Wayne’s World 25th Anniversary: It Doesn’t Suck. In Fact, It’s Great.
You can quote the hell out of Wayne’s World. The movie is a catchphrase factory. In its every scene, the script co-authored by the movie’s star Mike Myers, who made his big screen debut in the now-iconic comedy, presents at least one famous snippet of dialogue. Wayne’s World introduced or popularized quite the collection of quotes within the pop culture lexicon—some that are still in currency (“We’re not worthy!” and “That’s what she said…”), others that have lost their value (“Ass sphincter says what?” and “Ex-squeeze me? Baking powder?”), and still others that feel as if maybe they missed widespread circulation the first time through just by elimination through quota, but might be positively re-evaluated any day now (for the life of me, I can’t figure out why I haven’t seen one thousand “Marriage is punishment for shoplifting in some countries!” T-shirts this month).
That’s probably the first thing anyone returning to the film is going to notice. It was my first takeaway on my most recent watch. But that sort of quotability isn’t accidental earning on behalf of the film. No film, comedy or otherwise, is remembered just for being quotable. If the 2000s taught us anything, it’s that films which strive for that singular goal of being quoted, those movies which rapid fire un-anchored, nonsense one-liners, really aren’t memorable enough otherwise to be quoted any reasonable period after an initial viewing. I feel as though there are dozens of examples, but… well, they’re hard remember.
We remember, however, the lines from Wayne’s World the way we remember the things our friends might have said on an uneventful night out when we were just a little younger, things which, out of context, might not be as funny when we tell the story years later to someone who wasn’t there. But Wayne’s World‘s lines essentially all still land with everyone. There’s a reason for that…
There are really primarily only two types of jokes in Wayne’s World, but to explain why those two types of jokes work, it’s important to start by examining what jokes the movie doesn’t tell.
Most of the movie takes place in suburban Illinois, just outside of Chicago, and it follows Wayne Campbell (Myers) and Garth Algar (Dana Carvey), two young co-hosts of a public access television show that they started in the basement of one of Wayne’s parents’ house. The two heroes do what early 1990s middle class and Middle America twenty-somethings were known to do: party with friends, ride in cars, and enjoy the twilight years of the well-groomed heavy metal scene of the period. But even with all of this specificity, there’s a comforting everyman everywhere-ness to the proceedings.
In the film’s opening and arguably most iconic scene, Wayne, Garth, and a handful of friends, including spew-susceptible Phil (Sean Sullivan), cruise aimlessly across town, performing a raucous pantomime choral singalong to the Queen classic Bohemian Rhapsody. Director Penelope Spheeris and her cinematographer Theo Van de Sande use this as an opportunity to set up a familiar stage for their silly play. The car moves around luminescent strip malls, under a car lot sign that sees a half dozen cars (each more prestigious than Garth’s 1976 AMC Pacer) impaled upon a pole as an advertisement, past steakhouses and bowling alleys. Once parked, we meet a quirky cop, energetic club attendees, and eccentric diner owners. It’s very Richard Linklater-esque, a portrait of youth in small-town America painted with empathetic realism and narrated with benevolent whimsy.
Once this introductory tour is over, Spheeris is quick to set up her character work. The first major isolated characterization moment comes when the evidently shy and self-doubting Garth is obstructed from following Wayne into a metal club by a flannel-clad hulking headbanger, who picks Garth up and throws him backward. The engineer-minded Garth stands, goes back to the car, puts on a belted apparatus kept in his trunk, returns to the man, and, in a short spoof of quick-draw Western heroes, delivers a shock from a sort of cattle prod device that blows the man out of his way. It’s a bit surreal, a little out-of-nowhere, and it’s the kind of thing that perhaps a lesser director might frame as a sort of wandering fantasy taking place inside of a more dim-witted character’s head (and it wouldn’t be a standalone, as Garth has an indulgent fantasy scene later in the movie). But Spheeris doesn’t do that. Instead, she gives Garth an early victory in an overmatched situation, something cheerable for a character that might otherwise be an easy target.
And for Garth, the whole movie plays out that way. By type, the decades of less effort-driven and less thoughtful comedy before and after Wayne’s World would have us believe that Garth is the “dumb friend.” He’s airy, uncertain, disconnected, and wandering, both mentally and physically, in out of the point of every scene. But in use, Garth is almost always the vehicle of the joke, not its punchline. In keeping with the universality of the film’s every-town construction, we never really laugh down at Garth, just as we would never laugh at the awkward but lovable person within the memories of our own hometown. To refer to someone in your friend group as, say, the Napoleon Dynamite, Joey Tribbiani, or the Brick Tamland might feel celebratory, but it would inevitably land as a bit of an insult. To call someone in your friend group the Garth Algar would be much less so. And it’s much harder to champion that character template in that manner, to use him as less than the cheaply stupid scene-saving simpleton.
