Pulling Focus: Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
“A delectable parody of dawn-of-the-Reagan-era teen flicks… a loving and meticulous recreation of the last moment before American youth culture went permanently ironic.”
– Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
Season of the kitsch
Director and co-writer David Wain’s Wet Hot American Summer is a film that’s charm, cheek, and capricious good nature, albeit dirty-minded, is too much to resist. Well, perhaps that’s an overstatement as the uptight and on edge are bound to be bewildered by much of the lampoonery on parade. After all, it was an unassuming release back in 2001 that, like so many cult classics before it, took a little tenacity before crowds caught on.
Wet Hot American Summer drinks to youthful schmaltz, seditious misdeeds, and angst-filled adolescent lust as it centralizes on satirizing the teen exploitation films of the late ’70s and early ’80s, and more specifically the sub-genre of summer camp films. Those subpar and second-rate moneymakers like Meatballs (1979), Porky’s (1982), and Spring Break (1983), that were briefly ubiquitous either on cable TV, home video, or at multiplexes all over North America.
Horny juveniles charged with losing their virginity and getting potted while they were at it. Clearly this sort of film had a limited shelf life, Wain and his hilarious co-writer Michael Showalter (who also co-stars in two roles) however, saw that they could fashion an homage much better than the genus deserved, perforating not just oversexed teen staples, but dark horse sports clichés, Vietnam-trauma histrionics, gender politics, and much more.
The irreverent opening credit sequence sets up the tongue-in-cheek film that is to follow perfectly; the somewhat sentimental Cooper font, bubbly in appearance and forever associated with the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds—how’s that for nostalgic?—superimposed over warm-hued footage of rollicking teens around a blazing campfire.
There are freeze-frames and sloppy French kisses in excess while the teens themselves illustrate the early 1980s setting with their cut-off jorts, cotton bikini tops, permed hair, mullets, and stubby beer bottles while “Jane” by Jefferson Starship blasts on the soundtrack with all of its sky high hot licks soloing is too cheesy to resist. Yup, before a hint of story has been speculated the period details are near impeccable and the curtain-raiser juxtaposition of boozing, boogying, and face-sucking youth tellingly sets up what will follow.
“Somebody dragged me to that [a midnight showing at Time Square’s AMC Theatre in NYC], I don’t think I wanted to go. But when I got there, I was flabbergasted. There were people in costume, wearing short-shorts and camp T-shirts. They were chanting lines from the movie. I was shocked. My jaw was on the floor. The movie had found an audience on video.”
– David Wain
Children of parodies
As a cult film phenomenon that rewards repeated viewings Wet Hot possesses that je ne sais quoi that mark many a far-off niche picture. Like Airplane! (1980) or The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) it’s self-aware, breaking the fourth wall if it will get a laugh, and similar to Monty Python it romps with an absurdist angle, parodies abounding, often visiting the trashy nabe you’d expect from a John Waters film.
Its large cast and multi-protagonist bend, populated by a veritable who’s who of American comics—we’ll get to them all in a moment—adheres to an Altmanesque template analogous to Nashville (1975) with a multi-episodic mise en scène where the action is limited to the events of a single day, in this instance being the last day of camp, August 18th, 1981.
And like an Altman film, though truthfully his influence must be nominal at best, the vignettes herein take some blackly comic byways, occasionally giving in to cynicism (a disastrous hourlong odyssey into town results in a mugging, hardcore drug use and sex trafficking in a crackhouse in one of the most ludicrous Grand Guignol montages ever assembled).
Wet Hot is so packed with gags that a single viewing couldn’t possibly announce them all. Sure some of the jokes go astray, but it swings at every quip tossed its way and hits more home runs than Barry Bonds or Babe Ruth combined.
The end of camp
Wet Hot American Summer largely unfolds in fictional Camp Firewood amidst the bucolic New England countryside. Wain loosely based the film on his own experiences at Camp Modin in Belgrade, Maine, a Jewish camp where he spent many a youthful summer—the appearance late in the film by a fictional old school Borscht-belt comedian Alan Shemper (played with relish by co-writer Michael Showalter) completes this connection.
Like Dazed and Confused (1993) or Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Wet Hot American Summer features a wealth of pre-stardom actors in its ensemble, including the big screen inauguration of Bradley Cooper (The Hangover, American Hustle) and Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games) as well as early essential performances from Paul Rudd, Marguerite Moreau, and Joe Lo Truglio.
When Wet Hot American Summer made its small theatrical splash in 2001 the only recognizable names in the cast were Janeane Garofalo and David Hyde Pierce––who are both a gas in their understated, sportive roles. It’s a shame that the film’s initial reception was so lukewarm, but when has satire and irony ever made for populist pablum?
In a film so surpassed with send-ups and obeisance to out-of-date pastiche it’s easy to overlook what’s probably the greatest gag in the entire film, a ruse that was lost on many critics when Wet Hot American Summer was originally released; the actors cast to play teenage camp counsellors are not age appropriate at all, they’re all cast too old, noticeably in their late 20s or early 30s.
