Wayne’s World began life as a recurring Saturday Night Live sketch about two metalhead slackers who broadcast a TV show from their basement. The skits became a fan favourite part of the show, and after a proposed sketch anthology film failed in 1990 it was decided to make a film based on the Wayne’s World characters instead. This was only the second time an SNL skit had been made into a film, after The Blues Brothers had been released twelve years earlier. Unlike SNL (which was, in the TV ecosystem of the time, only available in the US) the Wayne’s World movie was released internationally, and so for many people it was their first exposure to both the characters and in some cases to the culture and language of the film.
In the world of the film, Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers) and Garth Algar (Dana Carvey) broadcast a show weekly on public access television, a uniquely American tradition of locally made and “narrowcasted” TV. They live in a suburb of Chicago named Aurora, and the show is popular enough to make them minor local celebrities. Despite this Wayne is still forced to live with his parents while working a series of food service jobs. Wayne is happy with his life though, and Myers’ depiction of a young man deeply comfortable in his own skin is a large part of what makes the movie so joyful.
Before Wayne’s World, director Penelope Spheeris was best known for her documentary series The Decline of Western Civilisation. This was a trilogy that covered different sub-cultures in Los Angeles. It might be because of this that Wayne’s World has such a sympathetic tone to it. It would have been easy for the film to mock the pair, and the original sketches definitely do skewer the characters a little more. The film feels less like condemnation and more like celebration of being young and free from responsibilities. Her documentary sensibilities also do a lot to ground the earlier parts of the movie, though unfortunately conflicts between her and Myers led to a different director being chosen for the sequel.
One point of contention between them was the most famous scene in the film, early on. After completing the broadcast of their show, Wayne, Garth and their friends head off to a local heavy metal bar. On the way Wayne puts Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen on the car stereo, and the group begin dramatically lipsyncing before enthusiastically headbanging along with the song’s crescendo. (Though Carvey and Myers both found that reshoots led to some very stiff necks, so not quite as enthusiastically as you might expect.) Spheeris originally planned to use a heavy metal song, but Myers insisted on Rhapsody and had an early cut of the scene sent to Freddie Mercury for his approval. Freddy did like the scene, but sadly at the time his health was in decline and he died a few months before the film released. The scene sent the song back to the top of the charts, and became an iconic representation of the unironic enjoyment of music.
Wayne’s greatest wish is to be able to make Wayne’s World for a living, but he cheerfully acknowledges that as about as likely as “winged monkeys flying out of his butt”. He’s more focused on his two main wants of the moment – a Fender Stratocaster from the local music shop, and his latest crush Cassandra Wong (Tia Carrere), the singer of a band he sees at the local metal bar. Unbeknownst to Wayne though, his show has caught the attention of TV producer Benjamin Kane (Rob Lowe) who describes the show to his assistant as “something we can sell”. This begins a parable about the commercialization of youth culture, and in the end the power of friendship.
The plot is not really the focus of the film though. As befits its origins as a comedy sketch, the focus is purely on character-driven comedy. Myer is excellent as Wayne, giving him a cocky attitude offset by his own worries and occasional self-sabotage. In many ways the character is a clear predecessor of one Myers would create five years later: Austin Powers. Carvey’s Garth suffers a little by comparison, though he still gives a sympathetic portrayal of someone deeply socially awkward who relies heavily on his friendship with Wayne. The two are at the heart of the movie, with Benjamin and Cassandra as the other main players. Lowe oozes slime in the perfect “outwardly friendly but clearly untrustworthy” persona, while Carrere puts a lot of life into what could be a one-dimensional part.
The minor characters are equally as fun. Two standouts are Ed O’Neill (playing the manager of the local coffee shop with distressing intensity), and Lara Flynn Boyle (playing Wayne’s ex-girlfriend who is having trouble moving on.) Since it’s an SNL production, they were able to get plenty of celebrity cameos too – Alice Cooper, Meatloaf, Chris Farley and Robert Patrick all show up over the course of the film.
The film was a box office success, going in at number one and turning into the most profitable film ever based on an SNL franchise. It was also a huge success internationally, though the reception in the UK and Ireland was a bit different from what it had been in the US. The world was a lot less international in those pre-Internet days, and so for many people the film (and its advertising) was their first exposure to American youth slang. The result was a lot of newspaper and magazine articles over-explaining the movie’s language and treating obvious jokes (Garth describing Lara Flynn Boyle’s character as a “psycho hosebeast”) as if they were actual commonplace phrases. The movie definitely struck a chord with the Irish youth, though, and for years afterwards a lot of them considered it the height of humour to end a sentence with a loud “Not!” of denial.
The success of the film naturally led to a sequel (which did reasonably well) and a bunch of other SNL adaptations (most of which bombed at the box office, though A Night At The Roxbury and Superstar were moderately successful). Mike Myers took a career break after filming So I Married An Axe Murderer the same year, and returned in 1997 with the film that made him a megastar: Austin Powers. None of the rest of the cast had quite such a meteoric rise. Penelope Spheeris directed another couple of adaptations (Beverly Hillbillies and Little Rascals) as well as a Wayans Brothers comedy, along with several more documentaries. Tia Carrere had a few small parts in big films and big parts in small films through the rest of the 90s, before three seasons as the lead of Tomb Raider-inspired TV series Relic Hunter. Dana Carvey had his own TV show for a while, and a few films. A botched heart operation in 1997 nearly cost him his life and did permanently affect his health. In 2002, after Master of Disguise flopped at the box office and feeling torn between being an actor and being a father, Carvey mostly retired. He did take a few jobs over the years, and joined back up with Myers to play Garth and Wayne again once or twice. Just last month they played the pair in a Super Bowl commercial for Uber Eats – ironic given the anti-advertising commentary in the film. Does this mean the dynamic duo might actually make a proper appearance back on the big screen? “It could happen – and winged monkeys might fly out of my butt!”
All images via IMDB.