The Story Behind the Brilliant Many Endings of Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later

One ending Photo: Saeed Adyani / Netflix

True love stories have no endings is a quote I once used to open a wedding ceremony I officiated; Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later has, like, so many endings. Remember how Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King had three endings? Well, this had more. I don’t know, like 12. And it was freaking brilliant.

At their best, as they are here, creators David Wain and  Michael Showalter are able to both parody ending tropes while using their vocabulary for real emotional impact. Whether it’s Gary’s glowing restaurant review to JJ instantly getting accepted into Sundance to Katie’s new fall color to, wait, maybe none of this happened after all? This is the story about all of them and what they mean for the future of the franchise. Ahead, Wain walks us through how it all came together.

The ending has two sections, so let’s first start with the reveal that Reagan’s nuclear threat was a trick. How did that come up?
My best recollection is that we just did a lot of brainstorming. We knew early on that we wanted this plot involving the nuclear bomb and the president and all that, and somewhere in the earlyish stages of plotting out the season, the idea came up to make it a game, not so much to explain the insanity of it, because there’s plenty of insanity already in WHAS, but to give it a good ending. I remembered seeing the movie The Game by David Fincher and I thought the movie was okay, but the ending made it great.

It just felt fun and keeping with the sensibility that this whole thing was a game. Also, it gave us the puzzle throughout the season, which was fun for us to figure out how it makes sense, going backwards. It’s similar to how it was fun to do the puzzle of making the prequel fit into all the random bits of material that were in the original movie.

Having it be a lesson felt very you guys.
It’s definitely in line with things we’ve done. Like on our show Stella, there was this big, celebratory ending, where we introduced the cast, and everyone was like, “It was really a lesson about friendship,” and then it was revealed the three Stella guys were the ones who architected the whole plan. It just seemed to fit.

In the prequels, you had Gene fight Jon Hamm and then right after you have the reveal Jon Hamm was the man on the inside, which is a sort of smaller version of this. Was this sort of deliberately heightening what happened in the last one?
There’s always a fine line between retreading and motifs. I do think a lot about whether we’re repeating a joke. Certainly, there are repeated jokes, very much on purpose, throughout our body of work. In fact, there’s a direct reference to They Came Together in First Day of Camp. So the little nods and winks and repeats are a part of it, but I do care to make an effort to never repeat an actual joke that we’ve done before, ever. As the decades pile up, that can be overwhelming, but the truth is, in my opinion, it’s not. There’s always another joke to do, and every situation is different. Many times, we’ll write something or do something, and then we’ll look at it and say, “Wait a minute, this is exactly the joke we did in The State in 1993,” so we have to think of something different.

How did it exactly work to build the game? It seems like the idea came up in the brainstorm. Did you then go backwards and add things to eventually pay off or it was just a matter of figuring out how to loop what you already had into this game?
Sort of. We made something of a decision to not worry too much about trying to reverse-engineer the game since it doesn’t really make sense, but we did try to keep track of it throughout and make sure that, as convoluted as the plot is, it all did track and make sense. We were constantly, throughout the shooting, catching little inconsistencies and trying to fix them, because the rule of thumb I go with in WHAS is “unless it’s deliberately a joke, make it real and make it true.” That goes for everything from set design to performance to plot and dialogue. We keep the veracity high so that when we depart from it, it’s always deliberate.

I had two favorite parts from the reveal.
By the way, we had an idea that we would have a Facebook Live event with Clinton, Bush, and Reagan answering all the questions and going into great detail about how all of this makes sense.

I thought the idea that the family were all members of Groundlings was so perfect.
The Groundlings, for some reason, has always been in my mind (and maybe I’m speaking for Showalter), that other adult comedy group we never had anything to do with. We stayed in NYC in our own bubble, and we were never involved with Second City or Groundlings or anything. It just felt like the right reference.

One of my favorite jokes, by the way, is when they get into the kitchen with Gene and Jason Schwartzman and they’re like to Nurse Nancy, “She’s the mole,” as if the word had ever been mentioned in the entire series. We were like, “Oh, there must be a mole in this” for people to know that a conspiracy was even happening.

