If so-called “nice guys” finish last in the real world, then film and television comedies have been hypercorrecting for their misfortune for decades by ensuring that they always finish first. But not Wet Hot American Summer. Nice guys always finish last in Wet Hot. And in a media landscape that tries its damndest to convince women that it is their solemn duty to reward men for good behavior with sex, Wet Hot’s repeated refusal of the “nice guy” trope is weirdly refreshing.
On first viewing, the 2001 Wet Hot movie gives off every indication that it will tell a standard “nice guy” story. All of the ingredients are in place: Gerald “Coop” Cooperberg (Michael Showalter) pines after the pretty and popular Katie (Marguerite Moreau) who already has a too-cool-for-summer-camp boyfriend Andy (Paul Rudd). The rest writes itself.
Helped along by Rudd’s exaggerated swagger and his California vowels, Andy is immediately revealed to be an asshole. In one of his first scenes, Katie asks him to go on a walk and, in response, he calls her a “dyke,” swings around a support beam, high-fives JJ, and gives her the finger. Like every Wet Hot character, he is an archetype of an archetype, the teenage bad boy diluted into his purest form.
Coop, of course, can do no wrong. He takes his responsibilities as a counselor seriously, even giving one of the younger campers a piggyback ride first thing in the morning. Showalter aw-shuckses his way through the role with almost heartbreaking accuracy, squirming and burying his hands in his pockets when Katie teases him.
The movie hits every beat exactly as expected: Katie smiles at Coop’s cuteness during an otherwise platonic interaction, Andy delves deeper into assholery and cheats on her with Lindsay, Coop lands an unexpected kiss, Katie second guesses the attraction, but, ultimately, the two reunite at the climactic talent show.
This is how these movies are supposed to go, right? Especially coming off of the nineties. After Josh ended up with Cher in Clueless and Ted locked lips with Mary in There’s Something About Mary, and, well every Adam Sandler character ever hooked up with every leading lady in every one of his movies, the adorable “nice guy” is supposed to end up with the popular girl in a comedy. That’s just how it works.
Sure, we can partially attribute comedy’s obsession with the “nice guy” to the inherent appeal of a good underdog story, but there’s also a sense in which it serves as a weird collective catharsis for every “nice guy” in the audience who has ever felt sleighted, for everyone who feels like a Seth Rogen or a Jonah Hill but wants to get with a Katherine Heigl or an Emma Stone.
Wet Hot teases that catharsis and then immediately withdraws it in the form of Katie’s brutal breakup speech to Coop in the film’s final minutes: “I genuinely don’t care that [Andy’s] kind of lame. You know, I don’t even care that he cheats on me. And I like you more than I like Andy, Coop, but I’m sixteen and maybe it’ll be a different story, like, when I’m ready to get married but, right now, I am entirely about sex.”
“So that’s where my priorities are right now: sex, specifically with Andy and not with you,” she summarizes.
And finally, the dreaded reassurance: “But you’re really nice.”
It’s not exactly a feminist moment—the Wet Hot universe is far too playful to make any sort of intentional social statement—but Katie rejecting Coop is a welcome subversion of the “nice guy” trend. There wouldn’t be anything wrong with a Katie/Coop pairing, just as there wasn’t anything inherently wrong with a Rogen/Heigl mash-up or a Hill/Stone casting.
The problem comes when comedies seem to hold nothing sacred except the “nice guy” myth, when the viewer starts to expect the lead to end up with the girl simply because she’s there and he’s not an awful guy.
When Katie rolls away in the backseat of Andy’s dad’s car at the end of Wet Hot, the movie is, in a way, laughing at you for believing in that convention and for hoping that a comedy that turns every summer camp trope on its head would somehow leave this one untouched.
The movie asks: What’s really wrong with Katie having fun with Andy, if that’s what she wants? Why should every fictional woman and girl—or women playing girls, as is the case in Wet Hot—be expected to devote herself completely to any halfway decent guy who shows up for her? And just how blind to Andy’s douchebaggery did the viewer think Katie was?
Katie driving off with Andy is the movie’s final joke, and one of its best.
It’s true that Andy is not nice. That’s not up for debate. And admittedly, he may not “deserve” Katie but that’s only if you insist on thinking about people as prizes and not as autonomous beings who can follow their own desires, wherever they lead.
But Andy’s character at least has some sort of internal definition outside of craving female companionship. Andy is a guy who wants things: He wants JJ to save him a waffle and he wants to eat that waffle. He wants those extra five seconds he saves by throwing his plate on the floor instead of cleaning it up. He wants to make out with Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks), write in his “gournal,” and read Rolling Stone.
That doesn’t justify him being mean to Katie, of course, but it does explain why he might be more appealing to her, on balance, than a guy whose primary character trait is that he wants her attention.
You might think that Wet Hot would go easier on Coop in First Day of Camp. But his slavish devotion to the fairer sex only gets worse. His “girlfriend” Donna slowly changes his appearance by giving him gifts that he wears to prove his devotion. Donna wants him to wear a choker, he wears a choker. She gives him a hat, he wears a hat. In the penultimate episode, he looks ridiculous (but “Watch out, David Lee Roth!”):
Because the show is a prequel, too, we know that the writers won’t let Coop find love with Donna and, indeed, she strings him along with minimal effort while clearly being more invested in Yaron’s sensual faux-spiritualism. Coop endures an attempted threesome before finally deciding he’s had enough.
In addition to doubling down on Coop, the prequel also crushes the hopes of hapless first-time camper Kevin Appelblatt. “Applebutt”—as he is affectionatley called—is awkward but sweet while Drew, his tormentor and self-declared “Burp King of Westchester,” is teenage cruelty personified. Amy is the object of their mutual affection, and she holds up her end of the “nice guy” storyline with a few meaningful looks in Kevin’s direction.
For seven episodes, the show acts as if Kevin will eventually win her over. But his fate was determined as soon as Amy described him as “nice” in the second episode. In the world of Wet Hot, that word is a death sentence.
In the penultimate episode, Kevin gets down on one knee to beg Amy to skip out on seven minutes in heaven with Drew and be his girlfriend instead. Not only does Amy shoot him down, Kevin has to time their presumed make-out session, and then the show promptly forgets about their story. We learn in the finale that he spent the night wandering around the camp alone. Much like Electro-City, the Wet Hot universe is a cruel place to live.
But in mocking this trope—and toying with the viewer’s readiness to buy into it, time and again—the Wet Hot franchise unwittingly offers some actual good advice for self-professed “nice guys” everywhere: Don’t let yourself be defined by your crush and maybe spend some quality time with other guys.
When Donna leaves with Yaron to “explore each other in a yurt,” Coop wishes them well and walks away to join his friends, confident in himself for the first time—that is, at least until he falls for Katie in the eight weeks between the show and the movie. And Kevin ends up playing Yahtzee with former rival Drew, who did not make out with Amy after all (they “mostly talked about Eddie Murphy”). Both of them discover that there is life after rejection.
Nice guys might finish last at Camp Firewood, but maybe last’s a better place to be.
May Saunders is a professional dog walker living in Minneapolis and an occasional freelance writer. In her spare time, she enjoys hanging out with her cat, who does not need to be walked. Follow her on Twitter.