In 1974, writer/director Mel Brooks struck gold with a pair of film parodies: Blazing Saddles, a hilarious spoof of Hollywood westerns, and Young Frankenstein, an equally funny and inventive send-up of Universal’s Frankenstein films. Brooks’ subsequent parodies, targeting the silent era (Silent Movie), Hitchcock thrillers (High Anxiety), historical epics (History of the World, Part I), and Star Wars (Spaceballs), never attained the critical and financial success of Saddles and Frankenstein. His latest (and probably his last) attempt, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, was a feeble spoof of Dracula movies that failed miserably at the box-office.
Why do some film parodies find an audience, while others land in theatres with a resounding thud? Certainly, like any comedy, a parody must make an audience laugh. But a successful parody must do other work as well. For one thing, it must be well-timed. Scary Movie, a parody of Scream, was successful in part because it was released the same year as the third installment of the horror trilogy (which was already spoofing the slasher genre). In contrast, Spaceballs failed, in part, because it was made 10 years after Star Wars hit the theatres (and four years after the first trilogy concluded with Return of the Jedi). A second issue has more to do with the target. The western and the horror film are ideal for parody because they are serious, dramatic genres with well-defined settings, characters, and narratives. When a genre is less specific (for example, the historical epic) and/or less familiar to audiences, filmmakers have less to work with.
These are precisely the problems with Wet Hot American Summer, a parody of the summer camp comedy genre that enjoyed a very brief period of popularity when Meatballs became the surprise hit of the summer of 1979. Essentially a vehicle for comedian Bill Murray’s adolescent, irreverent humor, Meatballs was the only successful camp comedy. Its three inferior sequels (none of which featured Murray) and bad imitations (did anyone actually see Gorp or Gimme an “F”?) failed miserably.
And now, 21 years after the release of Meatballs, writer/director David Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter decided the time was right for a spoof. My question is: since film parodies generally rely on cheap, yet clever, jokes and visual gags to generate laughs, why would anyone choose to parody camp comedies, which were already a showcase for crude, adolescent humor? Lacking material that might warrant such a parody, Wet Hot American Summer resorts to squeezing the last remaining drops of humor out of a genre that was strained from the start. It exaggerates characters’ defining traits (like making the camp tramp really trampy and the camp nerdy really nerdy), which makes them even more one-dimensional, to the point that they wear out their welcome just 10 minutes into the film. The same goes for the campers, who are reduced to serving as background.
What little semblance there is of a story revolves around the last day of summer at Camp Firewood (the year is 1981 and, except for a few bad haircuts, the film never takes advantage of its historical setting). The counselors are too involved in their own problems, like making a last ditch effort to get laid, to notice the kids are running amuck. The camp’s no-nonsense director, Beth (Janeane Garofalo), is trying to attract the attention of a local astro-physicist (David Hyde-Pierce); the camp’s resident geek, Coop (Showalter), has his eye on the camp’s resident beauty (Marguerite Moreau); and so on. Even for a broad comedy, the characters are underdeveloped. The same goes for the plot, which consists of a string of one-joke vignettes that seem like they were written as individual comedy sketches (which is not surprising, considering both Wain and Showalter were writers and performers on MTV’s The State).
Much of the film’s humor consists of setting up generic situations (the big game with the rival camp, the kids canoeing near a waterfall, the big end-of-the-summer talent show, etc.) and then “subverting” our expectations. When an occasional comic bit is confined to a single scene, such as a romantic moment between Coop and his lady love while they are surrounded by goats, it can actually be amusing. But the majority of these routines, including one involving an emotionally fragile arts-and-craft teacher (nicely played by Saturday Night Live alum Molly Shannon) and a self-proclaimed stud (Ken Marino) who is actually a closeted virgin determined to get laid, grow tiresome because all they do is repeat the same joke over and over again, in a series of scenes, ad nauseam.
There is, of course, a healthy supply of sex jokes, but ironically none of them involve the campers. The humor is still crass and adolescent, despite taking a more adult approach towards s-e-x, such as a running joke involving the camp’s cook (played by Law & Order: S.V.U.‘s Chris Meloni, who should stick to drama), a Vietnam War veteran with bizarre sexual tendencies (like smearing mud on his ass, and humping the refrigerator). A gay sex scene involving two male counselors having anal intercourse is also included as a set-up for a joke. But the suggestive scene and the gay wedding that follows are presented within the narrative as spectacles to the point where it’s clear the very act themselves are really being played for laughs.
If anything, Wain and Showalter deserve some credit for putting the final nail in the coffin of the camp comedy genre. As both a parody and a “straight” summer camp comedy, Wet Hot American Summer has little to offer even the most die-hard crude comedy fans. They will no doubt agree that, even with a running time of 97 minutes, this Summer seems endless.