Here’s the moment that tells you everything you need to know about Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, the feverishly anticipated, eight-episode comedy series debuting on Netflix on July 31. It’s when two of the counselors at Camp Firewood, in Maine, challenge each other to a “shofar dick sword fight.”
It’s a throwaway bit, barely a joke, and immensely juvenile and stupid, but I’d bet my toddler’s college fund that the “shofar dick sword fight” line will be quoted, more or less incessantly, for the next 20 years. It reflects the parody of teen movies and their gross-out humor, plus the over-the-top absurdism and gleeful Jewishness, that made Wet Hot American Summer such a delight back in 2001.
Now, if you don’t already love Wet Hot American Summer, chances are pretty good that you will fall into the group that can’t stand it. Lots of critics certainly felt that way, when the movie appeared in theaters almost 15 years ago. Roger Ebert awarded it a single star, USA Today called it “downright disturbing,” and the Washington Post’s reviewer said “it was so depressing I almost started to cry.”
But for comedy obsessives under 40, it’s as venerable a landmark as we have, up there with Mr. Show with Bob and David, and maybe even seasons 3 through 7 of The Simpsons. In other words, it’s understood as one of the starting points for everything important that has happened in comedy in the 21st century.
That explains why this new prequel series, created by Michael Showalter and David Wain, was produced by Netflix. The 2001 movie flopped in theaters, but found its fans on DVD, and then, powerfully, as a digital stream; at any moment over the last decade or so, you could be sure that somewhere, hundreds of twenty- and thirty-somethings were watching it, raptly reciting along with a script they’ve more or less memorized. The host of NPR’s “Bullseye,” Jesse Thorn, noted on-air not too long ago that his litmus test for who can be his friend is, simply, whether or not a person enjoys Wet Hot American Summer.
What inspires such devotion? For one thing, the cast, which, for the original film, included pre-Saturday Night Live Amy Poehler, pre-Hangover Bradley Cooper, and post-bat-mitzvah-DJ Paul Rudd, each of whom has since anchored multiple summer blockbusters. It’s telling of the filmmakers’ perspicacity that the movie featured the voice acting of H. Jon Benjamin long before it became obvious that he is the most beloved alternative comedy voice actor of his generation.
The film’s anthological quality allowed many beloved performers to shine: Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, and Molly Shannon have never had juicier film roles. The movie helped Elizabeth Banks break out, and one can only pity the viewer who knows Christopher Meloni from Oz or SVU but can’t immediately summon to mind his indelible performance as Gene, the Vietnam vet and camp cook given to interspersing barked orders with disquietingly sexual non sequiturs (for example: “Finish up them taters, I’m gonna go fondle my sweaters”).
For the prequel, Wain and Showalter have not only pulled off the trick of getting everyone to come back (even after having not really paid them the first time around), but they have also added many more beloved comedians, as well as people we don’t think of as comic actors in ridiculous roles. The list includes Jason Schwartzman, Michael Cera, John Slattery, Michaela Watkins, Lake Bell, Rob Huebel, Jordan Peele, Paul Scheer, Josh Charles, “Weird” Al Yankovic, Jon Hamm, and Kristen Wiig. True to form, none of these are just Entourage-style cameos; the show gives all these people something meaty to do, whether it’s performing as a hypnotist, shooting people in the head, or seducing a 15 year old.
A string of bravura performances might have been enough to earn the film its following. But what pushed Wet Hot American Summer further into audiences’ hearts was its ballsy style. On one hand the film presented impressively mimetic parody, and on the other it was defined by a willingness to follow a joke anywhere. If you’ve watched the best comedies on television now—Inside Amy Schumer, Louie, and Key & Peele, among others—you’ll know what this mix of high production value with an anarchical follow-the-joke sensibility looks like. In Wet Hot American Summer, as on these shows, all manner of violence, sex, and insanity are on the table, if they’ll serve a joke: Kids are casually murdered, heroin is shot, pedo- and ephebophilia run rampant. Foley effects worthy of a lousy AM radio show and slapstick pratfalls too broad for a comic strip are deployed lovingly and unapologetically. Canned vegetables offer heartfelt, disturbing advice.
