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“It just doesn’t matter!”: 20 things we learned at fictional summer camp

Summer camp: It’s not just a place where we go swimming, learn to tie knots, and try to talk other kids into sharing the giant bags of candy their parents sent them. It’s also a place we learn important life lessons. Happily, pop culture has made it so we don’t even need to attend camp ourselves. We can just watch other people go to camp, in movies and television, or hear about it in songs. In honor of Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer sequel, the following is a list of some of the more valuable lessons we’ve learned at fictional summer camps through the years. Pass the s’mores.

1. Counselors, don’t have sex when you should be watching the kids. (Friday The 13th)

If only a couple of gainfully employed young people had been doing their jobs, a whole lot of folks could have been spared a heaping helping of death. After camper Jason Voorhees drowns, vengeance rains down, and not only upon the foolhardy counselors who snuck off to get it on when they should have been minding the water. A whole generation of subsequent staffers, groundskeepers, owners, and anyone else unlucky enough to come with spitting distance of Camp Crystal Lake suffered, too. Factor in all the sequels, and you’ve got two counselors who are responsible for the deaths of people on spaceships centuries later. Talk about bad timing. [Alex McCown]


2. Camp sucks, but the afterparty is worth it. (The Simpsons)

In the fourth-season Simpsons episode “Kamp Krusty,” Bart and Lisa manage to wrangle a summer at “The Krustiest Place On Earth,” a camp where they’ll supposedly get to spend the summer with Krusty The Clown. But it’s actually a mercenary knockoff operation where “Krusty” is local alkie Barney Gumble in a wig, the Springfield bullies serve as camp counselors and professional spirit-breakers, the only food is Krusty Brand Imitation Gruel, and the arts-and-crafts tent is a sweatshop where campers turn out wallets for export. Bart and Lisa eventually take over the camp, alert the media, and shame Krusty, who tearfully excuses himself by originating the now-ubiquitous quote, “They drove a dump truck of money up to my house!” But as compensation, he takes them to “the happiest place on Earth: Tijuana!” Surely for a 10-year-old, a few weeks of snakebites and suffering is a small price to pay for a trip south of the border, some sketchy strip shows, and a chance to get completely blasted on cheap-ass tequila. [Tasha Robinson]

3. Deranged fitness gurus make the worst counselors. (Heavyweights)

Contrary to its name, Camp Hope in Heavyweights is one of the most depressing places to send your children. The reason for that? The new owner, Tony Perkis (Ben Stiller), who’s determined to transform a lax fat camp into a home for “skinny winners” as a way to market his fitness regimen: the PerkiSystem. But the longer the kids resist Perkis’ plans, the more draconian his measures become, relying on humiliation and deprivation (“Lunch has been canceled today, due to lack of hustle”) to get his point across. He eventually experiences a full psychotic break so severe he has to be locked up, and later incapacitated with a chandelier. Tony may have a body so toned you can crack ice blocks on it (PerkiSystem level 18), but his brain’s fitness leaves a lot to be desired. [Les Chappell]


4. You’ll inevitably bunk with a bitch that later becomes your best friend. (Are You Afraid Of The Dark?, “The Tale Of The Watcher’s Woods”)

Getting stuck with a bitchy roommate seems to happen a lot at summer camp, but Are You Afraid Of The Dark? does it better when the show goes a little less cloying with its twist. That is, it introduces the idea of imminent death to force an outdoor enthusiast and a jerk who’s afraid of rats (yes, these are the second character’s only traits) into friendship. Somehow, the threat of losing one’s life is enough for Kelly to forget that Sarah has been torturing her since she arrived at Camp Crindleston, even though she could (and should) have left that brat to rot in Watcher’s Woods. [Becca James]


5. Avoid computer camp by hiring the local weirdo and starting your own camp. (Camp Nowhere)

The prevailing notion for most of the kids in Camp Nowhere is that summer camp is super boring. Mud (Nashville’s Jonathan Jackson) decides to avoid his horrendous computer camp fate by gathering his buddies and blackmailing their former drama teacher Dennis (Christopher Lloyd) into running it by promising him $1,000 to pay off his Gremlin, as well as a place to hide from a surly bill collector (T.R. Polk). When the authorities find out, Mud takes the blame, Dennis is not investigated for being a single man who has watched over a brood of unruly children for an entire summer with little other supervision, and everyone goes home after having the best summer ever. [Molly Eichel]


