So yesterday, when I said to you that I didn’t like the original Wet Hot American Summer movie, the cult classic that has spawned a new Netflix series debuting July 31, I got that look that usually I only see when I tell a soccer fan that, no, Americans will never truly care about the game. Or when I tell a “foodie” that Chipotle makes an excellent burrito. And then I knew: as much as you and I have in common—the expensive education; the excellent hair, wavy but not unruly; the ability to produce only daughters—we may never overcome the gulf between us. You are one of those Wet Hot American Summer people, and I am not.
For those not in the know (i.e., most of the world), WHAS is a 2001 movie about a bunch of summer campers and their counselors hijinxing through the final day of Camp Firewood, in the summer of 1981. It stars many of the big stars in our current comedy constellation: Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, Molly Shannon, Paul Rudd. It’s as if the Judd Apatow universe met the NBC universe circa Frasier (David Hyde Pierce is also there, as is Law and Order SVU‘s Christopher Meloni), with the chaperoning of underground comic heroes Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black, and David Wain, who had starred on MTV’s The State in the mid-1990s and then founded the comedy trio Stella, which performs a nightclub act, used to make video shorts, and has become the single most important reference point for comedy snobs and insiders. For good measure, WHAS features an unrecognizable Bradley Cooper.
(Still don’t get it? Okay, picture Dazed and Confused, but about the last day of summer camp, not school; with the slapstick and cornball humor of Airplane!; with the production values of The Blair Witch Project.)
Before I tell you what I dislike about WHAS, I’ll give credit where it’s due. First, it has a bunch of juicy roles for funny women: Banks, Poehler, Shannon, Janeane Garofalo, and others. Second, it was—I had forgotten until rewatching it last night—well ahead of its time on the gay-marriage issue. Third, it nails, mostly, the look and feel of 1981: the tight tees, the cutoff jeans, the Z28 color palette. That‘s basically it.
At the same time, the movie is, quite obviously, a mess. The tone is all over the place. Sometimes it’s the joke-a-minute absurdity of Airplane!, in which anything goes (as when the chaise longue arrives in an anachronistic Crate & Barrel box); sometimes it has the Aristotelian (if madcap) coherence of a Meatballs or Animal House, faithful to one time and place, and thus a proper sendup of its subject; but mostly it’s a lot of sketch comedies strung together, in which the actors barely make any effort to be anything other than their stock characters. There’s sardonic Garofalo. There’s earnest Tracy Flick–ish Poehler, just as we’ll see her in Parks and Recreation. There’s handsome but goofy Paul Rudd, always a little in on his own joke. There’s hot but silly Elizabeth Banks.
Don’t get me wrong—these are some of my favorite actors in the universe. Rudd has probably been in more of my favorite movies than anybody else, dating back at least to Clueless. (He was also great on Broadway in Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things.) The comically ingenious Banks inspires in me a crush of almost Portman-esque proportions. But the thing about comic actors is that they are usually at their best when playing real parts, working with a real script. Improv may be a blast on stage, but there is a reason we don’t film it. Yet this movie either is improvised or feels it; it reminds me of those great web clips of future Saturday Night Live stars in their auditions for the show—obviously talented, but not actually that funny. There’s something inspiring about these clips, but again, we don’t send the reels to the multiplex and charge $12.
For me, the failure of WHAS can be summed up by the moment when Garofalo, as the camp director, is calling out the names of the campers, who apparently are mostly Jewish (Firewood seems to be a Jewish camp). The joke comes in two parts: first, the Jewish names made extra Jewish (“Saul! Saul Zimmer…stein!”); and then the historical referents (“David … Ben Gurion!”). The humor here is cheap and easy—and a far cry from the brilliant scenes it put me in mind of, such as Chevy Chase’s Fletch performing his famous invention of names (Mr. Poon, “John Cock…toasten”). Sacha Baron Cohen would knock WHAS off, knowingly or not, when he has Borat speak Hebrew as a stand-in for Kazakh (the joke is the same: Jews will recognize the gibberish as Jewish in-gibberish). At moments like this, watching Garofalo do some mighty fine improv, I just wished for a script.
I think what comedy buffs like about WHAS is that it is so under-produced, that it looks the their idols’ rehearsal process more than their finished products. I get that. I’m a writer, and I like looking at excerpts from my favorite writers’ early drafts. I just don’t recommend them to friends.
