The word “camp” has two distinct meanings: one, the recreational institution in which young American children are forced to spend two to eight weeks under the sun, and two, a piece of media created in a theatrical, ironic style for humorous effect. Where do these two collide, you may ask? Look no further than David Wain’s 2001 summer hit, Wet Hot American Summer.
The cult classic has since spawned the careers of multiple famous actors—namely Paul Rudd, now starring as Ant–Man in the Marvel Universe, Bradley Cooper, who received an Oscar nomination last year for A Star is Born, and Amy Poehler, now famous for her lead role in Parks and Recreation. Others in the cast have gone on to become famous names in the comedy world. However, Wet Hot American Summer was filmed when these actors were nobodies and the film itself was just a daring, silly idea.
Wet Hot American Summer is fundamentally a mockery of the summer camp, which itself is an encapsulation of the suburban American experience: sending your pre–adolescent child to run around with other pre–adolescent children and a few adults for eight weeks. As we move out of summer, some of us may be coming off of jobs at these institutions, and some of us may reflect with horror on our experiences at them. For that, Wet Hot American Summer brings back our worst memories in the best ways.
Many of the film's best characters are in the teenaged—counselor population. Andy (Paul Rudd) is a leather–jacket wearing rebel who makes out with his girlfriend Katie (Marguerite Moreau) in front of the flag pole while Coop (Michael Showalter) watches with envy. Coop is the pseudo–main character, a classic dogged nice guy yearning for the girl who likes bad boys, though the movie's perspective jumps around to various members of the camp.
Other plot lines include the owner of the camp, Beth (Janeane Garofalo), trying to get Henry's (David Hyde Pierce) attention by breaking a coffee mug repeatedly, Susie (Amy Poehler) and Ben (Bradley Cooper) putting on a musical starring the campers in one day, and even an overarching plot of NASA’s Skylab hurtling towards the earth, potentially destroying the camp and everyone in it. Of course, most of the characters seem too caught up in their own romance to notice.
Clearly the film is a comedy, and while some may say it is juvenile, it fundamentally relies on the idea of camp. Elements of camp include “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration,” as defined by Susan Sontag in her famous essay, Notes on “Camp”. Each character of Wet Hot American Summer is an intensified version of themselves, an exaggerated figurine in a world of other exaggerated figurines, creating ridiculous comedy at every turn.
Camp oftne begets a split reaction. Many consider the style trashy and it is oftentimes associated with a low–quality piece of artwork. It is easy to see how the line may be hard to distinguish: a bad film, like camp, often has over–exaggerated acting, flat characters, and unrealistic dialogue. What we often consider bad is something that we cannot believe; if we can see the points where either the actors or the filmmakers fail to portray realism, the content is no longer relatable. However, camp creates this feeling intentionally—though not in a snarky way, as Sontag clarifies, since characters in camp should not know the genre they exist in. Camp is meant to create vibrant characters in impossible situations for the sake of humor or aesthetic.
Wet Hot American Summer is the perfect summer film because it takes the common trope of the summer camp and satirizes it. Its characters are wild and nonsensical, its plot weaving and irreverent, and its humor quick and varied. As we approach the end of summer and contemplate our carefree past with schoolwork looming over us, a cult classic such as Wet Hot American Summer is the perfect movie to watch. The film has spawned two Netflix original sequels—one based two months before the events of the movie and another set 10 years afterward—but the original remains the best of the three pieces. For its camp style, star–studded cast, and wacky plot, Wet Hot American Summer is certainly worth a watch.