The series is partly about how people are waiting for the reunion to sort of unlock their development. The nuclear warhead flying in the air sort of condensed the plot of the entire series in an interesting way. It’s like, “y’all better grow up now.”
I would say that what the three installments of WHAS share, and what we tried to do, is to create this one, defining, huge moment that ties together all the different stories, both thematically and as an event. This takes inspiration from the movies that inspired the first movie, where there’s one day with a lot of different stories and they all climax at the end — like Nashville and Do the Right Thing. A lot of times, an ensemble/reunion movie ends with each story line coming to some completion and then that’s that, so we obviously just wanted to up the stakes a million times. Also, we wanted to capture the feeling and structure of a whodunit, where you don’t know what’s going on, and then here’s the big answer.

After that, there’s all the endings in a row. What was your thinking behind that — to give everyone a type of happy ending?
As is often the case, it seems, we are just making lemonade out of the situation we had. We had so many things we wanted to hit to wrap up this year, and so it kept piling on, and we were like, “This is way too many endings and way too much ending material,” and then at a certain point, we were like, “Okay, let’s lean into that.” We were never quite sure how much to do that until we got into the edit. We were seeing this constant “one week later,” “one month later,” “one year later” being funny to us. I’m happy with the never-ending ending. That ties up what, as a viewer, I want to see.

Since there are so many endings, I am just going to run through a few of my favorites, and see what you remember about coming up with it.

Josh Charles’s build up of the perfect person to take over the camp, only for it to be completely unknown character.
I loved the idea that they just announce “Howard and Debbie Fortner,” who are your classic people to run the camp. There was a longer speech he gave where he did a whole monologue, but we didn’t include it.

Beth is going to fund Gary’s restaurant which opens in a week.
That was partly just trying to piece the puzzle together. Beth’s got money so the money can go to the restaurant, and the restaurant is going to be the continuation of the Firewood spirit. And it’s basically, “how many different kinds of endings/movie tropes can we fit into one episode?”

The McKinley-Ben ending, which was not a happy one.
Ben and McKinley’s characters have evolved to have the most real-life interactions, whether it’s the only actual sex scene in the first movie, or the way they meet and fall in love in the second, so it struck us as funny that it was all a game, but then — “Julie Levinson, come out, Julie!” and it’s like, “Oh shit, not that one.” When we had the first table read of that section, I remember being like, “Oh my god, this is so funny,” because you’re hearing Michael as Reagan going “Julie! Julie! Come out here, Julie!” and I just cracked up. Then when we shot it, Adam Scott and Michael Ian Black are so brilliant in their dead serious, frozen reaction. There was even more of them at the dinner — “How’s the soup?” “This is our life now.” It cracks me up doing this against the light, fluffy, silliness of the rest of it.

Claire and Mark are staying together using the tapes, which was maybe not what was expected.
I’ve always liked the realistic, not-so-happy ending for that story, like with the Sydney Pollack character in Husbands and Wives who sees them back together and is like, “That doesn’t seem right,” but it’s real. We had to wrap up so many things in that dinner scene, but we could’ve gone into that in more detail and shown how sad it is that they are back together.

Then you have JJ with the New York Times review, “It’s very delicious.”
To me, that’s some of the funniest dialogue. I think Showalter wrote it. It’s so utterly banal, but it cracks me up. Like, “Who gives a shit?”

And to have that in a row, with JJ sending his documentary to Sundance and have it accepted  immediately. And then Katie finds her new color, and it’s a hit immediately.
Well, I guess it all sprouts from what we did at the end of the original movie, where he gets the Hopkins award and then she’s pregnant immediately.

Then the reveal to have it actually be a wedding reception. Are you sort of going in order and seeing where the rhythm wants a twist?
A little bit. It was definitely figuring out, “how do we get an ending for every single character in there?” We wanted each character to have one final reveal or turn in there. There was actually more of a resolve, for example, between Neil and Sheri, but we realized they had enough of an ending where they kiss in front of the house, so we didn’t need to include an extra beat for them there.