Oh, Mark. To quote Amy Poehler’s drama counselor, “Your craft is a muscle! You need to exercise it! Take a break and think about what you’ve done!”
I’m telling you to strap on your rainbow-striped critic suspenders here: To ask this movie for narrative coherence is like asking a pitcher of bug juice to be a kicky little merlot. Or to expect an adorable group of Jewish children doing the “oy, vey have a banana dance” in rikud to be the ABT. Wet Hot American Summer is utterly perfect for what it is.
You and I both rewatched the movie Tuesday night so we’d approach it with fresh eyes. But because I am a way worse parent than you, I watched it with my children who found it utterly hysterical, even as they acknowledged that it was utterly stupid. (There’s a fine line between stupid and clever, as some wit once said.)
They and I both loved how campy it was, in the dual sense of campy: It evoked our collective experience of Jewish summer camp, and it intentionally exaggerated genre elements. It’s utterly self-aware and self-satirizing, and it invites you into the joke. It is not the cool kids’ bunk.
Look, I’ll enumerate what I loved about the movie, and you can feel free to attack my points one by one since you’re the award-winning debater here.
1. The costume design. You dismiss it quickly, but this is no small thing. The movie is like a refreshing dive into the agam of ‘80s Jewish camp memory. Wide white macrame bracelets! Four different girls named Debbie! Pukka shell necklaces! Bubble lettering! Little pink terrycloth jogging shorts with white piping! Culottes! A Merlin! (Even better, a nerdy kid playing Merlin while simultaneously hiking.) Enviably winged hair! A Trapper Keeper reference! Hair mousse! Unwrapping and sharing a stick of gum as a mating ritual!
2. References to teen movie clichés. The sweet, pining nerd! The dumb-hot-asshole guy! (Paul Rudd turns his resentful nikayon into an art form.) The geeks saving camp! (In this case, by building a device out of a colander, bagels and Dungeons and Dragons dice to divert Skylab – Skylab! – from falling on the rec center.) Kids randomly doing the Breakfast Club dance in the background of a scene! An intense game of Capture the Flag (inexplicably concluded by the appearance of an unbeatable Kenyan runner)! Kids in mime gloves singing “Day by Day” at the talent show!
3. A tribute to the Art of Montage: An athletic training montage, a dance montage, and a kung-fu-grasshopper montage, all in one montage! A “counselors leaving camp and having fun” montage, in which there is a library visit, a beer run, pot smoking, the purchase and consumption of a kilo of coke in an alley, and the shooting of heroin in a seedy drug den, followed by a perky return to camp in which we discover that all this has taken an hour! And the perfect use of cheesy montage music, thanks to Shudder to Think’s Craig Wedren.
4. Again, you were quick to shrug off the movie’s lack of homophobia, but again, it’s no small thing. In a film with production values that look like your dad’s home videos (I’ll give you that one), the love scene between Bradley Cooper and Michael Ian Black is gorgeously lit and actually hot. It’s also the movie’s only make-out scene without comedically over-the-top use of tongue. And despite the overwhelming sexism of most teen movies (re-watching Sixteen Candles with my 13-year-old, I realized I’d forgotten that the hero hands off his drunk girlfriend to the nerd to have his way with, and it’s played for laughs), Wet Hot American Summer not only features good roles for women, but also gives them agency. There is no slut-shaming. The good girl unexpectedly rejects the nerd for Paul Rudd’s character at the end in a heartfelt speech because “Andy is really hot. And don’t get me wrong, you’re cute too, but Andy is like, cut. From marble. He’s gorgeous. He has this beautiful face and this incredible body, and I genuinely don’t care that he’s kinda lame. I don’t even care that he cheats on me. And I like you more than I like Andy, Coop, but I’m 16. And maybe it’ll be a different story when I’m ready to get married, but right now, I am entirely about sex…Sex. Specifically with Andy. And not with you.”
Not Ruth Buzzi standing here.
I have been accused of a lot of things in my life, but pining for more ABT has never been one of them. Shows how well you know me. Then again, you did nail the rainbow suspenders.
First off, give yourself a little credit as a parent: you’re not “way worse” than I am. Besides, your daughters are 13 and 10 years old, ready (I guess) for Bradley Cooper g’anal summer-camp scenes. My eldest is eight years old, and her mother and I are debating whether to accede to her request for an email account. WHAS viewings are a couple years off.
I’ll take your four bullet points one at a time.
