Wet Hot American Summer’s Christopher Meloni on Humping the Fridge and Returning to ‘Gene’ After 15 Years

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Photo: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

You wouldn't have guessed that a lead in the very serious Law & Order: SVU would become one of the breakout comedic stars of the original Wet Hot American Summer, but from the moment he went to fondle his sweaters, we knew that Meloni's Gene was something special. Almost 15 years after the original film was released, Meloni steps back into his role in the new Netflix prequel Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, which premiered July 31. Vulture caught up with Meloni to discuss his memories of the first film and what it felt like to go back to camp for a second time.

Do you remember getting the first call about the original Wet Hot? Did you know those guys beforehand, or the kind of stuff they did?
All I knew was Michael. I knew Michael Showalter through a chess shop. It was called the Chess Shop, on Thompson Street [in New York City]. I used to go play chess there, and he and I played chess a few times, but I didn't know his name or anything.

So you just auditioned like any other person.
Yeah, but I remember walking in the room, and I saw Michael, and was like, Oh shit. I wish I hadn't beaten him in chess.  

The movie has such a specific kind of humor. Did the tone take a moment for you to latch onto or did you know what they were going for right away?
I knew who Gene was. When I audition for something, sometimes it's more of a work in progress where I hope I'll find it, and hope I'm the thing they're looking for. But this one: I was locked down. Locked in. I knew this guy. It's one of the few times I actually enjoyed the audition, and felt completely confident in myself and what I was doing. And I walked out of there thinking, I'm your guy, and if you hire me, you made the right choice and if you don't, you made the wrong choice.

Did you get what the movie was trying to do? Like, the tone of it?
You kind of got it on the page. When you intentionally have these teenage camp counselors and they've intentionally written late twentysomethings and early-30-year-olds, you already know you're in a place that's absurd. The first thing coming out of Gene's mouth, you're like, Oh, this guy is ridiculous. 

But the humor of Wet Hot is kind of hard to describe. It feels absurdist, but very specific to that group of people. How would you describe it to people?
I agree, it's definitely an "absurdist comedy," but they have their own rhythm, their own language. It's their unique take on the jazz riff. And I'm also thinking about that movie they did, They Came Together, which was a riff of rom-coms, I thought, Oh, now they're going more Mel Brooks.  

I had a friend who said that. It sort of feels like slightly more unhinged Mel Brooks.
Yeah, definitely. 

I've always wondered something about the original "hump the fridge" scene. Were those kid campers actually in the room watching you hump the fridge?
I insisted that they be there. 

They sort of cut away enough that I wasn't sure.
There comes a time in every kid's life where they have to learn the facts. And I thought it was important that they stay there and watch me enjoy the fridge.

Did the kids keep a straight face?
They did once I pulled out the bulletin board and gave a presentation about how it works. Anatomically.

So they ask you to do this new Wet Hot prequel series. Was that an immediate yes?
Oh, yeah. Without question. It's pretty obvious. When you get everybody from Paul Rudd to Elizabeth Banks and that young upstart Bradley Cooper, I think you say yes.  

Was it fun to be back on set, or was it tough to jump around with everyone's crazy schedules?
It felt great. David [Wain] and Michael [Showalter] always have a great set. A collaborative, fun, very productive set. And I hadn't seen these guys in five years, and I felt like we picked it right back up. It felt like coming home and visiting an old friend. 

Did they tell you anything about Gene's backstory before you jumped back in?
No, they didn't. I mean, it was so out of left field, as is their way. They invited me in for a discussion about my character, because I think they were afraid that I'd go, "What the fuck?" [Laughs] So they tried to explain it to me, who my character was, and the evolution of him. 

Gene's look in the prequel is kind of incredible. Did you have any say in the costume and/or wig department?
They had a very specific idea of the hair. But the clothes: that was a collaborative effort.

That wig is spectacular.
It's spectacular.