And then Paul Rudd’s character coming back. You have sentimental music and then he immediately leaves.
This is where someone’s going to correct me and I’ll get embarrassed, but I think that might have been his idea on the day. We had other ones where I think in the script it was something less clever, where he was like, “Anyway, I have to take a shit” or something. The simplicity of having him say “I gotta take off” is great.

Then it’s one month later, Coop finishes the book and it’s revealed to be a Life of Pi thing where maybe the entire thing didn’t happen. Was that a reference as an ending type, or was it the desire to create a mystery about what is real?
Well, which answer would you prefer?

I think I’d prefer not to know.
So it goes with God! It was interesting. I read a bunch of comments online that some people were bummed by the implication that it was all made up, but I don’t think that’s what we’re saying at all! I think we’re saying, I don’t know! Personally, I think it’s ambiguous.

Well, with “one year later,” where it’s a book, there’s the potential reading that maybe it didn’t happen and Janeane Garofalo is just a person reading this book and casting herself and her partner in roles. I think ultimately you’re just writing questions that would be funny to write, not necessarily, “this is the plot you’re trying to get across.”
Exactly. Similarly, when we did the ending to First Day of Camp with Eric hitching a ride to New York City, there was absolutely no meaning behind it that we had in our heads. We then had to figure out what it meant the next time. I don’t know if that’s what that means for this time, but I definitely think there are many ways to interpret the last scene. Mike and I talked about them, and we decided to leave it that way, that there are many ways to interpret. We had slightly different ideas of what it was as we were writing, shooting, and editing it.

You edited it to not have a clear ending?
Yeah. There were different tweaks we made just to pitch it in exactly the right way, but she does say in the dinner scene, “I’m going to use the money to do something for a friend,” which to me is an implication that she’s going to spend the money to cure Mitch of his canned fate. That’s one possible interpretation.

The ending makes fun of endings, but also uses those tropes to effectively have endings for these characters you want us to care about, and that you care about. How do you walk that line?
In the style of comedy that we do, where we’re undercutting potential investments at every turn, we then try to keep the heart and soul of it alive throughout each scene, and that’s the crazy balancing act. In They Came Together, the performances, warmth, chemistry, and real love between Paul and Amy overcomes the insane absurdity of every moment. You can have both happening at the same time. I don’t like endings that say, “Screw you for investing in this! None of it is real!” That’s certainly not what I thought it was.

Do you feel like you’ve gotten better at executing this sort of tone?
Well, I can tell you that I was very reluctant to jump back into it when we did First Day of Camp. There was an alchemy of things that made Wet Hot American Summer happen, and who knew if we were trying to chase something from our youth that wasn’t the same anymore. The goal for me, or the way we set out to do it, was to not try to channel who we were then, but to do something that feels funny to us now and is part of the thing we started. For my money, we pulled it off and made it work trying to do it again. The question of whether we get better is interesting to me also because I don’t know. What makes the job interesting is that you’re still starting from scratch every time. Personally, I’ve looked back on stuff we did on The State and thought, I’m not sure we’ve ever gotten better than that.

I learned a ton about how to do things on a practical level, and how to do things faster and with a higher ratio. One of the things that worked out really well this time is that, from a production POV, we wanted to be three times as big as the last season, but the budget/schedule were not three times bigger. What we had was the experience of doing it and our batting average went way up. There were very few, if any, scenes that we cut out or things we had to completely rethink from what we shot, which is not usually how it is in comedy. We are learning to catch our mistakes or punch things up in the earlier part of the process so that we don’t have to do so much fixing in the later parts.

At this point, you’ve done these three entries. If you did another one, does it have to be at camp?
I have no official answer about what we’ll do with this, but I know we’re excited about it, and we have to have exactly that discussion: Is it this setting? The characters? The time period? We already realized it doesn’t have to be 1981, and I’m personally excited to explore these avenues or questions that we asked during the last three things in more specific detail. I’d love to see a whole movie about Gene and the falcon in ’Nam, or Lindsay and Ellen running Rock ‘n’ Roll World Magazine in Manhattan. But I’m sure we’ll pick up and do something with it. Wet Hot American Summer has more to go.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later’s Ending Explained