The Painful Nostalgia of Wet Hot American Summer

BY LANA SCHWARTZ

My first summer at sleepaway camp was in 1999. I was nine years old and with my decision to spend the full eight weeks there, I jumped into the full summer camp experience head first. Sure, it was 1999, but for all intents and purposes, it could have been 1975. Time stood still at sleepaway camp, with tapestries strung everywhere, acoustic guitars constantly being strummed, and incense burning to cover up the smell of the counselors’ pot smoke. It was a lot easier back then to lose yourself in the nature and feel-goodery the camp encouraged, as there were no cell phones and not much of an internet yet to speak of. I’m grateful that I got to experience camp at its purest, because 10 years later, by the end of my last summer, counselors were stealing opportunities to use the camp’s computers.


There was a ton of overlap between the experiences I’d had thus far and what the movie portrayed: campers sneaking out, counselors constantly swapping make out buddies, and the whole notion of “going into town” was particularly on point.


Courtesy: Lana Schwartz

Courtesy: Lana Schwartz

At 25, I’ve long since put my camp days behind me. I experienced almost all of my “firsts” during those summers at sleepaway camp — first kiss, first time I got drunk, first time I smoked weed — and made friendships that shaped me into who I am today. Yet, I don’t think about camp every single day, or talk to those friends all the time. Things change, people change, and even with the technology we have today that we didn’t in 1999, it’s still hard to keep in touch with friends in other cities.

I, like any comedy nerd or fan of Wet Hot American Summer, was excited for the reboot of the show. I had first seen the movie when I was still working at camp, albeit much later than when it had first been released. There was a ton of overlap between the experiences I’d had thus far and what the movie portrayed: campers sneaking out, counselors constantly swapping make out buddies, and the whole notion of “going into town” was particularly on point. From then on, when I would try to explain to people what my Jewish sleepaway camp was like, I would say “It’s basically the camp from Wet Hot American Summer.” But when I pressed play on the first episode of the Netflix series reboot, I didn’t give a ton of thought as to how watching the show would make me feel.

If you’re like me, and you spent almost half of your life — or more, maybe — "living ten months for two,” then watching Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp has the effect of feeling so nostalgic its almost painful. As much as I loved camp, it’s where I spent the ages nine through eighteen learning who I was and going through puberty in the process. I have a lot of complicated memories of loving camp, but also hating that even once I was a nerdy teenager, people remembered the even nerdier tween and child I once was. You don't have the luxury of that fresh start you get when you begin high school when you return to the same place with the same people year after year.


It’s all there. Yes, even the Birkenstocks. And that’s just the small stuff.


From the opening credits and throughout the entire series, there are a million details about sleepaway camp the show gets right. Yes, sure, a lot of insane, ridiculous things happen, too (and it’s hilarious), but you can tell that a lot of care was put into making sure the show felt like it took place at a sleepaway camp in 1981; or, in my case, 1999. The lake with the shoddy dock, the red bunks, the trunks we all used to transport our stuff to and from camp, the sheets we put up over the windows to block out the sunlight: It’s all there. Yes, even the Birkenstocks. And that’s just the small stuff.

The bigger things are there, too. My first-day jitters were made exponentially bigger, thanks to the veteran camp bullies. I remember my second summer at camp in 2000, I had to come up a few days later because of my sister’s high school graduation. Even though I wasn’t a total newbie, I missed an essential few days of bonding, and felt my social status slip as a result. There were a million unrequited camp crushes each summer, and sometimes they were formed simply because you liked the look of someone — we were too young to understand that we had a type, or why we were always attracted to the same kind of personality. As we got older, bonds would form, in ways that make a lot more sense to me now than they did then. It didn’t matter what happened when we were away for camp from 10 months; time would resume once we saw each other again. You can’t blame Coop, one of WHAS’s main characters for just assuming he’d pick up right where he’d left off with last summer’s flame, Donna. That’s really what usually happened. But yes, David Wain’s character Yaron is certainly not the first to break up a camp couple.


Wet Hot American Summer is a riotous, absurd comedy, sure, but it’s also a beautiful love letter to the complicated magic of sleepaway camp.


I was 15 years old when I became a counselor, with only one summer separating me and the other junior counselors from the campers. Being a counselor brought with it its own challenges, and almost none of them having to do with the campers.  I can honestly say that I relate to about every single camp character in WHAS the series and the movie, with the exception of Gene and Mitch, mostly because I’ve never suffered PTSD or been transformed into a Can of Vegetables.

Courtesy: Lana Schwartz

Courtesy: Lana Schwartz

Wet Hot American Summer is a riotous, absurd comedy, sure, but it’s also a beautiful love letter to the complicated magic of sleepaway camp. Watching it is the closest I’ve come to reliving those days in years, and it also had the unfortunate side effect of making me feel very old; particularly ironic, considering the actors portraying the counselors are mostly 40 and above, even further removed from the crazy world of camp than I am.