How hard is it to make a Christian version of Wet Hot American Summer, a ribald teen sex series on Netflix?
Evan Koons chuckles as he considers how to respond. One of the stars and producers of new movie Camp Manna – something of a throwback to 1980s young-adult comedies like Revenge of the Nerds or Meatballs, but set in a US evangelical holiday camp for kids – Koons comes up with: “I think we are still figuring that out.”
“Learning to laugh at ourselves is something that reveals vulnerability and humility.” – Evan Koons
“I don’t even know if what we made is – in terms of how it fits into the genre – a Christian movie. In the same way that [Adam Sandler comedy] Happy Gilmore is not a golf movie.
“But that doesn’t mean it’s not.” Oh, and Koons never actually suggests PG-rated Camp Manna is like the Wet Hot American Summer series or the 2001 movie that inspired it. Although it doesn’t share the sex, drugs or language content, Camp Manna’s is similar in ’80s nostalgia, setting and its teen focus.
Freshly-released online in Australia, Camp Manna positions itself as a loving yet barbed satire of one chunk of Christian culture. Koons plays camp counsellor Bradley Sommers, who leads the misfit kids in the Passover Privates cabin. New to camp is Ian (Luke Klein), a 15-year-old suddenly thrust into a world dominated by the Bible-themed Olympiad, The God Games (which aims to turn boys into ‘men of faith”).
“I think the movie makes fun of everybody, pretty equally,” says Koons, an actor and content creator who made a name for himself online with viral videos such as ‘Church Appropriate Dance Moves’. However, Camp Manna particularly aims at the zealous end of fundamentalist American Christianity and its approach to fostering faith in children.
Could a movie like Camp Manna make people think twice about who they are, particularly if they are similar to the more extreme caricatures? “I hope so but I don’t think they would watch it,” replies Koons, who also isn’t sure if all areas of Christian culture are ready to be depicted on screen.
As Koons continues to mull over whether Camp Manna is or is not a Christian movie, he is more clear cut on why he likes to make jokes about Christians. “Learning to laugh at ourselves and our situation is something that reveals vulnerability and humility,” says Koons, a long-time confessing Christian.
“Like, we are not the be all and end all of life – like God is.
“For me, laughter is the way you can disarm so much and get through to the heart of so many people, and find a commonality.
“Camp Manna is ultimately about friendship, unity and community. And those are all attributes of God. And do we need more of those? Yes.”
But can you go too far with comedy about God, Jesus and the Bible? “Yeah, absolutely. I think there are things that are inappropriate and offend God. One of the reasons I got the role as Bradley, though, was because of having grown up Christian and I’m a professing Christian. And I’ve made comedy media across the board for other Christians.”
Koons tells Eternity that “better and funnier” actors auditioned for his role, including cast members of acclaimed US sketch programme Saturday Night Live. “But they didn’t understand their audience; they didn’t come from this world. The jokes didn’t land right or feel right.”
With so much gentle joking going on, Koons might come off as lacking in seriousness about his own faith. But that’s not the case. Koons has been “showing up” as a Christian for a long time and cites God’s mercy and forgiveness as the key to longevity in his own faith.
“I think that the Lord loves the righteous and shows mercy to the sinner. He delights in repentance,” says Koons, without a hint of sarcasm or cynicism.
“I need to show him my faith and my heart and confess my heart to him – and he’ll always be merciful. He will always be quick to forgive and his anger does not last.”