“It's no thigh-slapper like Rodney Dangerfield's Back to School…” - Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times, July 22, 1987
The beauty of summer is the endless possibility. Free from the oppression of the school system, kids can do whatever they please for two months of uninterrupted bliss. It’s a season where kids can whittle their time away by the swimming pool or bike into the long summer evenings without the concern of homework or bed times. For me, summer meant a lot of aimless loafing. Some people have magical summers looking for dead bodies, fighting evil clowns, or battling killer dogs while playing pick up baseball games, I watched a lot of TV. Who are you to judge?
Looking back on these glory days of my youth, what immediately springs to mind is the 1987 movie Summer School, a by the numbers slobs vs. snobs comedy that is probably on TV right now. Taking place in one of those open air California high schools that seem utterly alien to the rest of the country (Why is everything outside? Where do you go in the rain? What is wrong with having a goddamn roof?), Summer School follows the exploits of Freddy Shoop (played by Mark Harmon, who I just realized is the guy from “NCIS”), a loafer gym teacher who’s strong armed into spending his summer teaching remedial English to a bunch of degenerate slackers.
In contrast to its Stand and Deliver premise (which came out the following year, an influence maybe?), Shoop mostly spends the summer letting the kids goof off, taking them on field trips to petting zoos and amusement parks, and holding classroom screenings of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The characters are a familiar lot, with kids cobbled together from any number of 80s comedies. There’s the aloof surfer girl who cuts class for big swells, the clueless exchange student who acts more like she’s from Neptune than from Italy, and a dyslexic Latina with a fiery disposition. Of course, no misfit comedy would be complete without its Bluto or Spicoli, roles filled by Dave and Chainsaw, a pair of horror movie buffs who talk to each other as if they are constantly auditioning for a stint on “Siskel & Ebert.”
Speaking of Roger Ebert, in his extremely negative review of the film (half a star!) Ebert invented a new phrase in order to best describe the feeling of watching Summer School: “It's a vaporfilm. You see it, you leave the theater, and then it evaporates, leaving just a slight residue, something like a vaguely unpleasant taste in the memory.” While the unpleasant taste may be going too far, Ebert’s criticism isn’t totally off base, and oddly enough, it unintentionally taps into how the movie became such a July mid-afternoon staple.
Summer School is the kind of movie that sticks so close to formula that you could easily nod off while watching it without really missing anything. Of course the kids turn out to be misunderstood, lovable and smart in their own unique ways; and it’s a given that Shoop learns that he needs to grow up a little in order to be happy. But when it’s 3:30 in the afternoon and 104 degrees outside, you don’t always want to watch something that’s terribly challenging. The movie may be shallow, sure, it may even be a bit lazy, but between Dave and Chainsaw’s riffing and Shoop’s unique brand of “teaching,” the movie remains solidly entertaining with some pretty surprising, memorable gags. How many of these kinds of movies have scenes where the kids dress up like they’ve been hacked to pieces by a horror movie villain?
It may not sound complimentary to say that Summer School is the perfect movie to watch while trying to take an afternoon nap, but it serves a purpose and it does so in a way that’s bright and entertaining. I like Summer School, or as Dave and Chainsaw would put it , I like it very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very much.