So glad to be back where we left each other exactly two years ago, two graduates of accredited universities, each of us tax-paying and law-obeying, one of us with as many arm tattoos as the other has advanced degrees, arguing about the merits of a television show that stars a talking can of vegetables. I could only be referring, naturellement, to Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later, the second sequel to Wet Hot American Summer, the 2001 “movie,” set at Camp Firewood in the summer of ’81, beloved of comedy nerds and unknown to anyone else. Two years ago, we quarreled about the original WHAS as an amuse-bouche for WHAS: First Day of Camp, which was about to debut on Netflix. Since I was unable to strangle that first sequel in its cradle, it lived, grew up fast and spawned the new eight-part series, streamable Aug. 4, and set in 1991, 10 years after the first two parts of the biblical epic took place.
Confused yet? Yeah, me too, and I am getting paid not to be. For a little more background, read our original dialogue, or just know this: WHAS: 10 Years Later features a reunion of these mostly Jewish, entirely stupid summer-camp counselors and hangers-on played by Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Michael Showalter, Molly Shannon, Lake Bell, Janeane Garofalo, Elizabeth Banks, and other people I’ve been known to pay $12 to watch in movies with actual scripts. The plot, which one hopes is improvised, involves a summer-camp reunion and the destruction of said camp by presidents Reagan and Bush père, with the collusion of the richies who populate Camp Tiger Claw across the lake.
By this point, Marjolaine, our dear readers are either in or out. It’s either their cup of lapsang souchong or it’s not. As you know, it’s not mine: not in 2001, not in 2015, and not today, when the idea of a deviant amoral president in possession of the launch codes is—what is the mot juste?—I don’t know—less funny than it was in years past. But before I get all mopey and downer-Dan, I’ll be a sport and say a few things I liked about this latest installation.
First, I really dig the energy behind the working-class-camp vs. rich-preppy-camp-across-the-lake subplot. It makes no sense, of course, since a camp filled with Greater New York Jews in the early ’80s is probably not a clutch of poor kids straight outta S.E. Hinton; if these are the poor kids, how rich, exactly, are the Camp Tiger Claw preppies? Which means, I now realize, that this is less a case of poor vs. rich than it is a case of Jew vs. Wasp. Which is, all credit to the writers, much more aggressive than I had given the show credit for.
Second, while we are on Camp Tiger Claw: Rich Sommer, who plays one of the Minor Dicks to Josh Charles’s Major Dick, is an underrated character actor, so good in the recent Love, and is an unbelievably dead ringer for my old college friend the museum curator Graham Boettcher. Seriously, compare this and this. Uncanny.
Third, while we are still on Camp Tiger Claw: Is it wrong that I get a certain warm glow anytime I encounter that tried and true plot of scruffy whitey vs. preppy whitey? Whether in Goodbye, Columbus, The Outsiders (greasers vs. the socs), Pretty in Pink (Blaine vs. Duckie), or the greatest roller-blading movie ever made, Airborne (which features a street hockey duel between the preps and the normal people, in which a young Jack Black features prominently), I always think, “Aw, those were the days, when America’s biggest problem was whether ambitious whitey would get into the country club, get the girl, or, failing, get justice.”
I suppose what I am trying to say, La Marjorie, is that in the battle of Camp Firewood vs. Camp Tiger Claw, there was the germ of a real TV series. Or David Wain’s portrayal of Yaron, the Israeli sex machine. Or in Chris Meloni’s PTSD’s Vietnam-vet character (in Veep and in WHAS, Meloni is getting the comedy career he should have had all along, had he not gotten shanghai’d busting pedophiles with Ice-T on Law and Order: SVU).
But none of those shows got made. Instead, we got this sprawling mess, which I’d call everything but the kitchen sink except that would be an insult to everything. This morning, I was sitting on my bed, watching the last minutes of episode eight, the last episode, when Rebekah, bleary-eyed and aged 10, wandered in, crawled into bed next to me, watched three minutes, and said, nose wrinkled with disgust, “Dad, why are you watching this?”
Now, Mar-maduke, are you going to tell me that Rebekah was wrong?
Sporting “the Rachel,”
I am happy to continue our tradition of Fronchifying names here at Tablet.
So, do you really have three advanced degrees? ‘Cause that’s how many arm tattoos I have now. Is MATH one of your advanced degrees?
Now that the obligatory banter is done, I have bad news. As you know, I loved Wet Hot: The Movie and Wet Hot: First Day of Camp, which is why we had such a fun and productive debate last time around. So what do we fight about now that I agree with you? I found the latest Wet Hot more Damp Lukewarm.
Last time, you argued that the franchise was for comedy nerds and cool kids, and I disagreed. I felt it was genuine in its embrace of nerdiness, its awareness of the liminal power of summer camp, its commitment to dumb jokes, period-costume perfection, and the art of montage. This time, it really did feel like the cool kids just amusing themselves, and the viewer was the only kid in the bunk who hadn’t read Forever or packed a bottle of Love’s Baby Soft in her trunk. This time, the vibe was “cool kids with the power to get a Netflix series greenlit want to hang out again,” which is nice for them, and the jokes were secondary, which is not nice for us. Previous Wet Hot installments were never about character or plot, but they really were funny. (To me! Not to you! Tablet readers can go read our last convo if they want a deep-dive into our feeeeeeeelings.)
But most of Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later (henceforth WHAS10) was just…boring. For me, one of the major problems was that it was no longer about camp. What I loved last time was the sense of place, the Roger-Bennett-ness, the Meatballs-ness, the Jewish-Camp-in-the-‘80s-ness. This version is supposedly set at the junior counselors’ 10-year-reunion in 1991 (which does lend itself to some awesome ‘90s fashion and popcult references; more on those later), but it could have been set almost anywhere. Given that we don’t much care about these people, when place is no longer a character, zzz.
I am with you on the deliciousness of David Wain’s Yaron character, though. As with First Day of Camp, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8gt3bUhPEo I giggled every time he muttered in a hummus-thick fake-Israeli accent peppered with words of actual Hebrew. (I caught a b’seder, a midbar, and the single line that made me laugh the hardest in the show, thanks to his deadpan delivery: “It’s a yeled.”) Youknow, you didn’t like the earlier incarnations of WHAS because you felt it was all an in-joke; perhaps we can agree that we love Yaron because he’s an in-joke we’re both in on. We know that guy; we got the references; we were the demo – nebbish-y Jews who actually attended Jewish summer camps where hot, mumbling, athletic Israelis were sex gods.
Rad HaYom —