined me. It mirrored what you see on the screen — it was bringing all our friends together to do that thing we do. So he and I wrote the music for Electro-City, and it turned out really well. We really want to do a full Electro-City. We need to make Electro-City: The Movie in the sense of Milos Forman’s Hair or like Xanadu. We could take it on tour; I have so many fantasies about the Wet Hot musical I could do — we just need someone to fund it.
And then you went on set to walk everyone through the material?
Yeah, that was exactly what happened. We wrote all the songs that needed to be written: “Electro-City,” “Champagne Eyes” — Andy’s audition song — and “I Am a Wolf, You Are the Moon,” the song at the counselor’s staff part. And then we’d hang out on set. Everything was shot so fast. It was like the way I imagine an early rock record being made. On a normal show, I’d have days or hours to work with the actors, especially ones I’d never worked with before, like Chris Pine.
But I’d never met Chris. Everybody assured me he could sing because of Into the Woods. With everyone, I had about eight to 11 minutes to rehearse before they shot their scenes. Telling them, “It’s kind of like this and then we do this.” It’s a testament to casting and everyone’s acting chops that it worked. I’m not surprised with Paul Rudd, because we’ve spent many drunken great karaoke nights together. But with Chris Pine, I didn’t know, and in my mind I was like, “If it doesn’t work, I could always sing it,” but then he got up on the roof and slayed.
John Early was another newcomer to the series. He sang in Electro-City and was just perfect.
He’s incredible. He left me a really good improvised birthday video. He was the new guy, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing when he was on set.
“Higher and Higher” (co-written with Teddy Shapiro) is so good — it sounds like a forgotten ’80s inspirational rocker.
When I was trawling the Internet for people’s reaction to the series, the first thing I saw was, “What are these songs? I’m Shazam-ing them, but I can’t find them.” I’m glad they pass.
Whose idea was it to reprise the song from the first movie?
In a preliminary discussion, not that far from shooting, we were like, “What’s Chris Pine’s song going to be? He’s working on this song, he lost his mind, what is this song?” At first it was going to be the new “Higher and Higher,” and then I think [Michael] Showalter was like, “What if it is ‘Higher and Higher’?” And then it cracked his whole character arc open. It made it more delicious and ridiculous that this alleged musical genius has been working for eight years on the dumbest awesome song ever.
And you’ve known David Wain since high school, right?
Oh, before that. We’ve been best friends since we were 4 years old. We met at Park Synagogue Day Camp, where my mom was the head of swimming. My last name is Wedren, his is Wain, so our cubbies were together. We’ve spent most of the days of our lives together since — including years in the Wain basement.
The Wain basement is filled with a two-track reel-to-reel, drum kit, data cameras, video recorders from late ’70s, and all of David’s mom’s old wardrobe discards. I would call the watershed moment Steve Martin‘s first record, Let’s Get Small, and early SNL. We were just becoming aware of things. This is hindsight being 20/20, but it seems like this absurdist aesthetic in comedy was swirling around with Steve Martin and SNL the same time New Wave and punk were clashing with classic rock. You can see David caught one wave, I caught another, and then we started doing our thing in his basement. He would make ridiculous movies in his basement starring all our friends, and we would record covers with our bands, like Violent Femmes, Tones on Tail, whatever we were listening to at the time, and make videos for it — and increasingly, make original music. Then we went to college together at NYU and I was in a band that started when I was a senior in high school, after I went to D.C., called Shudder to Think.
When David and I went to college and The State [the comedy troupe behind the 1993-95 MTV series] started forming, it was called the New Group. Most everybody was in film school or acting school and they needed music. And I was their friend who had real, live record albums with my band and was going on tour, so I was the de facto music guy.
At Brown University, where Showlater split his time between Brown and NYU, the composer in their crew was Teddy Shapiro. So with The State, I would do stuff that was song-based, alt-rock based, and he would do the composition stuff. And then Teddy and I co-composed songs for Wet Hot, which you can trace back to Park Synagogue Day Camp at age 4.
And you’re still all friends.
Our sons were born within a year of each other, and they’re good friends. So we met Ken Marino the first day of school and the three of us became roommates and best friends.
This morning, I dropped my 7-year-old off at a week of improv theater camp with his best friend Riley Marino, Ken Marino’s son, and Henry Wain, David Wain’s son, and Kathryn Hahn’s son [she appeared in Wain’s Wanderlust]. It’s actually kind of freaky. The older we get the more astonishing it is that we’re still a team, the extended State crew, and that we all continue to work together and have progeny born at the same time who hang out and seem to like each other.