6. Take all your pets and their animal buddies to camp. (Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown)

In the 1977 feature Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown, camp is largely a character-building exercise where the Peanuts gang learns important life lessons: Cheaters never prosper, don’t get cocky, cooperation is key, and so on. But the real lesson is that animals are better and more important competitors than people. Snoopy not only takes Charlie Brown to camp on a motorcycle (kids can’t drive, but their dogs clearly can), he’s the key participant in the film’s central grueling whitewater-rafting race. And of course the snide bullies who constantly cheat in the race brought their pet as well: a vicious, spike-collared cat named Brutus. Life lessons aside, the race boils down to a personal grudge match (and series of physical battles) between Brutus and Snoopy, with Snoopy’s bird pal Woodstock winning the day. The kids might as well have just sent the pets to camp in their place. [Tasha Robinson]


7. Obey the ritual of the Blade, the Stone, and the Arrow. (Ernest Goes To Camp)

Most people only tolerate Ernest P. Worrell (Jim Varney) because of his childlike naiveté, which is enough to outweigh the constant annoyances and property destruction that follows in his wake. That feeling is enough to raise him to the level of hero in Ernest Goes To Camp, as he leads a group of juvenile delinquents in a fight to save Kamp Kikakee. Finally fed up, mining executive Sherman Krader (John Vernon) takes matters into his own hands and aims a hunting rifle at Ernest. However, his faith in his camp and charges, his true courage, and his purity of heart allow him to pass the ancient Kikakee tribe’s ritual of Blade, Stone, and Arrow. He’s literally made bulletproof by his innocence—only one of the many implausible ways he bounces back from a series of seemingly fatal incidents. [Les Chappell]


8. Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm. (Moonrise Kingdom)

There are plenty of lessons to learn amid the controlled chaos of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom: Lefty scissors can be a serious weapon. Amateur archers should be emotionally prepared for their lack of skill to have fatal consequences. First love may be the best love, but it also isn’t necessarily a basis for marriage. Even prepubescent kids should have their own letterhead stationary. And so on and so forth. But the film’s real moral comes in an epigram Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton), the Khaki Scout head of Camp Ivanhoe, comes across in an issue of Indian Corn magazine: “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.” The implication being that it takes a real summer-camp head to do the right thing and help his childish charges once his Khaki Commander (Harvey Keitel) is incapacitated and his campers rebel in an attempt to help two young lovers escape in a storm. When the sea is rough, that’s when campers prove what they’re made of, and whether their Scout badges actually mean something. [Tasha Robinson]


9. Clay zombie figures are the way to woo a camp crush. (MC Lars, “Summer Camp Love (Is So In Tents)”)

The relationship depicted in MC Lars’ synth-pop jam, “Summer Camp Love (Is So In Tents),” spans multiple camp seasons (and generations of campers) over several decades. But the entire courtship started with a simple gesture: a clay zombie figure lovingly molded in arts and crafts. The thoughtful gift, bestowed by the lovestruck narrator to his crush, kicked off a sweet romance that blossomed from capture-the-flag protection to shy skinny-dipping sessions in the lake—and beyond that, a beautiful life together. [Annie Zaleski]


10. The camp experience is literally what you make of it. (Camp Lazlo)

The optimistic camper Lazlo and his two bunkmates, Clam and Raj, knew that the key to an enjoyable camp experience was to find adventure in every moment. Even with Scoutmaster Lumpus’ bitter attitude and his attempts to sabotage his troops whenever he could, Lazlo would always find a way to take even the ridiculous and mundane tasks, and make them into something special. That even includes making a literal “Nothing” Club into the most popular club on the grounds, or breaking the world’s record for staking beans. [Kevin Johnson]


11. Giraffe’s tongues are black, adults are jerks. (Salute Your Shorts)

Nickelodeon’s ’90s-era summer camp sitcom was heavier on awful waffles than lasting life lessons, but it did have one indelible fact of animal anatomy to pass on to youthful viewers: the color of a giraffe’s tongue. Said chromatic tidbit came courtesy of antagonistic, frequently victimized camp counselor Kevin “Ug” Lee (Kirk Baily, one of several cast members to attend the show’s reunion panel held earlier this year), who imparted the prize-winning information during “The Radio Call-In Contest” in the show’s first season. But while Ug’s monologue about his long-necked college mascot ensured that viewers would never forget the hue of an ungulate’s tongue (black, by the way), it was the fact that he then stole the campers’ prize money in an act of petty revenge that reinforced the non-summer-camp-specific, Nickelodeon-pervasive lesson that the adult world was built to let bullies push kids around, just because they could. [William Hughes]


12. Always hook up with a famous pop star. (Camp Rock)

The dream of many a summer camper is to find romance, but this Disney Channel Original Movie takes that fantasy one step further. During her first summer at the elite music-training program Camp Rock, Mitchie Torres (Demi Lovato) manages to charm her pop superstar counselor Shane Gray (Joe Jonas, riffing on his real-life stardom) with her down-to-earth energy and blunt attitude. In fact, he’s so inspired by her songwriting skills and killer voice he doesn’t even care that she lied about having a rich family. She, meanwhile, gets a famous boyfriend with industry connections that will almost certainly help her burgeoning music career. In other words: That’s a summer well spent. [Caroline Siede]


13. Don’t waste precious camp time on letters home. (Alan Sherman, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah”)

Allen Sherman’s 1963 novelty hit “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” takes the form of a histrionic letter from camp, set to Ponchielli’s 1876 ballet “Dance Of The Hours.” The writer, who’s been at the camp “one whole day,” complains about the dire horrors his friends have endured, particularly other boys with suspiciously rhyme-convenient names: Joe Spivy has poison ivy, Jeffrey Hardy needs a search party, etc. But by the end of the letter, the kid changes his mind and heads out to have fun, closing with “Muddah, faddah, kindly disregard this ledda.” Which raises a few questions: Why bother sending home a “ledda” with instructions to ignore it? Why waste time transcribing his silly Joisey accent in the first place? Also, exactly how does Ulysses build manlier campers? [Tasha Robinson]


14. It just. Doesn’t. Matter. (Meatballs)

When it comes time to motivate his campers for a competition against the rich kids from across the lake, Bill Murray’s charismatic slacker of a camp counselor doesn’t bother with cliched uplift like teamwork or perseverance. Instead, he avoids any actual encouragement and lays bare a fundamental truth: It just. Doesn’t. Matter. Winning at sports against some rival campers won’t change your life at all, so why get worked up about it? Even if they beat the other camp, those guys will still win because “they’ve got all the money! It just doesn’t matter if we win or we lose.” Murray’s character is aware of something incredibly profound and important: We’re screwed from the get-go. You’re never going to have the success that the people born rich and good-looking will have. So instead of stressing about it, just try and enjoy your life and not get too worked up about things. Keep your lessons about triumph of the spirit. It just doesn’t matter. Now those are words to live by. [Mike Vago]


15. Staging a play about Thanksgiving is not just seasonably inappropriate, it is incredibly dangerous as well. (Addams Family Values)

When the Addams welcome a new member to their brood, Wednesday and Pugsley are sent to Camp Chippewa. Considering the dour Wednesday and her doughy bro are the epitome of indoor kids, things don’t go smoothly, although they do find a friend in David Krumholtz’s Joel. Things come to a head when Wednesday refuses to take part in the camp play (“A Turkey Named Brotherhood”) and she, Joel, and Pugsley are forced into attitude-conversion therapy. It doesn’t take, even though Wednesday pretends it does, eventually leading her to sabotage the play and take down her supposed Pilgrim brethren, including archrival Mercedes McNab (a.k.a. Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Harmony). Perhaps if Camp Chippewa had chosen a play more suited for the season (that did not involve giving arrows to misfits) this could all have been avoided. [Molly Eichel]


16. Poison the camp’s star and steal her leading role. (Camp)

This 2003 cult classic is actually inspired by a real-life summer camp: New York’s legendary musical theater training ground Stagedoor Manor. But let’s hope those Broadway-obsessed teens don’t actually take any lessons from this film unless they’re prepared to wind up facing jail time. Denied the starring roles she knows she’s meant for, meek but intense Fritzi Wagner (a teenaged Anna Kendrick, in her first film) sneaks Woolite into her rival’s Snapple. When the poisoned star blows chunks during a hilariously age-inappropriate production of Company, Fritzi struts onstage to deliver her droll take on the show stopping number “Ladies Who Lunch.” Now that’s dedication to one’s craft. [Caroline Siede]


17. Sometimes monsters make the best counselors. (Camp Lakebottom)

McGee is sent to the wrong summer camp and finds himself up against a hoard of monsters—who turn out to make great counselors, especially compared to the elitist leaders of rival Camp Sunny Smiles. Not every creature from Lakebottom is benevolent, as evil mermaids and ghostly pirates are readily available to interrupt the various camp games. But McGee, his friends, and their specific, grotesque guides always possess the guile necessary to save the day, and have an enormous amount of fun doing it. [Kevin Johnson]


18. Summer camp is a rite of passage. (As Told By Ginger, “Camp Caprice” three-episode arc)

This one almost goes without saying, but it plays out especially well in As Told By Ginger‘s three-episode arc (a first for the Nickelodeon animated series) about Camp Caprice (where they “don’t say mooses, they say meece”) when the spoiled and rich Courtney decides to skip her Virgin Islands trip in favor of roughing it with all the “common” kids. This, in turn, means her equally evil friend Miranda is sent off to military camp, because her parents would never let her take a cruise by herself, and crawling through mud under barbed wire is the only logical alternative. Additionally, it also means camp veterans Ginger and her two best friends Dodie and Macie will have to put up with Courtney’s privilege antics for far too long. But again, camp is a right, not a privilege, so damn it all to hell. [Becca James]


19. There is no better camp counselor possible than Carrie Brownstein. (Girls Rock!)

Sure, there are great camp counselors out there, and they can teach important skills and life lessons. But are any of those skills as worthwhile as rocking out? In 2001, a group of Portland, Oregon musicians started the Rock ’N’ Roll Camp For Girls, to teach girls from 8 to 18 the basics of playing an instrument and being in a band, and in the process encourage teamwork, creativity, and foster self-esteem. The idea was a success, and the camp now has chapters all across the country. But the original group was the subject of 2007 documentary Girls Rock!, which follows four girls from varying backgrounds as they spend a week at camp. The camp counselors are generally experienced musicians, but during the summer profiled in the film, one of the counselors was Sleater-Kinney guitarist, Portlandia co-star, and all-around coolest person alive Carrie Brownstein. That counselor at your summer camp who seemed cool because she was five years older than you and smoked pot suddenly doesn’t seem so impressive, does she? [Mike Vago]


20. That girl who said she won the camp race to lose her virginity is probably lying. (Little Darlings)

Pairing the then-youngest Oscar winner Tatum O’Neal and Emmy-award-winning Family star Kristy McNichol in a summer camp comedy probably seemed like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, 1980’s Little Darlings depicted a camp full of 14-year-old girls as sex-crazed valkyries, drooling over Andy Gibb and John Travolta and spending their summer plotting to see who could lose their virginity first. McNichol’s street-smart Angel seems like the sure bet, especially with newbie hottie Matt Dillion hanging around the camp as Randy (“Don’t let the name fool you”). O’Neal’s Ferris, meanwhile, sets her sexual sights on poor Mr. Callahan (Armand Assante), the French swimming instructor. Soon enough, Ferris is saying she had sex with him (getting Callahan into sorts of trouble), but she didn’t. Angel says she didn’t with Randy, but she did. And what could have been a coming-of-age story with these talented young actresses instead barely amounts to much more than a sex farce. Even that hippie Sunshine (Cynthia Nixon) wound up a bit carnally obsessed herself a few decades later. [Gwen Ihnat]


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