In Wayne’s World, more and smaller characters than Garth are given this sort of mindfully redemptive framing. Cassandra Wong (Tia Carrere) is given more agency and arguably more talent-earned opportunity than the film’s central hero, her storyline as complex as Wayne’s, saving perhaps the most pointedly beautiful actress of the early-90s from being served in typecast as just Wayne’s stolen love interest. It’s telling that the final, three-ending showdown of Wayne’s World is the execution of a plot meant to resolve Cassandra’s conflict more than Wayne’s. Consider that Officer Koharski (Frederick Coffin), who we meet early on badgering Wayne and his friends, plays a pivotal role in the somewhat cartoonish climactic hero’s plan. How many cooperative cops exist in films about young, wild lifestyles?
Wayne’s stalking ex-girlfriend Stacy (Lara Flynn Boyle), at first positioned as an inconvenient-to-dangerous fixated psycho, is awarded a sympathizing character evaluation from Wayne’s new love interest Cassandra Wong, an assessment packaged into an extended subtitle gag that dares to place the blame for Stacy’s behavior on Wayne’s immature handling of the relationship and break-up. Again, Spheeris works with a hyper-empathy and a character-first concern. I’m pressed to think of any movie of that early-90’s era that was so cautious to save the obsessive ex-lover character from stereotyped simplification by nodding to the selfish boyishness that triggered the conflict.
Similar consideration is provided in measured doses to our bad guys, too. Our memories of that era of our life rarely have an out-and-out villain. So it’s no surprise that while Benjamin (Rob Lowe) is portrayed as a greedy, pralines-and-dick flavored outsider, he’s never really elevated to maniacal or sociopathic. Noah Vanderhoff (Brian Doyle-Murray), the man who Benjamin serves with his corporate manipulation is just an out-of-touch old guy, not a soulless wallowing pig in a suit. And Benjamin’s henchman Kurt (Russell Finley) is eventually an adopted son of Wayne’s clique. By not telling these easy jokes, by rarely positioning any of the characters in Wayne’s World weaponized punchline, Myers, his co-writers, and Spheeris all use empathy as a tool to carve a small model of the world which we all know, a story in which vaguely familiar characters are kept familiar by not being made cinematic villains or prop types. There’s no real animus in Wayne’s World, and none of the characters are positioned in target of cruel humor. It’s just clumsy people politics stumbled into by two well-meaning, fun, wholly innocent goofballs.
And those politics also host one of the film’s two most commonly employed jokes. Almost all of the humorous dialogue in Wayne’s World is just organic banter, sensibly placed in conversation that is realistic in its absurdity. It is intelligently unintelligent, not reduced to heavy-handed stupidity or face-slap non sequitur. Every exchange is true to character rather than a scripted purpose, and even the most out-of-left-field moments fall into a sort of young, stream-of-conscious sequence. Too often, even in our funniest films, you can feel the script and its delivery reach for a planned punchline. Even today, after twenty five years of watching the movie, we don’t feel that strain in Wayne’s World.
So with all this measured success, the second type of joke, the one so insecurely pursued that a mid-credit sequence interjects with Wayne’s appeal for his movie to be credited with the jokes’ landing, feels even warmer. My favorite element in Wayne’s World is the movie’s meta-awareness of its own underdog status as a film that probably shouldn’t work. From Garth’s fourth-wall breaking asides, to the narrative intersection with Terminator 2, from permitting three separate endings, to the film’s use of a young Chris Farley to deliver humorless over-information that sets up a later segment with Wayne flashing back to the conversation by pointing out that the security guard’s chattiness “seemed extraneous at the time,” Wayne’s World might be the under-celebrated meta-cinematic masterpiece of the ’90s, surpassing even Scream with its ease of presentation and lack of boisterous lecture. After two and a half decades, it’s time that we confirm Wayne’s hopeful encouragement and concede that Wayne’s World is “entertaining, whimsical and yet relevant, with an underlying revisionist conceit that belied the film’s emotional attachments to the subject matter.”
As for Garth’s follow-up concern, we can also put that to rest, too. Wayne’s World marks only the second film adaptation of a Saturday Night Live skit, released nearly twelve years after Blues Brothers. In that context, we can see the risk that might have warranted Myer’s insecurity and the film’s acknowledged underdog status. Wayne’s World seemed a thin premise to stretch beyond 90 minutes, its conceit and its stars lacking the coolness of its bluesy predecessor. But the same conceit was expanded upon with such feeling and intelligence, that in my opinion, it ends up standing above all of the other SNL films and most comedies that have come since. And it certainly doesn’t suck.
In fact, with the film’s quarter-century anniversary falling where it does, right in the heart of early 2017, we would be well served to enjoy it and think about it even more than we did on its release. Currently, the world of film and film criticism is filled to the brim with conversation and articles written about contemporary and past films which, in their dreary moral and political cynicism, serve as the “film of the moment.” But it’s important that we, where we can, remember the sort of exceptional point that Wayne’s World makes: that people are people, and there’s a sameness to most of our American lives that makes it all feel joyful and fun when reduced to its simplest, most human story.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures