by Fran Hoepfner
Wet Hot American Summer is an American comedy that came out in the year 2001 with a cast of total unknowns—Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Michael Ian Black, Christopher Meloni, Molly Shannon, and Bradley Cooper, to name a few—that averaged, at the time, a 31% on Rotten Tomatoes. The film was a parody of traditional summer camp movies, and captured the nostalgia of early ’80s teen movies. It went on to become something of a cult classic, fueled by its cast’s rise in fame as well as its Netflix availability.
I was an American summer camper, attending several sessions of a Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin, one session of horse camp in Southern Illinois, and two sessions of theater camp in Northern Illinois. I would also give my summer camp experience a 31%, and I would not say my appreciation has grown with time.
So without further ado...
5. Kissing All The Time vs. Not Kissing All The Time
Wet Hot American Summer opens with a scene of a quiet cabin, campers tucked in under striped quilts, snuggled up next to their preteen lovers, and the hormones don’t stop there. I would be surprised to know that five minutes pass in this film without someone kissing someone else.
Among all things, Wet Hot American Summer is a movie about kissing. It’s a movie about the thing camp does best: taking American teenagers out of their normal environment and placing them into an environment where they want to kiss all the time. Director David Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter skewer the stereotype and up the gross-out factor, and every kissing scene is full-on—gum-chewing high-schoolers touch tongues with great velocity. It’s nauseating, and of course, hilarious.
I never kissed anyone at camp, but that did not make the culture any less pervasive. I can remember stories at my Jewish camp in Wisconsin of girls experiencing their first kisses. At theater camp, there were only eight boys (as opposed to 70-something girls), the most good-looking of whom became known only as “Hot Ben.”
“For the select few of you who went all summer, all eight weeks without finding that special someone, today is your day,” camp DJ Arty says in the opening sequence, “because you don’t wanna go back home and lie to your friends about a summer romance that didn’t even happen, and you don’t wanna be the one person who doesn’t have anyone to kiss tonight after the talent show.”
I slow-danced with Hot Ben on the last night of camp. “What was your name again?” he asked.
WINNER: Kissing all the time
4. Throwing Swim Buddies Out Of A Moving Vehicle vs. Sleeping Through All The Activities One Day Because My Buddy Forgot Me
Any camp veteran will know how the buddy system works. On the first day of camp, you’re either assigned or allowed to pick out a buddy—a person who will be as responsible for you as you are to them. If you know where your buddy is, you’re safe. Even if something bad happens, you’re in it together.
This, of course, can be a bad thing, if you’re Paul Rudd’s character Andy—who, while serving as lifeguard, allows two different campers to drown. Now, Andy’s not a cold-hearted serial killer. He’s something way worse: a teenage boy. Andy is the quintessential bad boy. He’s got tank tops and jean shorts and a shell necklace. He scoffs at everything. He loves sex and loathes commitment. He thinks he’s significantly deeper than he is. Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks) catches him writing in a notebook on the docks.
“It’s my gournal,” he tells her, pronouncing a hard “g” sound in the word journal. Andy’s an idiot, and in his preoccupation with his own motives, he allows two different campers to disappear into the lake.
These boys, however, have buddies, and their buddies have some questions.
“I’ll be back in fifteen minutes,” Andy says to Lindsay. He loads the respective buddies into a van and drives them out of the campsite. At an acceptable distance away, the door flings open and a child comes tumbling off.
My buddy at camp was a girl named Rebecca, and all I can remember about her is that her hair was even bigger than mine. We were both slaves to the humidity that summer. We didn’t not get along, but we certainly weren’t going to maintain a lifelong friendship.
Because the child version of me is just a smaller model of the adult version of me, I fell asleep one afternoon at camp and I didn’t wake up until the evening. In fact, I can remember writing a postcard to my parents at around 1:00 pm, and the next thing I knew, it was past dinner. It was past everything. One of the counselors was shaking me awake.
“How did you get in here?” she was asking. “Everyone’s at the climbing wall.”
“I never left here,” I told her. “I fell asleep.”
“Who’s your buddy? Did she forget you?”
“I’m gonna kill her,” my counselor hissed, and then left me behind to go punish the original girl who left me behind.
WINNER: Being abandoned by my buddy and also a camp counselors but hey, a nap is a nap, right?
3. Whatever Is Happening With Gene, The Camp Cook vs. Eating Camp Food All Summer
A camper’s diet is about 60% macaroni and cheese, and 40% whatever else they have. It’s usually mashed potatoes. I remember drinking a lot of lemonade that tasted kind of strange. I remember eating burgers that were kind of dry. I remember “today’s vegetables,” a multi-colored scoop of something disgusting. I remember saving up money at the canteen to buy ice cream bars that inevitably melted all over my tiny hands.
