Fact-Checking ‘Wet Hot American Summer’

In honor of the film’s 20th anniversary, I was curious: How much of it still feels authentic to the sleepaway camp experience?

Finally, it’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for: summer. And for thousands of young (likely Conservative or Reform) Jews around the country, that means spending two, four, six, or even eight weeks at Jewish sleepaway camp.

Jewish sleepaway camp is a phenomenon that’s hard to explain. For much of the 10 years I spent at my Jewish sleepaway camp, it was sort of frozen in time — the only hints towards what year it might be coming from a Dave Matthews Band poster. Otherwise, between the Birkenstocks, puka shell necklaces and incense burning at all hours of the day, for all intents and purposes, it could have been any year between 2005 and 1985.

Jewish camp is the kind of thing where you know it if you see it. And I knew as soon as I saw the 2001 movie “Wet Hot American Summer” that they had captured the very essence of Jewish sleepaway camp. Based on their own experiences of sleepaway camp, co-writers Michael Showalter and David Wain gathered their friends — some of whom would become the biggest names in comedy (and Bradley Cooper) — to depict the final day of sleepaway camp in 1981.

In honor of the film’s 20th anniversary, I was curious: How much of it still feels authentic to the sleepaway camp experience? With an eager heart and open mind, I rewatched “Wet Hot American Summer” and came up with a completely arbitrary points system in order to officially fact-check this iconic summer flick. Here’s how it fared:

  • As the credits roll, the opening scene finds the show’s cast of characters — aka the counselors — as they drink, hook up, smoke weed, and worst of all, play acoustic guitar around a campfire, all the while Jefferson Starship plays. This, I can confirm, was pretty much a nightly occurrence, with bonfires often essentially acting as an altar around which everyone can gather. +5
  • 5:57 a.m. and every single campers’ bunk contains a pair of youths going at it. +2 for the accuracy of sneaking out, -3 that every single camper is getting some and there aren’t a few lonely ones with empty beds.
  • Female campers overly primping, all hovering over one mirror before a day full of activities. +1
  • Children running everywhere, while a couple of counselors look on, unconcerned. +1 (I have the pre-banquet flatiron scars to prove it.)
  • Neither here nor there, but this movie does a great job of demonstrating that David Hyde Pierce is a hunk.
  • The camp’s disc jockey, Arty, has his very own radio show for his Jewish day school in the Chevy Chase/Bethesda, Maryland area. +1
  • Here, the camp DJ sets up the stakes for much of the film: Hook up or perish. +8 The pressure to close is real. Particularly on the last night of camp. You could go the whole summer without kissing someone, but if you manage to make it happen on the last night of camp, it counts doubly.
  • Having a crush on someone who isn’t into you is universal, but having a crush on someone who has been with the same person all summer and is basically camp married is its own specific sort of pain. +4
  • Every Jewish sleepaway camp has at least, like, five Coopers. +5 (One for each Cooper.)
  • A single man just … lives adjacent to the campgrounds? Parents would have seen him on Visiting Day and had him out of there. –3
  • Many camp chefs hate children, as Gene (Chris Meloni) does. I can’t explain this but it is true. +1
  • Going to get this out of the way now and say a general +20 for all of the un-fancy, un-hip, un-logo’d fashions (minus the various vintage T-shirts) and the wood (and wood-paneled) bunks, dining halls and cabins.
  • A camper would have absolutely complained about Gene’s giant Jesus arm tattoo before summer was out. -2
  • Ill-fated attempts from Katie to turn a summer romance into something more +1. That only worked in “Grease.”
  • An arts and crafts counselor — although adeptly played by Molly Shannon — that’s an actual adult and a divorcee on top of that -5. Teenagers basically age out of being counselors by the time they hit 18.
  • A big talent show the last night of camp: +4. No matter what camp you’re at — or what the finale event is called — it is absolutely vital to send the summer off with a bang.
  • Seeing the completely bare bones dock with just one slide and lifeguards who aren’t paying any attention to the kids swimming does make me wonder where the tuition my parents paid for my camp went. +1
  • The whole “still counts” attitude about someone you dated when you were 10 is exactly how people would relay this information to each other. 10 is basically 15 in Jewish sleepaway camp years. +2
  • Here we have the counselors “going into town,” which was a huge deal. Because sleepaway camps are mostly so remote, they only have pretty much one nearby town with just a few basic things in it: a general store, a pizza place, a diner, etc. You never needed to clarify what town you were going into because … there was just the one. Counselors could (and did) go pretty much whenever they wanted, but for campers, trips to town were a special occasion. Socially speaking, a lot rode on going into town. Overall, +10. But -3 because I don’t believe a town this small would have a library.
  • The dubbing of Samm Levine’s voice over Arty’s is so poorly synced up that I have to mention it here. I won’t subtract points as this is more of a filmmaking snafu, but it is very distracting.
  • Gail finds comfort in the hands of young arts-and-crafter Aaron (Gideon Jacobs) and while yes I know that this is the joke, I’m not buying that any boy at sleepaway camp has one sensitive bone in his body. -5
  • Counselors generally ignoring campers for their own self-interest/sex life — to the point that one drowns and another camper is stranded to cover it up. +7
  • What really makes a movie like “Wet Hot American Summer” shine is that while they acknowledge they could go the route of seeing the misfit kids from Camp Firewood play against a richer (and therefore evil) camp, the kids say the whole thing is trite and skip it. The movie version of having your cake and eating it, too. No points here because … well, it’s having your cake and eating it, too.
  • McKinley and Ben’s gay wedding is probably among the most earnest and moving moments in the film. +2 for McKinley’s friends not realizing he was gay (sadly, the Jewish sleepaway camp experience is overtly heteronormative) but -5 because these are teenagers marrying their first option.
  • There is extremely little structure to any type of activity the campers have. +1
  • Yes, this is a movie, so it of course makes sense that there are only three women the men are interested in, but this is also emblematic of the sleepaway camp experience. No points for trudging up painful memories.
  • I can’t speak to the realism of Gene’s scene wherein he gets much-needed advice from an anthropomorphic can of vegetables and his following confession to the camp vis-a-vis the Jewish sleepaway camp experience, but it is funny. No points, just vibes.
  • Ditto re: the Skylab Tracking Device Henry and the campers build, but I do buy that Jewish sleepaway camp is a breeding ground for future astrophysicists.
  • Coop joins Gene on a journey of self-discovery (via montage) in a sort of send-up of the type of movie that would have had the baseball scene from earlier. It’s not about the girl, it’s about him and when it comes to a certain type of guy I recall from my Jewish sleepaway camp days, this makes perfect sense. +1
  • No way would these kids — even in the year 1981 — retain the services of a Borscht Belt comic. -15
  • However, campers would accept “broom holding” as a talent; I once sat in the audience as two kids ate milk and cereal out of a third kid’s very deep wingbone. +1
  • Coop returns, fully made over, and gets the girl. While shocking camp-related makeovers usually happen in the 10 months away from campgrounds, I can’t deny the power of surprising everyone by looking one way and then — suddenly — looking another. +1
  • Honestly, I can’t lie, the whole “nerds save the day” thing hit different for me this time around. Sleepaway camp — like any gathering of adolescents — can be a rough place for anyone who is a little weirder or marches to the beat of their own drum. The fact that the nerds save the camp, do it for zero credit, and acknowledge the strength of their friendships is kind of the whole point of camp in the first place, really. +10
  • After Katie unceremoniously dumps Coop (-5 because in all likelihood it would be the other way around), our final shots of the film include clothes strewn everywhere as campers get on the bus and into their parents’ cars to go home. Three weeks later, they will wonder where their Soffe shorts are, and the answer will be lost forever to sleepaway camp. +2

Overall, my extremely arbitrary points system netted “Wet Hot American Summer” 45 points for accuracy. While thereare a few things here or there I might quibble with, overall, the film gives an almost uncannily accurate portrayal of Jewish sleepaway camp — an extremely strange, special, and at times confusing two months of the year. If you find yourself longing for those days, it’s always worth throwing on the film — just be prepared for potentially more nostalgia than you can handle.

Lana Schwartz

Lana Schwartz is a writer who was born and raised in New York City, where she continues to live today. You can check out more of her writing in her new book Build Your Own Romantic Comedy, or by visiting her website. Follow her on Twitter @_lanabelle (where she mostly talks about television) or on Instagram, @characteractresslanaschwartz (where she mostly posts pictures of concerts).

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