It’s absolute mayhem, in other words, in service of jokes. And it lets the audience know that this is one comedy that won’t slide into a cliché of underdogs triumphing as strings swell in its last 30 minutes. (When a bus from another camp shows up for a climactic softball game, the campers object that this seems like “well-worn territory,” and the game is called off.) In fact, some of Wet Hot American Summer is so gloriously absurd that it can’t be summarized meaningfully at all: One odd moment, when three characters stand immobile up against a building, is a perfect little work of surrealist art and makes me laugh out loud every time I see it.
All these elements are amped up in the prequel, especially through a set of jokes implicit in the chronology. The 2001 film was set on the last day of camp of the 1981 summer season; this eight-episode prequel, as the title implies, is set on the first day of that same summer. What this means is that the old people who were playing teenagers in 2001 are now much older—but also that any unfamiliar characters we see at the beginning of First Day of Camp need to somehow be squared away by the time the series ends. We get the sense, pretty quickly, that a lot of people are going to die brutal and hilarious deaths over the course of the next few episodes.
Another reason that a certain kind of fan adored the original Wet Hot American Summer so much was that it milked the Jewishness of summer camp for laughs in a way that mocked and undermined an evergreen Hollywood tradition of rewriting Jews’ experiences as mainstream, uninflected American ones.
Consider for a moment the camp comedy that most directly inspired Wet Hot American Summer: Ivan Reitman’s Meatballs (1979):
If the film is remembered now mostly as the beginning of Bill Murray’s astonishing string of film performances—and no one could imagine Meatballs as any kind of hit without him—just about everything else in it was pure Canadian Jewishness. Scrapped together on a small budget when Reitman, who’d been a producer of Animal House (1978), realized he needed to direct if he wanted any respect from the studios, the film was shot at Camp White Pine in Haliburton, Ontario, one of a dozen or more camps orbiting Toronto and founded by Jews, serving mostly Jewish kids, and with some degree of Jewish programming. The supporting cast consisted largely of local Jewish actors, like Jack Blum, who played Spaz, and Harvey Atkin as the camp director.
Yet aside from Atkin’s character being named “Morty Melnick,” there’s nary a mention of Jewishness, nor a word of Yinglish uttered, in Reitman’s movie. And no one ever says that Camp North Star’s antagonists, the cardigan- and dress-shirt-wearing rich kids from Camp Mohawk (“The Most Glamorous of All Summer Camps”), are entitled Toronto WASPs, though of course that’s who they are.
This whitewashing of Jewishness out of pop culture is an old, old story, and it isn’t specific to camp movies; it’s true of plenty of other Hollywood representations of American teens, too. The Czech Jew who wrote the novel that was the basis for Gidget (1959) was inspired by his own surfing daughter, Kathy Kohner, who went on to marry a scholar of Yiddish literature—but that didn’t make it into the sequels. One could even argue that a substantial element of John Hughes’ magic was to take places and performers that could be read as specifically Jewish—Skokie, Illinois, in Sixteen Candles, say, or Matthew Broderick, who not long before becoming Ferris Bueller played Eugene Morris Jerome in Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs—and render them approachably all-American, neither too WASPy nor Jewish per se.
By the turn of the new millennium, not much remained of the sense that a character’s Jewishness disqualified him from representing mainstream American adolescence. Teen comedies from American Pie (1999) to Adventureland (2009) made the Jewishness of their characters explicit, and the consistent, casual, blink-and-you’ll-miss it Jewish moments in the movies of Judd Apatow and his circle seem to be there to acknowledge that, hey, there are some Jews over here, and it’s OK!