That, however, is fairly straight forward. Gene, the camp cook in Wet Hot American Summer, is not.
Gene is out of control. Gene is insane. Gene is a traumatized Vietnam War veteran, yes, but I’m not sure we can accredit his bizarre fetishes to that. He screams. He’s unstable. But he learns to accept himself. He humps a fridge. Years before I ever watched Wet Hot American Summer , I knew it as “the film where Christopher Meloni screams all the time and humps a refrigerator.”
His closest friend is also a can of vegetables, voiced by H. Jon Benjamin. It’s a lot, to say the least.
Gene is surreal. He’s the least grounded in a recognizable reality, though also one of the most memorable parts, highlighting the mystery behind those involved in the service life of a camp. There were days in my camp experience where I looked at a lunch lady and wondered what else she had going on. Gene is both the best- and worst-case scenario: a harmless weirdo trapped in an environment where he doesn’t belong. Whether or not Gene works for you—and he definitely may not—you have to respect Showalter and Wain for having him in there, doing his bizarre, disturbing thing.
WINNER: Whatever is happening with Gene
2. Wait, One Of The Counselors Definitely Makes Out With A Camper vs. Getting Mosquito Bites On Both My Eyelids
This one should be obvious.
WINNER: Abby Bernstein makes out with the camper who announces mealtimes, and that’s very gross!
1. Doing Heroin vs. Getting Bit By A Girl
The indisputably worst thing that the Wet Hot American Summer counselors partake in is heroin, in a sequence as ridiculous as it is horrifying. In a memorable montage set to the song “Love Is Alright Tonight” by Rick Springfield, a gang of counselors join Beth as she goes into the main part of town to go to the library. What follows is a barrage of in-town activities—hanging out in the grass, laughing and talking—which quickly devolve into smoking cigarettes, buying alcohol illegally, and then snorting cocaine and shooting up in a dirty apartment. It’s one of—if not the—most memorable scenes in the film and definitely one of the biggest laugh-out-loud moments. The scene in town is out of control, violent, and disturbing, and then, just as quickly as they drove into town, Beth and the counselors return to camp as if nothing happened. It captures the no-consequence vibe of the whole film. And who’s to say that sequence is meant to be real, just in the sense that everything that happens at camp feels a little surreal or otherworldly. That said, heroin is heroin.
The indisputably worst thing to happen to me at summer camp occurred when I was 12 years old, attending my first and last week ever at a horse camp in Southern Illinois. I don’t know what drove me to go to horse camp, really. I wasn’t a horse girl, by any means. I was a little bit afraid of horses, if I’m being honest. That said, I quickly learned nothing was more terrifying than being surrounded by 60 horse girls on a day to day basis. They were tall and mean and athletic and had a more advanced understanding of the animal than I could even fathom.
The lead horse girl in my bunk was a girl named Nicki. She was terrifying. She was a monster. She had blonde hair and braces. She exclusively wore polo shirts. She knew all the words to Good Charlotte songs, a catalogue I knew nothing of. She was the kind of 12-year-old who spoke sarcasm fluently. My rivalry with Nicki was one-sided: she was my nemesis, I was nothing to her.
Until: during an arts and crafts session, when asked to pass a pair of scissors to a less cool girl, Nicki chucked a pair of adult scissors across the room. These were big, sharp scissors that landed inches away from this poor girl’s arm. Not a single counselor was paying attention.
“Don’t throw scissors,” I told Nicki, appointing myself the most responsible 12-year-old in the bunk, “what are you, stupid?”
Nicki did not respond verbally, but she did leap across the floor and tackle me. Holding me down, she dug her braces-decorated front teeth into my forearm and bit down, hard. Some of the other girls pulled her off me. The counselors looked up from their magazines. “Chill out!” one of them yelled from across the room.
Nicki did not break the skin, but I had an intense purple and green bruise on my forearms several weeks after the incident. I called her a bitch three days later, after taking some time to make sure I wanted to use language that harsh.
“It’s nice to go into town, even if it’s only for an hour,” the counselors in Wet Hot American Summer say as the pick-up rolls back into camp.
“Did you have fun at camp?” my parents would ask when they’d pick me up.
WINNER: Getting to go home at the end of the summer.
Fran Hoepfner is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is a writer and comedian based out of the Chicagoland area.