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Wet Hot Annotated Summer: An exhaustive guide to Camp Firewood

At first glance, Wet Hot American Summer, set in a single day (August 18, 1981), is a brilliant sendup of the camp-movie genre (Meatballs, Heavyweights, etc.). If we tear it apart, however, we find a multitude of pop-culture references from the ’70s and ’80s, as well as inspired takes of elements from disaster films, inspirational montages, and even the classic declaration of love speech. So in honor of the new prequel series premiering on July 31 on Netflix (our WHAS scholar-in-residence Erik Adams gave it an A-), we thought a deeper examination of its source material was in order. For our Wet Hot Annotated Summer, we went through and examined a multitude of moments from the 2001 movie, with accompanying approximate minute marks from our Netflix stream. So claim your bunk, grab your rope bracelet and random number generator, and watch out for Skylab as we explore the asides and references that make up our favorite parts of Wet Hot.

Credits: Classic 1970s font Cooper Black

The attention to detail is in place from the first frame: Wet Hot American Summer’s opening credits, logotype, intertitles, and the text on Abby Bernstein’s T-shirt are all rendered in period-appropriate Cooper Black. Though it dates back to the 1920s, the typeface has become kitschy shorthand for the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s, thanks to its use on record covers (Pet Sounds, Freak Out!, L.A. Woman), in TV intros (The Bob Newhart Show), and as the ironed-on vehicle for sartorial sass talk (Quoth Abby’s pink T-shirt: “I’ve been civilized long enough”). And in an amusing coincidence, the name “Cooper Black” could also be applied to Wet Hot’s steamiest sex scene. [Erik Adams]

Credits: “Jane” by Starship scores the counselors’ beach party

Although late-night revelry by a fire is a well-worn retro plot premise (e.g., the ’70s-set Dazed And Confused), this trope is a particular driving force in camp movies: When campers go to sleep, this is the time and place when their counselors can let loose and have some boozy, adult-free fun of their own. Of course, there’s a decidedly parodic edge to Wet Hot American Summer’s opening party scene, mainly because everyone is already in character. The hormonal explosions feel overdone, while the close-ups of people guzzling beer, shoving marshmallows into their mouths, and gyrating around the fire are exaggerated. Bonus points for the fact that the soundtrack to this drinking and making out is Starship’s early 1980 hit “Jane,” whose main premise revolves around the titular character giving her man the (perceived) run-around; the song’s pleas become creepier and less innocent as the song progresses, which foreshadows the movie’s own twisted idea of romance. [Annie Zaleski]

0:04: Introducing Arty The Beekeeper” Solomon

The voice of WCFW is not the face of the camp radio station: Future podcast supervillain Samm “The Ma’am” Levine (a.k.a. Li’l Wolverine) got his start in audio (and goofy nicknames) as the uncredited voice of Arty “The Beekeeper” Solomon. Said Levine in a 2010 interview: “I had nothing to do with the actual production of the film, that was David Wain calling me during post-production saying, ‘Hey, I hired the wrong kid. Can you come in and help me?’” Unsurprisingly, only one of the performers responsible for keeping campers groovin’ and the narrative movin’ returns for First Day Of Camp—and it’s not the one you can see. [Erik Adams]

0:10: “The sci-fi… nerdy… the indoor kids?”

Even before he makes his recently achieved Class-B Dungeon Master status known, Keith Stack (you may remember him as the guy who came to dinner a few weeks ago with underwear on his head) announces his interests with a makeshift cape, Coke-bottle glasses, and an “I Hate Mondays” T-shirt. But his fellow outcasts don’t confirm their strains of geekery until the closing credits: There’s Mork Guy, Mallrat Girl, Cure Girl, and Melvin (otherwise known as Medieval Kid). Melvin and Keith’s obsessions transcend the film’s period setting, but the other three are distinctly early ’80s. Cure Girl’s favorite band would release the first of its “trilogy” albums, Pornography, in 1982, the same year that Frank Zappa gave Mallrat Girl an anthem in the form of “Valley Girl.” Mork Guy, meanwhile, would come home from camp to see his Orkan hero pop the question at the start of Mork & Mindy’s fourth and final season—followed shortly thereafter by Jonathan Winters’ arrival as their aged-in-reverse offspring, Mearth. [Erik Adams]

0:12: “Jazz shoes, dance belts, lycras et al.”

