Jewish Summer Camp Movies: Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

Some of these essays will be about rediscoveries. As an example, there was a 1980 American comedy called "Gorp" that was set in a Jewish summer camp, and, when I get around to writing about it, not only will I be the first critic to have seriously addressed the film since its debuted, but I will likely be the first critic ever to seriously address the film. It was not well liked and is not well-remembered.

This is not the case with "Wet Hot American Summer." While the film received lukewarm reviews and box office when it first debuted, it's gone on to be a cult hit, and, by now, a mainstream success, with a recent mini-series prequel lensed for Netflix and a documentary about the making of the film, also available on Netflix.

I'll presume you have seen it, and so need not have me detail its episodic plot, nor describe the film's jagged, manic mix of comedic styles, from absurdist nonsense to straight parody to anti-humor. I also need not introduce you to the cast and filmmakers, some of whom were graduates of MTV's The State, others established comic actors, and two first-timers who went on to be legitimate movie stars.

I will say that this is less a single summer camp movie than it is a sort of mad collage, a series of summer camp moments that feel essentially iconic, but distorted through the lens of comedy, each in their own way. The actors tailor their performances to their specific scene, and the result is that sometimes performers seem to be in entirely different movies. SNL's Molly Shannon, playing an arts and crafts teacher, has a surprisingly realistic emotional meltdown as the result of a recent divorce, and is nursed back to mental health with the assistance of sympathetic -- and unnervingly mature -- campers. In the meanwhile, camp cook Christopher Meloni makes constant references to a perverse private life, has conversations with a sentient can of mixed vegetables, and provides an appropriately deranged performance. Shannon and Meloni never share a scene, and it is hard to imagine they share the same universe.

The creative leads behind the movie were David Wain, who cowrote the film and directed, and Michael Showalter, who cowrote the film and plays one of the main characters. And while the film clearly borrows from -- and mocks -- some of the conventions of 80s summer camp comedies, its roots are in actual Jewish summer camps. Both Wain and Showalter attended these camps as boys -- Wain went to Maine's Camp Modin while Showalter went to Camp Mohawk in the Berkshires. Wain, in fact, was so obsessed with his camp experience that when he aged out of being able to work as a counselor, he formed a rock band (the Rockin' Knights of Summer), performing and teaching music at summer camps.

As a result, a lot of the film is grounded in Wain and Showalter's memories, even the stranger stuff. One of the film's oddest moment has womanizer (and secret virgin) Ken Marino spontaneously drive a van into a tree while singing "Danny's Song," and this was based on Wain actually totaling a van when he was a counselor, under conditions almost identical to those in the film.

And so while "Wet Hot American Summer's" Camp Firewood doesn't spend a lot of time addressing the fact that it is a Jewish summer camp, it doesn't shy away from the fact either. Roughly half the cast is Jewish, and Jewish names abound: Gerald "Coop" Cooperberg, Abby Bernstein, Professor Henry Newman. In one scene, camp director Janeane Garofalo rattles off the names of campers, and they are all Jewish, absurdly so: "Amanda Klein, Jessica Azaria, Ira ... Stevenberg, Sol Zimmer ... stein ... uh, David ... Ben Gurion ..."

 The film is full of absurd little Jewish grace notes. When the camp's nerds must build a device to prevent SkyLab from crushing them (don't make me explain), they quickly huddle and pray together in Hebrew. A filthy child who hosts an imaginary radio show also informs listeners that he can be heard on Jewish day school radio. When Showalter confesses his love to a fellow camper, he tells her he doesn't mind that she's occasionally late to shul.

Perhaps the largest hat-tip to the fact that the film is set in a Jewish camp happens at the start and end of the film's climactic talent show. Firstly, the show is emceed, for some reason, by a low-rent Borscht Belt comic named Alan Shemper (also played by Showalter), whose routine consists entirely of jokes about how old he is, and who absolutely kills.

And then we get a musical number, produced by the camp's two most goyish staffers, drama instructors Amy Poehler and Bradley Cooper. For some reason, the two have decided to direct a musical number from "Godspell," the musical in which clown/mimes act out parables from the Gospel of Matthew. As the number end and the stage goes dark, a single cross appears on the camp's back wall.

And the audience boos it.

That's how you make a film set in a Jewish summer camp, folks.