Camp and Camp: Why being Campy works for “Wet, Hot, American Summer”

Technique is not what makes a movie good and, by extension, what makes a comedy good. As Pauline Kael asserts that as long as an audience can “enjoy the acting and the ‘story’ or the them or the funny lines, don’t notice or care about how well or how badly the movie is made.” This assertion is crucial to understanding the popularity of movies that are perceived as “campy.”[1] The movie itself is what drives people’s interest in seeing it rather than the technique behind it or how well the film was made.

This is evidenced by an increasingly large number of movies that, when professionally critiqued, are portrayed as unintelligent and not worth peoples time but will become immensely popular among average movie goers. While this trend exists in all film genres, it has a particular significance with comedy as comedies can be easily perceived as poorly made and lacking in technique.

Wet, Hot, American Summer is an excellent example of this. While the film was not critically well-received it developed a cult following as well as being popular enough to justify a prequel, a sequel, and a tv spinoff. This is supported by the 33% the film received from critics on Rotten Tomatoes when compared with the 76% approval rating of the audience.

The reason for this cannot be narrowed down to a specific scene or character but the Chef Gene scenes really encapsulate the style that the makers of the film were going for. The scenes with Gene demonstrates little technical artistry on the part of the filmmakers in terms of cinematography or writing but these scenes are funny nonetheless because of the appeal of what they depict.

Gene represents an exaggerated caricature of a character that many people have encountered: the gruff and aggressive camp chef. While a trope that only appeals to a small demographic it is nonetheless a trope that truly connects with this small demographic. Other examples of this specific, genuine appeal are what make Wet, Hot, American Summer such a well-received film among audiences, despite the lack of technical artistry or technique.

[1] Kael, Pauline. Raising Kane and other essays. London New York: M. Boyars, 1996.


One comment

  1. When films fall into being successful “campy” ones, it is often by accident or a minor miracle but it seems that Wet Hot American Summer was trying to make a successful camp film. So, it is interesting when they try to show the audience that they are trying to make the film badly. The creators were really leaning into the whole genre and by doing that were they going beyond it or was it an ode to the camp films before it?

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