Ask any Jew who their favourite character is in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp and they’ll tell you it’s the Israeli soccer counsellor, Yaron. The dark-skinned, mop-haired kibbutz export – played with obnoxious vacancy and listless sexuality by the TV show’s director, David Wain – has been regarded as such an incredibly spot-on depiction of the modern hippyish Israeli that one writer was inspired to pen “An Ode to the Israeli Summer Camp Sexpot” in Tablet. Jewlicious also lauded the authenticity of Yaron’s Birkenstocks and too-unbuttoned denim shirt, while Howard Salzberg, a former co-camper of Wain’s, now a camp director, called him “the spitting image of my predecessor….It’s hard to watch because it’s so funny to me.”
There’s no doubt that Wain nailed the joke. But what this says about Israeli sexpots is far less telling than what is says about the evolution of onscreen Jewish stereotypes.
Wet Hot American Summer is the Netflix-produced prequel to a critically maligned indie comedy from 2001 of the same name. By some weird happenstance, the then-31-year-old Wain cast such unknown actors as Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd, Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino, Christopher Meloni, Molly Shannon and Elizabeth Banks, marking the only time ’90s stand-up comedian Janeane Garofalo and David Hyde Pierce (a.k.a. Frasier’s brother) would be the top-billed actors amid such a list of names.
Both the original movie and Netflix show take place at a Jewish summer camp. The movie didn’t dwell on its characters’ Jewishness, but slyly inserted a handful of jokes for Jews to chuckle at: when scrawny little Coop, played by co-writer Michael Showalter, confesses his love to fellow counselor Katie, he blurts out, “I love it that sometimes for no reason you’re late for shul!”
It’s for the best that Wain and Showalter avoided leaning too heavily on the Jew gags. If they had, the movie (and subsequent show) wouldn’t have been as funny – more than alienating goyish viewers, they would have risked Jews rolling their eyes at tired tropes.
Wet Hot American Summer is a great example of the changing face of onscreen Jewish stereotypes. Historically, Jewish jokes have written themselves: we’re not good at sports, our old-Europe grandparents bicker, Woody Allen frets about anti-Semitism.
Many famous Jewish comedians have subsequently become caricatures of themselves: Larry David is the Jew in a goy’s world, Adam Sandler is the Jew who never grew up, Roseanne Barr is the kvetching mom, Jerry Stiller is the hilariously paranoid grandfather you kinda wish you had.
Yaron, though, is a different beast. He’s a quiet stereotype – never the focal character, rarely even audible. He impresses the impressionable North American kids with devil sticks and empty-headedness disguised as introspection. He is older, sexually confident and a smoker – so painfully true to real life, you can almost smell his body-sprayed musk.
Ultimately, that’s why he’s funny: the details injected into Yaron are so precise that they transcend the confines of the stereotype he so obviously is. The joke isn’t that he’s a caricature; the joke is that he’s real.
Broad-stroke stereotypes can be funny, but they only reach brilliance when they’re accurate. And accuracy demands specificity. It’s the difference between Yaron and Zohan, Sandler’s once-upon-a-time Israeli special agent – one parodies someone during a particular time and place, while the other is Adam Sandler with a silly accent.
Good writers understand that being Jewish is no longer a punchline in and of itself. Defining a character by his or her Jewishness traps writers and actors, while audiences lose interest. We want to see real people – people we recognize and recognize as being funny.
Because real Jews aren’t Woody Allen. Real Jews go to camp.