Founded by alumni of two campus sketch troupes, The State’s theatrical roots ran deep: In some of its most inspired sketches, the group’s MTV series riffed on kitchen-sink realism, Kabuki, and musical pomp. Continuing that grease-paint motif, Wet Hot American Summer pours several semesters of drama-school pretension into producer Ben (Bradley Cooper) and director/choreographer Susie (Amy Poehler). The terminology in their address to the mess hall should sound eerily familiar to recovering theater geeks, as should the alternately compassionate/hostile tone Susie takes when recruiting potential cast members. (Bonus: Watch the window behind Cooper and Poehler for some of the infamous precipitation that plagued the film shoot.) [Erik Adams]

0:13: Andy, the asshole boyfriend

The last 14 years of his career have seen Paul Rudd transforming into anthropomorphized charm, so it’s extra-fun to revisit Wet Hot and see him play a part he’d never be offered today: An unapologetic asshole. “Why are you such an asshole?” Katie asks him after he breaks off some post-breakfast necking, a question that’s both grounded in emotion and totally rhetorical. He’s an asshole because Wet Hot needs him to be an asshole, in the grand cinematic tradition of William Zabka, Ted McGinley, or James Spader. Andy’s not as preppy as those actors’ most detestable ’80s assholes, but he still gives the audience someone to root against while pulling for Coop. [Erik Adams]

0:14: Farewell, Silas

Between breakfast and morning activity time, McKinley, J.J., and Gary watch as a sullen figure is loaded into the family Volvo. Young Silas is banished from Camp Firewood for an unforgivable offense: “He snuck into the office last night and videotaped himself jerking off.” Jake Fogelnest plays the film’s most notorious self-abuser, but the punishment is arguably unfit: As the teenaged host of Squirt TV, Fogelnest made a name for himself by recording himself. (Making it up to him all these years later, Showalter and Wain hired Fogelnest as one of the staff writers for First Day Of Camp.) [Erik Adams]

0:15: Morning guitars (all-electric mode)

Summer-camp music classes and acoustic guitars go together like “Kumbaya” being sung off-key around a roaring fire. Wet Hot American Summer dispenses with that tradition very subtly, however: In the early morning music scene, only the teacher (Peter Salett, credited as Guitar Dude) cradles an acoustic. The rest of the campers are sitting in a circle strumming non-amplified electric guitars of all stripes, including a righteous double-neck guitar that would make Rush’s Alex Lifeson proud. The guitar subversion is subtle—the campers are seen on-screen for less than 10 secondsbut it’s a cheeky, era-appropriate nod to the classic rock dominating the movie’s soundtrack. [Annie Zaleski]

0:15: Take your electronic football game on a hike

In the montage of daily Camp Firewood activities, we see a line of campers ignoring their mandatory nature hike in favor of the allure of their bleeping handheld devices. As it’s 1981, their rapt attention is focused by the pre-pre-pre-Gameboy delights of the likes of Mattel Electronics’ Football and Coleco’s Electronic Quarterback, palm-sized, battery-operated sports simulators where the real world thrills of the NFL were approximated by a scaled-down number of red LED dashes. For “indoor kids” wrenched away from the comforting glow of their Atari 2600s to a mosquito-swarmed Maine summer camp staffed by inattentive, criminally negligent teens, these easily mastered, thumb-ruining gizmos provide the numbing electronic entertainment no mere trek in the woods can match. [Dennis Perkins]

0:16: EST and crafts

Riding the divide between poignancy and parody, the arts-and-crafts runner starring Gail (Molly Shannon) runs on the type of self-help mumbo jumbo that helped drag aging Baby Boomers through the go-go ’80s. Like most who sought the advice of books like I’m OK, You’re OK during the era, Gail’s personal life is a mess, and she turns to an outside perspective to clean it up. Unlike those people, she’s taking advice from a group of sleepaway campers who precociously “interject” their own observations in a group-therapy setting and coach her through a role-playing exercise with affirmations like “Be strong, Gail!” [Erik Adams]

0:21: “Cabin 8 wants to watch The China Syndrome again”

The China Syndrome was a 1979 thriller starring Jane Fonda and a pre-pre-pre-Ant-Man Michael Douglas about safety infractions at a nuclear plant, resulting in a possible reactor meltdown. Although based on a plant in California, the movie predicted a real-life nuclear disaster that happened only 12 days after the release of the film: Three Mile Island. This coincidence likely fueled Bunk 8’s China Syndrome fascination. [Gwen Ihnat]

0:22: “I am not joking around! I am not Ruth Buzzi over here!”

