The Simpsons Decade

Wayne's World: How a Self-Referential TV Satire Became a Cultural Touchstone

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by | October 5, 2016 | Comments

 

The fake television show is one of Saturday Night Live’s most popular sketch formats, and none ever caught on quite like Wayne’s World, a satire of no-frills public access cable shows. So when it came time to make the jump to the big screen, the film’s subject, not surprisingly, was television.

Wayne’s World’s plot follows a cynical businessman trying to take over the titular regional television favorite, but the film is about TV, and more broadly about popular culture, in myriad other ways. It’s a film about two characters — Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers) and Garth Algar (Dana Carvey) — whose minds and imaginations have been hopelessly hijacked and colonized by pop culture, to the point where they filter everything through the TV shows they’ve watched, the music they’ve listened to, and the movies they’ve seen. (Note I did not say “the books they’ve read,” because despite repeated inferences that Wayne may be a genius, or at least far more intelligent than he appears, he doesn’t seem like much of a reader.)

This intense investment in pop culture, this willingness — even eagerness — to let pop culture speak for them, is represented most memorably in the instant classic scene in which Wayne, Garth, and some of the their burnout buddies ecstatically lip-sync to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” With Freddie Mercury and Brian May’s pop-trash operatics as the soundtrack, the drab streets of small-town Illinois pick up a new luster. Suddenly Aurora positively glows, and it’s all but impossible not to wish you were there in the car with them, acting out the outsized emotions of “Bohemian Rhapsody” with wild, uninhibited abandon.

Wayne’s World is a film in which the heroes visit Milwaukee and intuitively recreate the Laverne & Shirley opening credits, because what the hell else are you going to do in Milwaukee? It’s a film whose characters discuss the surreal insanity of replacing Dick York with Dick Sargent as Darren on Bewitched and hoping nobody would notice, because in the prehistoric days before the internet, people weren’t able to have these essential conversations virtually. They had to have them face to face — or IRL, as the young people say.

Director Penelope Spheeris brings a documentarian’s eye for sociological and pop-anthropological detail to Wayne’s World.

Accordingly, Wayne’s World opens on television. Benjamin, an oily shark played by Rob Lowe at the very beginning of his successful reinvention as a sly, deadpan comic character actor, is in bed with a beautiful woman played by Ione Skye. Benjamin’s companion for the evening fixates on Wayne’s World, a proudly amateurish public-access goof broadcasting proudly from Aurora, IL. The excessively handsome businessman sees something authentic he can corrupt in these suburban under-achievers, so he sets about buying the show as a vehicle to pimp the wares of Noah’s Arcade, a video game emporium owned by Brian Doyle Murray (whom you may recall we encountered in Get A Life, the first entry in the series).

As part of his nefarious scheme, Benjamin sets out to play show-business Svengali to Wayne’s incongruously hot, hair-metal rocker girlfriend Cassandra Wong (Tia Carerre). Wayne’s World holds up shockingly well considering how rooted it is in the early 1990s, but it’s least successful as a vessel/vehicle for Carrere’s forgettable song stylings. Wayne’s romance with Cassandra takes up a lot of screentime, yet still feels fairly obligatory, though even the weakest aspects of the film have a certain goofy charm — as illustrated by the central role Cantonese plays in Wayne and Cassandra’s courtship.

But before this corporate snake comes slithering into Aurora, it stands as an unlikely Midwestern Eden, albeit an unmistakably Canadian Midwest. Re-watching Wayne’s World made me nostalgic for living in the Midwest like nothing else in the 13 months since I left Chicago with my wife, baby, and dog like Lot and his family fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah (but with more of a sense of urgency). The Chicagoland of Wayne’s World is the one I love and miss. It’s also one I suspect may never have actually existed. That’s because, in a very real sense, the Chicagoland of Wayne’s World was faked through editing. The vast majority of the film was shot in Los Angeles, but they picked up a number of shots in Chicago and the Chicagoland area, and I recognized a bunch of buildings and businesses from different neighborhoods I’d lived or worked in during my 25 years as a Chicagoan.