1. The costume design. OK, you win! Definitely good early ’80s stuff. I am eight years younger than you, so my retro-TV-costume sweet spot is less ’81 than ’89, when post-Cosby (oy, just the name!) sweaters were still in many a closet, grunge was just about to break out huge, and we were just mail-ordering a lot of Lands’ End. Then again, J. Crew had fully arrived, barn jackets and all, and hip-hop and prep had merged tastes, for the moment, giving Timberland some huge sales. But I will say that as a devoted Lisa Birnbach reader at age 15, I knew the best years were behind us, the years of flipped polo collars and piped shorts. So kudos to WHAS for giving us a taste. I mean, Mad Men period effects it’s not, but hey, credit where it’s due.
On the other hand, if verisimilitude is what we’re giving credit for (the clothes are so real! the camp vibe is so real!) then perhaps you can understand why I feel betrayed, indeed baffled, by the scene where counselors are mainlining heroin and snatching purses. Why not have them just sneaking cigs and maybe, when in town, doing some whippets? That could have been funny without being stupid.
2. The teen-movie clichés. I love teen movies, I love their clichés, and I love sendups of them. But here we have a problem. The clichés didn’t really exist in 1981, when the movie is set. They came along with films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Sixteen Candles (1984), Better Off Dead (1985), The Breakfast Club (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986)—we could both go on, citing our John Hughes, Amy Heckerling, Cameron Crowe. Indeed, some of my most important, theoretically sophisticated 1 a.m. dorm-room scholarship concerned this category of movie, and one reason I am devoted to the under-appreciated Can’t Hardly Wait (1998), with the divine Miss Love Hewitt and the diviner Miss Ambrose, is that it’s a misunderstood reworking of many stock clichés from the earlier movies. But if WHAS is supposed to be, above all things, self-knowing and ironic, a big Wink, then it makes no sense to mock the weird-science, prep-vs.-jock clichés that none of the characters would have known as clichés, either in their “real” lives or in some fourth-wall-breaking meta life. (They would have known them, but as painful reality, not as clichés.) Their clichés would have been more—I don’t know—American Graffiti and 1950s retro, which swept the country in the 1970s? Or disco ennui?
Which goes to my argument that WHAS fans give the movie makers too much credit. I am all for weird pomo absurdist subversion of tropes that were silly to begin with … but then you have to get your film history right.
3. The art of montage. Hey, I loved the Chris Meloni montage, but again, this wasn’t really a thing in 1981. The best such montages were soon to come—The Karate Kid (1984), Remo Williams (1985), Ruthless People (1986), and, greatest of all, The Secret of My Success (1987—and repurposing the great Yello hit “Oh Yeah” and introducing us to Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine,” the last time we’d see it in filmdom until “High Fidelity”). Besides which, these montages were most of the way to self-parody to begin with, and they were always hilarious. If I want montage manna, I’ll take Bette Midler in Ruthless People over WHAS any day.
4. Lack of homophobia. Look, I said it once, I’ll say it again: good stuff. But I don’t exactly turn to Rudd, Banks, Swain, et al, for my social-justice prescience, you know? To the contrary, they’re so funny I’d give them a pass on all sorts of offensive stereotyping.
But here’s my question for you, Ms. Buzzi: What do you make of the incessant Ruth Buzzi references? They seem to undo your whole argument for how retro-accurate and knowing WHAS was. No summer camp counselor, even a twentysomething (to use a post-’81 term) head of camp like Garofalo, would have been name-checking the Laugh-In star, who had receded into obscurity after the 1973 cancellation of her show. They would not have cared about her work in The Lost Saucer. But you know who is interested in Ruth Buzzi? Knowing, cool-kid comedy hipsters circa 2001. The usage of Buzzi has nothing to do with the audience, nor with giving love to 1981, and everything to do with the in-joking, obscurantist nature of this film.
Which is why, contra you, this is a movie for the cool kids. It’s a movie for the cool kids masquerading as a movie for the masses. And I think that’s why I don’t like it.
Bonus question: Does it bother you at all that, for a movie that is supposedly so unabashedly Jewy, there are no Jewish actresses, unless we count pre-convert Elizabeth Banks (which, hey, I’m happy to)? Does it have anything to do with the fact that, at least in the case of Banks’s and Marguerite Moreau’s characters, the women had to be stereotypical hotties—which is to say, look like Gentiles? Betcha hadn’t considered that, my Yiddishe mama.