Camp director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) faces a classic leadership quandary: She uses humor to bond with the counselors and diffuse tense situations, but undermines her own authority in the process. Combine that with end-of-camp awfulness, and she may as well be addressing her charges with a hairnet on her head and a frown on her face. But she’s not addressing her charges with a hairnet pulled over her head and a frown on her face. She is not Laugh-In’s Ruth Buzzi standing over there—as evidenced later in the film, when Coop mistakes Beth’s advice for a joke and suggests, “Ruth Buzzi better watch her back.” [Erik Adams]

0:31: “Love Is All Right Tonight” leads to a drugs montage

Usually a song as cheery as Rick Springfield’s “Love Is All Right Tonight,” the leadoff track from his hit album Working Class Dog, would background a delightful montage of summer fun for our young leads, perhaps someone getting pushed into a pool, a kiss over an ice cream cone. WHAS, of course, distorts this usual series of events, getting darker and darker as the song continues. It starts benignly with ice cream, then cigarettes, then our underage friends buying a six-pack from the corner store. It soon progresses then to pot, purchasing coke in an alleyway, and seeing everyone strung-out in a drug house. Through it all, the optimistic Springfield song makes the increasingly sordid settings appear even more surreal. But all is righted by the end of the song, as J.J. comments: “It’s great to get away from camp for awhile, even just for an hour!” [Gwen Ihnat]

0:39: In the first of two excellent uses of Loverboy: “Turn Me Loose” scores a slow-mo chase scene

Every action-packed movie moment of the ’80s came packaged with an equally heart-pumping AOR song, especially if the scene was a high-speed chase. Wet Hot American Summer’s version of this adrenaline-fueled plot device is slightly different: After Victor ditches Neil and a bunch of campers in pursuit of love, the latter goes after his colleague and, in the process, sends up of all the usual chase clichés. There’s a grand proclamation of finding Victor “dead or alive”; Neil happening to find a working motorcycle right as he exits the lake; an adrenaline-fueled chase that clearly shows the men right near each other; exaggeratedly quick running; “this chase is tough!” facial grimaces; a bad stunt double; and a successful pursuit thwarted by something totally ridiculous (e.g., a bale of hay). The cherry on top? The spoof-packed 90-second scene is soundtracked by Loverboy’s synth-driven “Turn Me Loose,” a lone-wolf-celebrating song touting an individual’s need to do things his own way, dammit. (Historical note: Loverboy also had three songs in 1986’s Meatballs III: Summer Job.) [Annie Zaleski]

0:41: Bradley Cooper’s favorite screen kiss

Wet Hot American Summer was the film debut of Bradley Cooper, playing the camp counselor in love with Michael Ian Black’s McKinley. He told the Advocate in 2009: “Those guys all knew each other through The State and other things, but I was still in school at the Actors Studio and didn’t know anybody. I just sort of auditioned for that movie randomly and was so lucky to get it. So I’m playing Ping-Pong with him the first night I arrived, and I was like, ‘So, we’re going to fuck in a few weeks.’ [Laughs.] We came up with the idea to keep our socks on, and we put tons of that sweat stuff all over our bodies to make them shine.” The following year on Live With Regis And Kelly, Cooper declared that his favorite on-screen kiss was Michael Ian Black, who immediately responded on Twitter. [Gwen Ihnat]

0:43: Bad News Bears underdog speech

In what is usually the climax of every youth-themed sports movie, the campers settle in for a rousing underdog speech before the big game. In the speech, Coop adeptly describes the plot of ’70s sports movie Bad News Bears, right down to the letter. A ragtag bunch of misfits, who didn’t look like they’d amount to anything, comes up from behind to somehow face the evil championship team in the finals, where they will undoubtedly have a dramatic, to-the-second finish. Since everyone knows where this is going (“Sounds like well-worn territory,” “Yeah, that’s pretty trite”), Coop and the team beg off, and even the coach of the other team agrees. [Gwen Ihnat]

