As a Swede who has never attended a summer camp similar to the ones immortalised on screen, the whole experience has always felt like a quintessential part of growing up in the US. This perception originated from the media I consumed during my adolescence, portrayals I used to fill my camp-less summers with to try and come closer to the formative coming-of-age experience people seemed to have while sleeping in bunk beds and avoiding poison ivy.
For decades, filmmakers have attempted to capture the magical combination of awkwardness and excitement that defines the camp experience. Whether the environment acts as the backdrop for romance, comedy or horror storylines, there’s no denying that there’s something captivating about the setting that speaks to filmmakers and audiences alike.
If we push the flourishing nature aside, the camp setting might above all feel particularly compelling because it’s suitable for storylines that take place during a single day or follow several characters that cross paths. A film that excels at both is the cinematic masterpiece Wet Hot American Summer, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. So bring out your sandals, ringer tees, knee-high socks and puka shell necklaces – we’re going back to Camp Firewood!
Set on the last day of camp in the summer of 1981, Wet Hot American Summer follows a group of campers and counsellors that try to complete their unfinished business before heading home. Camp director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) flirts with astrophysics associate professor Henry (David Hyde Pierce) whilst he’s trying to save the camp from debris of NASA’s Skylab that’s falling towards them. Simultaneously, Ben (Bradley Cooper) and Susie (Amy Poehler) attempt to put together the best talent show ever, while Victor (Ken Marino) tries to lose his virginity to Abby (Marisa Ryan). Coop (Michael Showalter) pines after Katie (Marguerite Moreau), even though she’s in a relationship with her unfaithful boyfriend Andy (Paul Rudd). As you can tell, a lot is going on, and it’s only half of it.
The Beekeeper, the camp’s very own radio-personality, quickly sets up the stakes for much of the film: hook up or vanish in sheer embarrassment. While this pressure is nothing new, it’s especially prominent during the last day of camp. You can go the whole summer without kissing someone, but if you manage to make it happen on the last night of camp, nothing before matters. The counsellors even go so far in their search for a summer romance that they neglect their campers to the point that two drowns and another two are dumped to cover it up.
Directed by David Wain from a screenplay by Wain and Showalter, Wet Hot American Summer premiered at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival where it was screened four times to sold-out crowds. However, the film received poor reviews and a modest theatrical release. Despite famously being a critical and commercial failure, the film has since developed a cult following, with new fans discovering it every year. Personally, it’s the unique combination of absurd silliness and genuine exploration of human emotions that repeatedly charms me.
It’s worth noting early on that everything about Wet Hot American Summer is ridiculous, and during every watch you might discover something new. Besides misplaced shattering sounds, the film features physical comedy, breaking of the fourth wall, intentional plot holes and continuity errors, a trip into town (which shows that you can hit rock-bottom and turn your life around within the same hour), jokes about semantics and the original song “Higher and Higher”, which is arguably the best 80s anthem that never existed during the period. After all, it’s a song that saves friendships. However, it’s all pretty normal compared to the refrigerator-humping Gene (Christopher Meloni) or a can of mixed vegetables (Jon H. Benjamin) talking about how he can pleasure himself orally.
Besides an iconic training montage, there are two longer sequences in the film that never fail to make me laugh. One of them starts with Coop walking back and forth in front of a group of young campers, psyching them up before an upcoming (and previously unheard of) softball game against the rich, and therefore evil, Camp Tiger Claw. Suddenly, during the build-up, it becomes apparent that the campers find the game trite. Right then and there, they decide to call it off without ever mentioning the game again.
The other sequence is when Neil (Joe Lo Truglio) abandons the campers mid-rafting to find Victor, the only one who knows how to safely navigate the river. When Neil eventually catches up to Victor, the chase ends with a slow-motion shot of Victor jumping over a sheaf of hay followed by Neil stopping with his motorcycle and clenching his fist in the annoyance of not being able to follow him. The thing is though, the obstacle is ridiculously small, but portraying it like it’s insuperable makes me laugh every single time. Later, when Victor eventually has a change of heart and decides to save the young campers, they’ve apparently not moved at all even though they’ve been out on the river for hours.
However, just because it’s a film with silly jokes, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of hard work behind making them. Both the cast and crew worked hard and the dedication of everyone shines through the screen. The film was supposed to take place over the course of a sunny day, but in reality, out of the 28 filming days, it rained on 23 days, which caused obvious production challenges. Despite the difficulties it caused, it might’ve been a blessing in disguise as it forced the cast to spend more time together. The work done behind the scenes deepens what viewers see portrayed on screen and, in the end, the collective decision to embrace the situation only highlights the camp experience and how much fun they’re having.