If you decide I’m right, will you apologize on your fab apology blog?
Dude, you’re seriously critiquing my argument on the basis of “this isn’t realistic?”
Comic exaggeration. Is comic. There’s this essay called A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift. Look into it.
It’s hard to explain why things are funny. As E.B. White once said, “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process.” But you and I have committed to this endeavor, so let’s go on smashing this dead frog with a hammer.
1. The JOKE is that the montage starts with the counselors’ underage beer-drinking and winds up with them nodding out on heroin in a drug den, then returning to camp an hour later all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. THAT IS THE JOKE. No, it is not realistic. Let me explain Airplane! to you. (You do think Airplane! is funny, right? If not, I can’t even talk to you in staff meetings.)
2. You are correct that the movie’s teen movie clichés did not exist in 1981. And Skylab fell in 1979 so it could not possibly fall on the rec hall, and Bunk 8 was unlikely to want to watch The China Syndrome again because children do not tend to like subtle and intense dramas about nuclear power. So there would have been no need for Beth to tell Abby to run the Betamax. Also, by 1981, Betamax had only a 32% market share so the camp would likely have had a VCR.
3. How can I disagree that montage was not a teen-movie thing in 1981? Again, humor trumps veracity. Come on, the fact that every time the camera cuts back to the raft of screaming campers about to go over the waterfall, the raft is in the exact same spot and some of the kids are visibly laughing? And Meloni’s total crazy-eyed boogie commitment in Flashdance montage? And the very use of the song “Harden my Heart,” which was not released until September 1981, after the end of camp?
Thank Hashem we can agree that Ruthless People is an awesome movie, and if they ever do a sequel we will have nothing to debate.
4. Again, you win. Homophobia is bad.
And as for Ruth Buzzi? I don’t know. The randomness of the movie’s out-of-nowhere citation of her as a comedy exemplar makes me laugh. Also, she is my Rhode Island homegirl and we are not a state known for being funny, except possibly for the time our governor dived into a Walt’s Roast Beef Dumpster to retrieve a $10,000 bribe he’d accidentally discarded with his leftover fries.
On a more serious note, yes, it does distress me that young Jewish men don’t seem to cast young Jewish women in comedies. (Not-so-young Jewish men too. Talking to you, Apatow.) Do you know that the first wedding between two Jews on a sitcom happened in 2002? 2002! We’ve ruled the comedy business since the 1920s! I don’t get why Jewish comedians don’t think we’re hot, but they can bite me. (Hm, maybe talking like that is why they don’t think we’re hot.) We can only hope that the presence of the Jewish and very funny Michaela Watkins in the sequel rights some historic wrongs.
P.S. You win, but you’re still wrong. I’m not apologizing. I’m gonna go fondle my sweaters.
Mrs. David Ben Gurion
You have to go fondle some sweaters, and I have to go watch some ’80s montages, so I won’t belabor any of these points. But let me just say this. You want to talk what makes comedy work? True—nobody knows. But since you want to ram Airplane! down my throat, and everyone (everyone) knows that’s funny, I’m just not going to let you ram it like that. Unh-unh. Nohow.
What works about Airplane!, what makes it a classic that lots of people watch, rather than just Stella fanatics and, apparently, Rhode Islanders, is that it is consistently idiotic, brilliantly so, throughout. It’s joke-a-minute slapstick, with the a parody of ’70s disaster movies somewhere in the foreground. It does not aim for any social relevance, nor does it lose its focus by trying to parody everything. Nor does it lapse into obscurantism or comedic in-jokes. Its humor is big, broad, brassy, brilliant, and beautiful (like some of my favorite people).
I’ll conclude with two thoughts:
First, I hate to say this, but I recently rewatched Ruthless People, and it didn’t hold up as well as I’d hoped. Broke my heart. Rewatch it and tell me what you think.
Second, I think a down-on-its-heels summer camp in 1981 actually would still have a Betamax, since the owner would be cheap and possibly drunk and likely perverted and wouldn’t spring for a VCR until, say, 1984—the year my family bought a communal one, to share with three other families.
I have to go. When I’m on my back, the meter is running.
Lots of love,
Mark, you ignorant slut:
Oh God, please don’t take Ruthless People from me. I’ve barely recovered after re-reading Still Life With Woodpecker as an adult.
On WHAS, we’ll have to agree to disagree. Two Jews, three synagogues. Am Airplane! Chai.