Perhaps it was too subtle an act of absurdism for pundits at the time, for folks like Roger Ebert, whose sense of humor was always pretty vanilla, he trashed the film, writing one of his most arrogant and stodgy reviews, so out of touch and off that his analysis played on Allan Sherman’s never funny camp song stinker “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh.” But truthfully, that such mainstream perception would be so misread should be worn like a merit badge, should it not? Cult classics herald the bottom dog, the cubbyhole no one else wants to round their shoulders to because it’s chancy and strange and a little bit queer.
“I saw it [Wet Hot American Summer] when I was living in New York. I didn’t know anything about it, I just saw this weird, vintage-looking billboard and I thought, ‘Oh, this might be funny.’ And I went in and absolutely had the time of my life… I loved that it danced this line of being so familiar and relatable and real, yet being absolutely, ridiculously comedic and out of this world and broad…”
– Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) on the NPR show Movies I’ve Seen a Million Times
The lost summer
One of the reasons that I and other acolytes in the Wet Hot camp love the film so much is that it belongs to us, and not just anyone. You’ve got to watch it, succumb to it, and be acclimatized. There’s no didacticism here, just good times and hardy-hars beginning with camp director Beth (Garofalo) who uses the last day of the season to pursue the bookish astrophysicist, Professor Henry Newman (Pierce), who’s holidaying next door. The professor, in turn, spends part of the day trying to prevent a chunk of NASA’s errant Spacelab from crashing into the camp, aided by misfit kids and Dungeons & Dragons nerds. Sure. Why not?
Then there’s the overcompensating pseudo-macho Victor Kulak (a gut-busting Ken Marino), desperate to lose his virginity via fellow camp counsellor Abby Bernstein (a coquettish Marisa Ryan), a real vixen with a reputation for being a lot of a hussy. There’s also dorky counsellor Coop (co-writer Showalter), whose heart is also in twain over the come-hither co-ed Katie (Moreau), whose eyes only see the out-to-lunch lifeguard Andy (Rudd, who steals every scene he’s in).
Other counsellors include a crass McKinley (Michael Ian Black) who routinely sneaks off to steal moments with his gay lover Ben (Cooper), who along with the perpetually pissed-off Susie (a pitch-perfect mega-bitch turn from Amy Poehler) are determined to dominate the upcoming talent show. Gary (A.D. Miles) and J.J. (Zak Orth) are BFFs that are mostly oblivious to anything the campers in their charge are up against, and then there’s the camp cook, Gene (Christopher Meloni), a Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder which often takes the form of a talking tin of vegetables (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin of Bob’s Burgers), sweater fondling, dick cream, and fornication with kitchen appliances, on a good day. And last but not least there’s an arts and crafts class for nine and ten-year-olds where Gail (Molly Shannon, a gas), overcomes her divorce thanks to her young neophytes who have a vast knowledge of matters of the heart.
As the day progresses, alliances alter, jokes backfire and/or flourish, and the counsellors have a hoot, often at the expense of the campers who are largely ignored and are constantly abused, mistreated, and scorned. Essentially we get a goody bag of bits cobbled into a dozen or so plots, many calling for gratuitous neck-spraining tonsil hockey, which in effect resembles the big talent show that equips the capsheaf.
“Wait for me, Abby Bernstein, wait for me!”
Part of what makes Wet Hot American Summer such a charmer, apart from its low budget logic and independent foundations is that it’s so lovably ludicrous and so constantly quotable (“I want you inside me”, “Douche-bags are hygienic products, I take that as a compliment, thank you!”). Wain’s comedy is populated by charming oddballs who define the zeitgeist in winsome ways. Many of the innumerable moments of slapstick, sight gags, non sequiturs, and Yiddish quips (such as when Coop confides in Katie, “I love the way you laugh and I love the way your hair smells and I love it that sometimes for no reason you’re late for shul…”) recall the Marx Brothers comic legacy.
Memorable moments abound (Beth losing her shit demanding “the phone, the phone, where is the fucking phone?!”), running gags run amok (the same low-rent glass-shattering sound effect is used every time something breaks, for instance), and every actor onboard gets at least one moment (often many more) in the self-evident sun.
That all these finely-tuned takeoffs land so merrily must be that both Wain, Showalter, and much of the cast all previously worked together on the short-lived but influential sketch comedy series for MTV, The State (1993 – 1995).
The steady growing cult that has embraced Wet Hot is a blessed bunch in light of the recent Netflix series, a prequel called Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (2015), which smashed records for the streaming service as well as the forthcoming second season, Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later (2017). Both seasons impressively reunite all twenty original cast members along with a wealth of new faces to the show, including Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Jordan Peele, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, and “Weird Al” Yankovic amongst them.
As far as uncouth spoof-derived comedies go, Wet Hot is one where the fast and funny pace never flags, where yearnings are both palpable and pretend, where surrealism surfaces just to make you smile, and where superficiality is skewered with wisecracks and youthful remorse. It’s a mistake to relegate a contemporary comedy such as this to the second ranks when Wet Hot American Summer has first-class humor and high spirits without end. Well, I for one am a happy camper, how about you?
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.