1:01: “And I don’t care that you’re bowlegged, and I don’t care that you’re bilingual, all I know is…”

Emphatic over-the-top romantic declaration speeches have anchored countless rom-coms, from “You complete me” (Jerry Maguire) to “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy” (Notting Hill) to “Charlie, you have a big nose” (Roxanne). Coop’s pontification to Katie pokes fun at this genre by having him trail off into various non sequiturs (“I love the way you laugh; I love the way your hair smells; and I love it that sometimes for no reason at all, you’re late for shul”), all of which fail to ignite the object of his desire, just like in Boys And Girls. [Gwen Ihnat]

1:02: Gene’s going to go hump the fridge

Wet Hot American Summer is often mistaken for a direct parody of ’80s summer camp movies, but Showalter and Wain have said their true intent was to riff on their own summer-camp experiences. That’s not to say other genres and their conventions weren’t intentionally sent up: There’s the Bad News Bears metacommentary prior to the big softball game (above), but there’s also Gene’s dramatic transformation in the third act. Nudged toward closure by a sentient can of vegetables, the camp cook confronts his fears and owns up to his proclivities, delivering a rousing speech after serving his final dinner of the summer. It’s triumphant, pushed to inspirational heights by Theodore Shapiro and Craig Wedren’s instrumental score. But the speech also pulls a classic Showalter-Wain trick, using the types of things people only say in the movies (“At a time when I was trying to hide myself from myself”; “I made it, ma—I’m okay!”) to wring laughs out of a moment of heartfelt sincerity. Shot from a low angle, against a stars-and-stripes backdrop commemorating the Bicentennial, Christopher Meloni makes man-on-appliance action seem downright patriotic. [Erik Adams]

1:06: Skylab missed me

Included on the bizarre list of things to worry about in the ’70s alongside killer bees and swine flu, a rogue piece of a space exploration station was about to smash into the planet. After Skylab was damaged on takeoff, no one was sure exactly where this massive piece of equipment was going to land on its fiery re-entry. NASA estimated that there was a 1 in 152 chance that it would hit an actual person, resulting in a strange pop-culture rash of hats with bullseyes on them. There was no cooler T-shirt in the ’70s (except perhaps the “I’m With Stupid”/“Stupid” combo) than “Skylab Missed Me.” As the world watched, Skylab eventually returned to Earth in western Australia on July 11, 1979, landing on no one. [Gwen Ihnat]

1:08 “Will you help teach me about this, what is it, a new way?”

Here’s a concentrated dose of spoof: To the “Gonna Fly Now”-like strains of Shapiro and Wedren’s “Higher And Higher,” Showalter, Meloni, and A.D. Miles cram multiple types of training montages into 90 seconds, combining the Kung Fu pebble snatch (a piece of candy here), angry Footloose dancing, and Rocky III’s slo-mo jogging. (Plus some sort of 12-steps meeting, just for good measure.) It’s a self-aware sequence on par with South Park’s “Montage,” later heard in Team America: World Police. “Higher And Higher” would later travel this path in reverse, soundtracking another montage in the Stella episode “Office Party.” [Erik Adams]

1:11: “The phone, the phone, where’s the fucking phone!?!”

The 1970s featured a mega-ton of disaster movies, which then siphoned off into a slew of made-for-TV movies about errant rafting trips, hospital quarantines, or skylift mishaps. Victor’s rescue of the canoeing campers resembles one of these lower-level efforts. It’s preceded by the over-the-top hysteria of Janeane Garofalo and Joe Lo Truglio as they literally and pointlessly tear apart Nurse Nancy’s infirmary looking for the phone (classic disaster-movie line: “We’re losing time!”). Then Victor rescues the campers from going over the falls entirely offscreen (“You’re doing it! You’re actually doing it!”), followed by the perfect post-disaster wrapup: a cheesy unfunny wisecrack (“Next time we go camping, you drive the van!”) with artificial laughter, and a 90210-worthy guitar riff. [Gwen Ihnat]

1:15: “All the way from Kutsher’s Country Clubin the Catskill Mountains!”

