Excellent! Wayne’s World Remains One of the Most Influential SNL Movies, 30 Years Later

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Excellent! Wayne’s World Remains One of the Most Influential SNL Movies, 30 Years Later

Wayne’s World is turning 30 this week, which means that it’s finally old enough to play sorta-teenager in a Hollywood comedy. Mike Myers wasn’t quite 30 years old when he made Wayne’s World, but he was pretty close, which still doesn’t keep any of the movie’s older characters from referring to Wayne Campbell or Garth Alger (Dana Carvey—who was older still, around 35 at time of filming) as “kids.” It made sense to the many tweens and teens who watched the movie in theaters in 1992—I was one of them, only 11 and not quite getting all the “sex-related dialogue,” as the MPAA later qualified the movie’s PG-13—because the difference, at that age, between 19, or 22, or 28 does not seem so vast as it does later on, when you actually approach those ages yourself.

Still, rewatching Wayne’s World as an adult, I remained struck by how convincingly Myers and Carvey inhabit their characters’ nebulous youthfulness. They come across as neither impossibly heightened, like the sexy teens on Riverdale seamlessly navigating a time-jump to sexy adulthood because they were twentysomethings all along, or freakishly shrunk-down, like the disturbing way Martin Short plays the impish Clifford. Even some of that current believability can probably be chalked up to how the movie imprinted on me, a young person who had only just started watching Saturday Night Live a few months earlier. A lot, though, has to do with what a deceptively smart and canny evocation the movie offers—a Wayne’s World unto its own, if you will.

Wayne and Garth first appeared in a popular series of Saturday Night Live sketches with enough personality to overcome any derivative-seeming resemblance to the then-recent Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and David Letterman’s talk show. The Letterman theft is pretty blatant—seemingly half the sketches are Wayne and Garth doing Top Ten lists—though the Bill & Ted parallels are coincidental, as Myers had developed the Wayne Campbell character years earlier, and Carvey based Garth on his older brother. (Bill and Ted were also dreamed up well before the movie was completed and sat on the shelf for a bit). Nonetheless, they’re extremely parallel: The first “Wayne’s World” sketch aired on Saturday Night Live the night after Bill & Ted was released in theaters. The Wayne’s World movie followed just shy of three years to the day, on Valentine’s Day in 1992.

The strangest thing about Wayne’s World is that the movie is arguably a lot funnier than the sketches, which are more likably silly than really hilarious. They basically function the same way Myers’ early appearances on a Canadian TV show prepared him to do the character on SNL: As a workshop where the performers can figure out who these guys are. The movie feels like an unusually satisfying sequel, taking advantage of audience familiarity without depending on it.

Wayne’s World ventures out of Wayne’s basement, the primary location for most (though not all) of the sketches, which are framed as a broadcast of the boys’ public-access TV series. Though this movie set in the suburbs of Chicago was shot largely in Los Angeles, director Penelope Spheeris manages to give the movie a local, lived-in feel, populated with metalheads and scenesters who, like Myers and Carvey, occupy an age somewhere between teenage innocence and twentysomething postgrad (or burnout) ennui. Though Wayne and Garth speak with plenty of vulgar innuendos, they are remarkably wholesome: Garth is nervous around girls (or any number of people who aren’t his familiar pals), Wayne is awed but not intimidated by his musician crush Cassandra (Tia Carrere) and despite their hilariously literal cries of “party!” the guys don’t seem to drink or smoke in any kind of excess. (Even their perpetually “partied out” buddy Phil is never really seen imbibing, only in the zonked aftermath.)

Spheeris had plenty of experience with grittier subcultures from her Decline of Western Civilization docs, yet somehow Wayne’s World doesn’t feel overly scrubbed so much as whimsical. The most fantastical elements are saved for classic Myers gags—the door that opens to a team of unnecessary elite commandos training for an unspecified mission; a parade of blatant product placements as the characters proclaim their integrity—while the movie skips contentedly through its fake Illinois landscape. There are plenty of smaller cartoony touches: Goofy sound effects, fourth-wall-breaking (which Wayne sternly admonishes another character for participating in; only he and Garth are supposed to talk to the camera…is that a fifth wall he’s knocking down?) and tons of music cues: “Dream Weaver” whenever Wayne gazes at Cassandra, Garth imagining a seductive dance to “Foxy Lady,” the famous “Bohemian Rhapsody” car singalong. These could be cheap reference gags, but Spheeris has a musical sensibility that gives these moments real rhythm: Look at the way Wayne and Garth’s chanting celebration of “We got five thousand dollars!” is subtly matched to the half-audible song that Cassandra’s band will play over the following scene. Sequences at metal bars and rock clubs have a pleasing buzz. At times, it’s almost like a mixtape movie, bridging gaps between metal, the encroaching grunge revolution and the return of poptimism, still distant on the horizon.

To that end, many of the cultural references in Wayne’s World are deeply Gen X, which is to say reruns of Boomer-produced TV shows, passed down to latchkey kids and pop-culture enthusiasts, while the movie’s cheerfulness is more millennial. (No wonder so many kids adored it back in the day.) The whole story revolves around Wayne and Garth struggling against the sponsor who wants them to sell out, while eventually acknowledging that any grandstanding solution to this movie-world problem will be phony bullshit. Crucially, this acknowledgment is shared, not sneered. When Wayne, Garth and the rest of the cast cap the third of three endings with cries of “fished in!” (meaning, gotcha!) they’re not deriding the audience; they’re basically doing the SNL goodnights from a feature film.

This balance—a sketch-based comedy that doesn’t wear out its welcome and is driven by its characters’ sensibilities—is not easy to pull off. There has been (commercially) successful comedy influenced by Wayne’s World: The junk-culture obsessions of Family Guy probably, in retrospect, owe as much to that movie as to The Simpsons, and not only did Jimmy Fallon’s stint on SNL often blatantly knock off Myers (right down to his own youth-culture fake show, “Jarret’s Room”), the excitable poptimism of his late-night career feels like a yippy little brother to Wayne and Garth’s fandom of Alice Cooper, Aerosmith and so on. What’s proven difficult is imitating Wayne’s World particularly well. (Wayne’s World 2 does a decent job of it; maybe shooting so quickly after the first one, so often indicative of a rush job, helped them recapture the energy and spirit of Wayne and Garth, by that time both played by thirtysomethings.)

The number of successful sketch-derived movies before and after has been anomaly-level small, especially when discounting troupe-based ensemble pieces like Monty Python or the Kids in the Hall that are more conceptual than character-driven. Besides the one good SNL-based movie since then (classic MacGruber!), the spirit of Wayne’s World is most alive in oddball projects like Broken Lizard’s Super Troopers, which isn’t based on a specific comedy sketch but feels like it is, in a good way. That it feels like a more recent descendant of Wayne’s World despite being ten years old this month is indicative of what a rare achievement that Myers, Carvey, Spheeris and co-writers Bonnie and Terry Turner wound up with. While Myers’ own Austin Powers is clearly his personal zenith, a tribute to a multitude of his personal heroes and influences, the mitigating influence of Spheeris ultimately makes Wayne’s World the better film: An affectionate youth-culture caricature that somehow ventured outside its star’s weird brain.

Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.

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