I've been tossing out references to this movie for the past year; I may as well just write a blog about it and get it over with.
There are a few things that I always do on a first date. I always pick a bar that’s centrally located, so that nobody has to drive too far. I always limit myself to two drinks or less, because three is the number of drinks it takes for me to start self sabotaging. And I always, always ask, “How do you feel about the movie Wet Hot American Summer”?
Even as somebody who compulsively ranks everything, picking the funniest movie ever made is pretty much impossible. It isn’t exactly fair to try and rank any one comedy above all others, because there are so many different ways a movie can be funny. I think Rushmore is absolutely hysterical, but it’s not the same kind of absolutely hysterical as Superbad, Shaun of the Dead, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or Ted.
I mean, what’s funnier: Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzmann waging an escalating prank war, Mark Wahlberg doing cocaine with his magical teddy bear, or Principal Rooney’s secretary pretending to be Principal Rooney while Cameron pretends to be Sloan’s dad? Every one of them makes me turn blue in the face laughing. I mean, I guess we could analyze how blue my face gets, and decide that the movie that makes my face bluest is the funniest, but that seems like an awful lot of effort and asphyxiation for relatively little gain.
So I’m not saying that Wet Hot American Summer is the funniest movie ever made. That would be a copout statement. What I’m saying is that when I’ve had a rough day and I just want to relax and laugh until my face is at its absolute bluest, I always go for Wet Hot American Summer.
Wet Hot American Summer, released in 2001, is set at a Jewish summer camp on August 18th, 1981 – the last day of camp. Throughout the day, we follow a number of camp staff members, teenaged counselors (played by actors in their late 20s, naturally), and campers as they all try desperately for one last shot at summer love. (They also have to save the camp from getting crushed by Skylab as it reenters Earth’s atmosphere.)
It’s a really weird movie.
WHAS is the product of a bunch of brainy comedy nerds from NYU who, in the mid 90s, briefly had a sketch comedy show on MTV called The State where they did exactly the kind of “you either get it or you don’t” comedy you’d expect from a bunch of philosophical recent art school graduates living in New York. In one sketch, a guy shows up at the Last Supper and delights the guests by threatening to dip his balls in the food, much to the chagrin of Jesus. In another one, two guys rub their asses on $240 worth of pudding.
So let me reiterate: Wet Hot American Summer is a really weird movie.
The weirdness is enhanced by the fact that it plays things pretty straight for the first half hour or so. At first it seems like it’s just going to be a goofy parody of 80s summer camp movies, but then the punchlines and visual gags start getting more and more bizarre until by the end of the movie a can of vegetables is passing out life advice and an eight year old is getting married to a woman in her late 30s on the rebound. Understandably, Wet Hot American Summer didn’t perform very well at the box office – and critics weren’t crazy about it, either.
If you ask me, that’s because the movie was ahead of its time – it was unlike anything the world had ever seen before, and people just weren’t ready for it. Coming out in September of 2001 didn’t do it any favors, either. But today, in an era where seemingly the only way to sell bodywash is with non sequitirs, shirtless dudes, and explosions, WHAS has become a cult classic.
Next time you see some guy on the bus with spacers in his ears, glasses from the 70s with no frames, and jeans so skinny they look like two condoms stretched over his legs, go ahead and start talking to him about movies – I guarantee you he loves this movie as much as I do. Fortunately, I don’t really run with that crowd; unfortunately, that means I have a lot of friends who really, really don’t like Wet Hot American Summer.
On multiple occasions I’ve tried to show Wet Hot American Summer to friends who hadn’t seen it, only for them to sit in confused silence for an hour and 40 minutes, silently judging my taste in comedy as I wheeze and gasp at jokes I’ve heard dozens of times already. Opinions afterward have ranged from, “I don’t think I got all of it,” to “Fuck you, Truman.”
I don’t want to use the phrase “you either get it or you don’t” to describe Wet Hot American Summer, both because I already used it a few paragraphs ago to describe The State and also because I think it kind of stigmatizes not liking a movie, which is pretty elitist. “There are a select few who get it, and you, with your plebian assessment of Wet Hot American Summer, have proven that you are not one of us. Why don’t you run on home and watch something on the CW?”
What it really comes down to is a matter of taste and personal preference. I have a number of friends who I had always assumed would hate the movie, only to find out that they’ve been watching and loving it for years. Wet Hot American Summer is a jumble of stories, homages, and jokes that resonate with some people and don’t resonate with others, and it’s tough to explain why.
I love Wet Hot American Summer because I love absurdist comedy and 80s pop culture, as well as just about every actor in it. Like Dazed and Confused it follows a bunch of different people throughout one day, which is a storytelling tactic I like. But most of all, at the center of all the profanity, gay sex, and some of the best montages ever put to film, the movie has real heart and emotional weight.
It’s easy to empathize with the dorky counselor who’s hopelessly in love with a girl who’s way out of his league, or the guy so desperate to lose his virginity that he runs full tilt for miles back to camp, or the girl who can’t quite break away from her emotionally distant, openly unfaithful jock of a boyfriend. For how crazy and absurd everything gets, it’s all built on some very real emotions – just like Ted, Superbad, or any other good comedy.
So when I ask girls how they feel about Wet Hot American Summer, I do it because, whether they loved it or hated it, it always turns into a pretty lively conversation about taste.
Also, if they tell me they haven’t seen it, then I’ve got the green light to start passing off jokes from the movie as my own.
Truman Capps would’ve posted this on August 18th, but a shitty Internet connection and Breaking Bad conspired to blow this once-a-year opportunity.