The Borscht Belt bona fides of talent show emcee Alan Shemper (Showalter in a dual role) are legit: His homebase, Kutsher’s, was the last all-inclusive summer getaway to operate in the region. (It’s also the purported inspiration for Kellerman’s resort in Dirty Dancing.) Unlike Kutsher’s, Shemper has endured in spite of his old age, re-emerging in 2007 to host a night of karaoke with Of Montreal, and performing a stand-up set at the celebration of Wet Hot’s 10th anniversary in 2011. Miraculously, the reception he got at that reunion show was nearly as rapturous as the response Shemper garnered at Camp Firewood. [Erik Adams]

1:20: “I’d just like to say that the campers you’re about to see suck dick. Nevertheless, please, welcome them…”

Godspell combined two classic stage musicals from the late ’60s and early ’70s: the hippies of Hair with the religious aspects of Jesus Christ Superstar. Today it’s mostly remembered for the song “Day By Day,” performed with such aplomb by these campers in their colorful street-urchin outfits, produced by Ben and choreographed/directed by Susie. Although the Godspell number is undoubtedly the highlight of the talent show (at least until Steve shows up), unfortunately the audience members of Cape Firewood prefer their entertainment Catskills-, telekinesis-, or flatulence-based. Hey, at least Ben liked it. [Gwen Ihnat]

1:22: Coop’s makeover entrance: Loverboy’s “When It’s Over”

Loverboy’s second well-timed appearance of the movie comes during the talent show, when Coop shows up dressed in his early ’80s finest—gleaming white sneakers, high white tube socks, tiny nylon shorts, a midriff-baring workout top, and a sweatband—to signify that he’s grown up. (Naturally, the ladies in the crowd fall all over themselves at his makeover.) He lowers his voice—yet another way he’s showing off newly acquired masculine sophistication—and tells Katie he’s leaving to see the world. The interaction plays off of every tough guy-leaving-his-gal scene in the movies, while Loverboy’s fluffy keyboard washes and lyrics about a man callously leaving his lady are completely on point for the scene. [Annie Zaleski]

1:23: Reaction to Coop’s makeover: a symphony of double-takes

Asshole Andy’s reaction and subsequent snubbing by Katie nods at the classic ’80s trope of bully comeuppance at a large, public event. Movies like Just One Of The Guys, The Karate Kid, and Revenge Of The Nerds favored this scenario, but it’s particularly reminiscent of the John Hughes-penned Some Kind Of Wonderful and Pretty In Pink. The group’s charged reaction to the reinvented “Super Coop” (thank you Janeane Garofalo for that delightful DVD commentary label) recalls the response to the transition of SKOW perpetual buddy/asexual tomboy Mary Stuart Masterson and Pink’s pauper Molly Ringwald into revelatory sexual beings. And based on his wide-eyed double take, Andy agrees. [Drew Fortune]

1:24: Steve = Carrie

Brian De Palma’s 1976 film adaptation of Stephen King’s debut novel set a model for all modern geek tragedy: a teen outcast, punished by peers for non-conformity, endures that punishment until one final, climactic incident sets them over the edge. Steve, a silent, shy nerd who spends most of the movie avoiding everyone, follows the arc—except when it comes time for him to unleash his secret awesome power (like Carrie, he’s a closet telekinetic), he uses his gift for good, inadvertently changing the direction of a plummeting chunk of Skylab so that it avoids hitting the camp building. Instead of a violent apocalypse brought on by ostracized rage, we get a lot of wind and no one dies. It’s a feel-good catastrophe. [Zack Handlen]

1:26: Steve gets a well-deserved slow clap

The slow clap is a noble ’80s film tradition, reserved primarily for the belated acknowledgement of underdog achievement. Can’t Buy Me Love honors Patrick Dempsey’s chic geek Ronald Miller and forsaken nerd buddy Kenneth with a well-deserved slow clap after Ronald’s rousing, bully-slaying cafeteria speech. Corey Haim’s bespectacled, insect-loving Lucas ultimately triumphs after an ill-fated, gurney bound attempt at football, and is rewarded with ceremonial jersey and prolonged slow clap from his fellow classmates and former tormentors. Such is the case with outcast Steve, whose bizarre, telepathic wind-summoning talent results in stunned silence. Slowly, nodding in appreciative summation, Zak Orth’s J.J. begins the slow clap, rising to thunderous ovation from the entire camp and counselors. In WHAS’ weird and skewed universe, the underdogs shine, if only for a night. [Drew Fortune]