One of the toughest forms of comedy to pull off is what I like to call the “this thing is terrible” movie, where you make a certain style of movie or TV show, and the point is to make fun of how awful most examples of that style are. Examples might be the blaxploitation mockery Black Dynamite, the episode of The Simpsons titled “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase”, or this week’s Movie Klub entry, 2001’s Wet Hot American Summer.
Even talented people can make a bad “this thing is terrible” effort; “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase,” for instance, is one of my least favorite episodes of that series. The reason is very simple: if you make something terrible on purpose, even as a joke aimed at someone else, you still have the problem that you made something terrible. Wet Hot American Summer doesn’t completely avoid this problem, but it has a stellar cast which helps quite a bit and makes the movie just funny enough.
Wet Hot has developed quite the cult following, mainly because it stars seemingly everyone funny in the world. The film stars many former members of the cult MTV sketch-comedy series The State, and was written and directed by State alums Michael Showalter and David Wain. Molly Shannon appears at the end of her popular stint on Saturday Night Live alongside Amy Poehler, who was just about to start her lengthy SNL run. Current movie stars Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, and Paul Rudd turn up long before they were well-known. Christopher Meloni (Oz, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit) has a big role, but the most famous TV star in the cast is Frasier‘s David Hyde-Pierce, who had won three of his four Emmys prior to appearing in this film.
Most of that massive cast appear as counselors at a Jewish summer camp in Maine. The target of their jokes are the summer camp movies of the 1980s, such as Meatballs, in which counselors (who were supposed to be teenagers but looked suspiciously close to age 30) managed to mix wise lessons for their prepubescent charges with scatological humor and a dash of true love. All of those things and many more happen here, all over the course of one day.
Wet Hot is in the same vein as Anchorman and many other recent comedies, where it steadfastly refuses to be serious. There’s no scene where the music changes and everything gets sincere for the characters. In fact there are a number of fake-outs in that direction, but each one is undercut with a joke, usually a reference to the fact that this is all taking place over one day (“When we first started hanging out together, this morning…”) The difference is that Wet Hot is focused much more sharply than those other films; if a joke couldn’t be seen as a play on something that a summer-camp movie would have done, this movie doesn’t bother with it.
There are two problems with this approach. One is that Wet Hot starts a little slow, as it has to first set up the camp-ness of the camp before it undercuts that setup with humor. The other, bigger, problem is that a “this thing is terrible” movie needs to be a good example of the subject that it’s mocking. Witness Black Dynamite — it’s very funny as a satire but in a pinch it could also work, just barely, as a serious blaxploitation action film. I’ve never been a fan of Meatballs, and it’s probably the best of the genre; once you get past that one, the quality goes quickly downhill to such utter dreck as Ernest Goes to Camp. As funny as it often gets, it’s difficult for Wet Hot to avoid that issue.
Wet Hot could not possibly work as a serious summer-camp movie, because it doesn’t want to and isn’t trying to. In fact it’s really more of a sketch-comedy version of a summer-camp movie, as most of the jokes could be boiled down to five- or ten-minute short stories if they needed to be. The section of the movie where the counselors “go to town” is a perfect example: it’s funny as is, but it would be even funnier as a self-contained sketch on, say, an episode of The State.
The biggest popularity of Wet Hot is among other comedians and comic actors, because they understand and appreciate the craft of its comedy. This movie plays with the form of movie comedy in many ways, such as removing the idea of a “straight man” who doesn’t get to be in on all the craziness. The closest thing this film has to a straight man is Janeane Garofalo as the head counselor, but even her material drifts toward the absurd at times.
In fact, a lot of the material seems like it will only be gotten by comedians (such as Showalter’s turn as a hacky, Catskills-style comedian at the camp’s big talent show) or kids who went to Jewish day camp (the scene in which Garofalo calls out a list of kids with impossible last names). There are moments when Wet Hot feels a little inside, as though the cast cared much more about the private joke between themselves than the overt joke on the screen. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s nice when every actor in a movie seems to be having fun – but it did make me feel left out on occasion.
I don’t want to sound too down on Wet Hot American Summer. It’s frequently hilarious. However, there are outlets on the Internet, such as Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist podcast, that will lead you to think it’s funnier than Anchorman or the greatest cult film ever made. I refuse to go that far. This is a quality comedy, a fine 90 minutes to spend with your Netflix queue, but there are other places I would go to for bigger laughs.
Reviewed by Mark Young