This month, David Wain’s cult summer camp classic Wet Hot American Summer turns twenty years old—old enough to serve on senior staff at most American camps. Over the past two decades, Wet Hot American Summer has gained a reputation as a cult classic. It’s not for everyone, but the people who love it really love it. But the 2001 film, which follows an eclectic group of campers and staff at the generically-named Camp Firewood over the last day of camp, isn’t just a movie about the liminal weirdness of camp. Wet Hot American Summer is, in both reputation and intention, a movie made to celebrate what’s known as “the utterly unique, unequivocal culture of Jewish summer camp.“
Wet Hot American Summer hit screens in (fittingly) the summer of 2001. It features a cast of some of today’s biggest comedy names, including Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Amy Poehler, and Bradley Cooper; as well as character geniuses Janeane Garofalo, Molly Shannon, and H. Jon Benjamin—not to mention a pre-SVU Christopher Meloni. (All of whom, amazingly, came back to reprise their roles in 2015’s Netflix revival series, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp). The movie premiered to scathing critical reception. This includes a single star from Roger Ebert, a “downright disturbing” from USA Today, and a review from the Washington Post that included the phrase “so depressing I almost started to cry.”
For director David Wain, though, that was fine; they weren’t the audience he was looking for. “It’s not designed to make everyone on Earth laugh and that’s fine,” he said on an episode of The Last Laugh podcast. “But I think what’s great about something like this is that for the people that it hits, it hits really hard.”
Wain and his co-writer, Michael Showalter (who also starred in the film as unlucky-in-love Gerald “Coop” Cooperberg) had an agenda when they made Wet Hot American Summer: To put the Jewishness back into summer camp movies. The pair took their inspiration from Meatballs (1979), probably the most easily recognized camp movie out there. While filmed at a Jewish summer camp, with a supporting cast of mostly Jewish actors, and a not-so-subtle juxtaposition of the mismatched, ragtag outsiders of Camp North Star against the WASP-coded rich kids of Camp Mohawk, there’s “nary a mention of Jewishness, nor a word of Yinglish uttered” throughout the film. Meatballs built on the cultural recognition of the Jewish summer camp experience, but took out the Jewishness, leaving a recognizable (though hardly rare) gap for anyone who knew to look for it.
Overnight camps have become a common reference point in Jewish popular culture. While not all Jews go to camp and not all of those who do attend explicitly Jewish camps, research has shown that camps are one of the most effective institutions in helping American kids feel connected to their Jewish identities. “Jewish sleepaway camp is a phenomenon that’s hard to explain,” Lana Shwartz wrote on Alma. “[It’s] the kind of thing where you know it if you see it.” For Wain and Showalter, who attended Jewish summer camps of their own, they knew it—and how to make audiences see it.
In Wet Hot American Summer, writes comedy columnist and author of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture Josh Lambert, Wain and Showalter put the Jewishness back into the American summer camp movie. From the opening shot, the Tablet Mag piece says, the viewer knows this is a movie that’s unapologetically about Jews:
“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…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.'”
The Jewish references and humor start from in the opening scene and don’t let up, from the generous use of Yiddish to casual references to attending synagogue to a moment in the film’s climax when the line “let’s pray to God this works” is immediately followed by campers launching into synchronized Hebrew.
The Jewishness of Wet Hot American Summer goes beyond just references to the summer camp experience. The movie’s approach to humor is the kind of raunchy, irreverent, over-the-top absurdity that follows in the legacy of Jewish comedy greats like Mel Brooks. Jewish humor blurs boundaries and holds nothing sacred. Over the course of the film, kids are casually murdered and counselors get off camp for an hour and promptly go on adrenaline-fueled heroin binges—“It’s absolute mayhem, in other words,” writes Lambert, in service of jokes.”
Lambert goes on to call attention to one of the best moments in the film as it casually decides not to engage with the camp movie cliche of an underdog victory: “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.”
But even this kind of root-for-the-underdog trope has its roots in American Jewish humor, which has always centered on making the outsiders the insiders. “Punching up” is an inherently Jewish comedic concept—after generations of persecution and expulsion from one country after another, there’s really nowhere else to hit. “Jews of my era don’t know what it would be like to be a Norman Rockwell non-Jew,” said Larry Gelbart, perhaps best known for his work as the creator and producer of M*A*S*H*. “We grew up feeling like outsiders. It’s the difference between being in the ballgame and sitting in the bleachers.”
The feeling of being an outsider is at the core of every cult classic film, from The Rocky Horror Picture Show to Jennifer’s Body. And Wet Hot American Summer is no exception. But what sets it apart is the sense that the outsiders are treated with a loving, comfortable nostalgia that says, “Hey, that thing about yourself you can’t quite name, that other people don’t quite get, but you absolutely love? Yeah—we love it, too.”
There’s nothing more quintessentially Jewish than that.