The similarities between these people trying to savour every little moment during the last day of camp and these days of feeling stressed to make up for the time many of us feel that we’ve lost due to the pandemic are undeniable. Throughout life, there’s often this pressure – sometimes from ourselves and sometimes from our surroundings – that we need to reach certain milestones at specific ages otherwise we’ve failed. The pandemic has affected all of us in ways we haven’t even had the time to process, let alone move on from. Many of us, who feel like we’ve lost crucial time into the great unknown, fear that time is running out for the things we desire to do, that things are “put on pause” and/or that we’re simply missing out in life. While we can currently only dream of engaging in life as carefree and fully as these characters, Wet Hot American Summer feels surprisingly comforting in its displays of basic human needs and expressions – maybe especially so due to its exaggerations.
While everything is heightened for comedic effect, there’s genuine authenticity in the emotions behind the exaggerated silliness that provides relatability for viewers. These teenagers feel it all, be it love and passion or heartbreak and pain. The film features excessive displays of emotions, whether it’s disproportionate amounts of tears streaming down someone’s face, intense kissing (the more visible tongue, the better) or overly dramatic body language. When explorations of emotions are done through comedy, there’s a specific kind of humanity that shines through – maybe above all because many of us use comedy as a way to express the things we feel anxious and insecure about.
The most prominent gag in Wet Hot American Summer is that the film features adults pretending to be teenagers. While some actors are portraying characters closer to their age, a majority of them are portraying 16-17 years olds even though they’re well into their 20s and some even in their early 30s. While adults portraying teenagers are, in other cases, often the cause of criticism and misrepresentation, Wet Hot American Summer uses it as an intentional gag while also succeeding in convincing the audience that it’s the only viable option. These characters wish to feel accepted, and the feelings they go through are recurring throughout life. Seeing these adults, who clearly are much older than the characters they portray, results in a kind of humbleness that using actual teenagers wouldn’t. When you’re a teenager, you often feel very deeply and you’re bubbling with emotions that are hard to navigate through for anyone regardless of age. By choosing to use adult actors, this struggle is only emphasised.
Wet Hot American Summer is a film predominantly about people whose deepest wish is to feel accepted, loved and validated. Besides secret lovers McKinley (Michael Ian Black) and Ben, the two most prominent characters in this search are Coop and Victor. Coop, who pines after Katie, has to go through a self-discovery journey until he understands that no matter what he changes, he ultimately can’t change how Katie feels. He needs to realise that it’s not about the girl, it’s about him. Then there’s Victor, who is so insecure about his sexual inexperience that he tries to cover it up by proclaiming himself to be the biggest stud. While it could’ve easily felt tiring to listen to him constantly talk about sex, there’s something in Marino’s portrayal that comes across as more goofy and heartfelt. Victor is the loud and talkative guy that always has a dirty joke to tell. However, underneath the surface, he’s only insecure and feels the need to put on a show to feel accepted by his peers.
The jokes in the film might initially come across as absurd, but they are very much based on the realities of being a confused teenager with mood swings surrounded by like-minded people. Take, for instance, Coop, who lets his inner wishes – captured in the sentence “I want you inside me” – accidentally slip out after he talks to Katie. He quickly tries to save it by correcting himself, but at that specific moment, Coop was honest. As a teenager, it’s a blurry line between social success and disaster amongst your peers. Letting something accidentally slip out in conversation can haunt you for years to come, but so can also having a romance with the most popular person at camp so it’s worth a try.
Wet Hot American Summer comforts me to the point that every re-watch feels like a 97 minutes long break where I trade whatever problems I might’ve to the comical events at Camp Firewood. No matter how down I feel, hearing the sound of a ceramic vase breaking always makes me smile – especially since the film uses the noise for increasingly outlandish objects and actions (like jumping into the water). While there can be authentic portrayals of human emotions behind the jokes, it’s also essential to allow things to be silly solely for the sake of being silly. Whether it’s the shirt exchange between Coop and Katie when it’s cold or Andy squirming and grunting as much as possible when he’s forced to clean up after himself, the film takes familiar scenarios and pushes them over the edge to see what happens.
Besides campfires, s’mores and friendship bracelets that you promise to never take off (a promise rarely kept), summer camp might above all be associated with a taste of freedom away from home. While Wet Hot American Summer is silly, it has a big heart and everyone is welcome at Camp Firewood. Are there less popular people? Sure, but in the end, people are celebrated and seen as more than what other people judged them to be. In the words of shell-shocked Vietnam War veteran Gene: “Be proud of who you are.”
Based on their own experiences from summer camp while growing up, co-writers Showalter and Wain created something special that, twenty years later, still captivates viewers all over the world. While I might not know much about the real-life camp experience, I do know that it’s about creating memories and, if there’s something we crave, it’s to reach the days when we can make the kind of memories worthy of a mention in our “gournals” again. When that day finally comes, I know for sure that I’ll seize every day like it’s the last day of camp.
by Rebecca Rosén
Rebecca Rosén (she/her) is a writer from Sweden with a university background in film, TV and gender studies. While enjoying everything from extremely silly to gory, she thinks that it’s better if you care a little bit too much about what you’re watching than not at all. You can find her on Twitter.