Wet Hot American Summer went further, which made sense given its setting. Summer camp without Jewishness, as in Meatballs, smells fishy. Yes, of course, there are overnight camps with no Jews, but there must be a reason that the best-known comedy song about American summer camps was a hit by the same guy who sang “The Ballad of Harry Lewis,” and that midcentury Jewish intellectuals like Philip Roth and Paul Goodman set their early fictions at sleepaway camps, and that the strangest, blackest summer camp comedy ever is a farcical Jewish novel by Robert Klane. It’s difficult to say whether Jews attended camp in ways that differed, qualitatively or quantitatively, from their non-Jewish neighbors. But this much, at least, is clear: A whole lot of American Jews have gone to overnight camps—60 percent of those between the ages of 18-34, according to a 2011 study of Jews in New York—and camp means a whole lot to Jews, at least according to the social scientists who have demonstrated camps to be more effective than just about any other institutions in making American kids feel that Jewishness matters to them.
What Wet Hot American Summer did, back in 2001, was strip off the whitewash. Meatballs begins with Murray groping for his microphone to make his wake-up broadcast; at Camp Firewood, announcements are the province of an unshowered kid DJ styling himself Arty “The Beekeeper” Solomon (and voiced by Samm Levine). Arty assures his fellow campers, five minutes into the original Wet Hot American Summer movie, that though it’s the last day of camp and he’ll be ending his broadcasts soon, “those of you in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area can hear me all winter long on Jewish Day School Radio, 89.9 FM, The Fox.”
There are explicit Jewish jokes like this throughout the movie. The kid who helps Molly Shannon’s character, a fragile A&C instructor, pick up the pieces after her divorce, asks her to “excuse the Yiddish” before admitting that men are “insensitive schmucks.” When Garofalo, as the camp’s director, reels off a list of campers’ names, it becomes clear that she is just halfheartedly improvising Jewish ones: “Amanda Klein… Jessica Azaria… Ira… Stevenberg, Sol… Zimmer… stein… uh, David… Ben-Gurion… .” Michael Showalter’s character, telling a girl that he has fallen for her, explains his passion this way: “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.”
These Jewish jokes work at least in part because it’s a relief, once in a while, to acknowledge that there are places like summer camp—and NYU, where Wain and Showalter founded their comedy group, The State; not to mention any number of writer’s rooms, movie sets, and other crucial comedy institutions—where it can sometimes seem like everybody’s Jewish, even if technically they’re not.
In the more-of-the-same fashion that will make First Day of Camp a necessary binge-watch for everyone who loved Wet Hot American Summer, this Jewish schtick returns in full force, too. Notably, Wain, who directed but didn’t act in the original, plays Yaron, a new soccer counselor from Israel, who spouts both real and gibberish Hebrew and hits on Showalter’s character’s girlfriend, Donna Berman (played by Lake Bell). Donna herself is freshly returned from a life-changing semester abroad in Israel that inspired her to bring shofars for everybody at camp. Wain’s Israeli is a cartoon, of course—shades of Adam Sandler’s Zohan character—but rooted in the reality of those Israeli shlichimwho routinely airdrop into American Jewish teenage situations, adding a tiny bit of maturity and a lot of sexual energy.
Even more satisfying, though, in terms of redressing the erasure exemplified by Meatballs, is the introduction of rival Camp Tiger Claw, which features pastel-cardiganed WASP villains, played to the hilt by Josh Charles and Kristin Wiig. Charles chastises his girlfriend for her interest in Camp Firewood: “Do you want to hang out with the future leaders of the world, or a bunch of sunburned Jews?” As in Meatballs, it’s pretty obvious which of the two groups is having more fun—the key difference is that here, no one’s pretending not to know who’s who.
Intensely silly, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp will delight so many fans and strike exactly no one as a work of serious art. But that’s what makes it a valuable indicator of the state of play for Jewishness in American comedy right now.
We’re clearly in a moment of extraordinary possibility, borne out on shows like Jill Soloway’s Transparent and Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s Broad City. Showalter and Wain represent a somewhat distinct tradition, priceless in its own way: that of Mel Brooks, whose anarchically absurd parodies never hesitated to draw upon yiddishkeit, and before him, the Fleischer brothers, who inserted little Yiddish vitzn into their wild Betty Boop cartoons. What they’ve done is update this approach for an audience suckled on pop culture clichés, and for whom Jewishness is fluid, hard to pin down, but as comfortable as the clothes you pack for camp.
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Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.