The Aurora of Wayne’s World is a romanticized, idealized, outsider’s vision of small-town Illinois as an idyll of all-American innocence, where driving a lemon through streets full of sad little businesses while blasting a classic rock oldie can be a source of palpable, irrepressible joy, and nobody ever needs to grow up when you can play street hockey with your buddies all night and end the evening with some Bear Claws at Stan Mikita’s Donuts.

If Wayne’s World feels weirdly like a definitive take on growing up aimless and goofy in the Midwest despite being filmed almost entirely in Los Angeles, that might be because director Penelope Spheeris proved herself one of the canniest and most empathetic chroniclers of American youth culture in her seminal rock and roll documentaries The Decline of Western Civilization and The Decline of Western Civilization Part 2 (which, to be fair, was super-canny, but somewhat light on empathy).

Spheeris brings a documentarian’s eye for sociological and pop-anthropological detail to Wayne’s World. She has an unusually astute feel for the rituals, traditions, and sub-cultures of young people, and in its early going, Wayne’s World feels a little like a Midwestern, bubblegum version of American Graffiti. It has a sense of place that is rare for a mainstream commercial comedy, especially one not shot on location.

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The film’s plot is a television morality tale, but one with an enormous amount of affection for the medium.

It would be unkind to call Wayne’s World a celebration of loserdom. It would be nicer to say it’s a celebration of low expectations, of low ambitions. It’s a celebration of sticking with what you love and what gives you pleasure, whether that’s juvenile pranks or the music of Mötley Crüe, for as long as humanly possible — even if that means living at home with your parents and hosting a silly public access show with your best friend.

In that sense, the film’s plot is a television morality tale, but one with an enormous amount of affection for the medium Harlan Ellison disparaged as the “glass teat” for its infantilizing effects. The moral struggle in Wayne’s World is between Wayne and Garth putting on a television show out of love for the medium and a guileless desire to express themselves creatively, versus evil television forces that cynically wish to corrupt this medium with their infernal lust for money and power.

There’s an interesting meta aspect at play here, in that the Aurora public access version of Wayne’s World represents a lot of kids’ conceptions of Saturday Night Live as a cool, fun place where friends hang out and goof around primarily to amuse themselves, and if they happen to make a ton of money and become movie stars, that’s a nice bonus. Yet the Benjamin incarnation of Wayne’s World is probably a lot closer to SNL’s reality — a high-pressure commercial enterprise full of hard-working, calculating, and ambitious professionals sometimes blessed with an unusually direct connection to the wants and needs of youth culture.

Wayne and Garth are making television for the right reasons, and as a result, they’re not making any money off the endeavor, although Wayne confides that his dream is to be able to host Wayne’s World for a living. We learn a lot from Wayne directly because this is yet another Simpsons Decade entry where the fourth wall is violated so extensively and so purposefully that it calls into question whether it even exists at all.

As the hero of the film, it’s perhaps not surprising that Wayne intermittently talks to the camera to address the audience directly, but it’s still a fairly audacious choice. It’s more surprising that nerdy, childlike, lovably unself-conscious Garth has also apparently been deputized to break the fourth wall. And it is delightfully absurd that an exceedingly minor supporting character played by Ed O’Neill also breaks the fourth wall and tries to get the audience interested in some strange, dark tale that has nothing to do with the rest of the film.

The idea that the film’s onscreen narration would be hijacked by some hardboiled weirdo inhabiting his own world and his own mini-movie is stranger than it is funny. It’s a comedy writer’s joke more than a comedy audience’s joke, and I suspect that if O’Neill weren’t the enormously popular star of Married… with Children, a hit television sitcom also set in the Chicagoland area, the whole bit might have ended up on the cutting room floor as a weird joke that didn’t quite play.

Yet O’Neill’s strange cameo speaks to the film’s glorious, unabashed artificiality, to the sense that Wayne’s World knows damn well it’s a fictional movie based on a fictional television show from a long-running sketch-comedy institution. Wayne’s World glories in its non-reality. It’s a movie in which Wayne opens a door to a room where a group of men are being trained in armed combat, something that might happen in a James Bond movie or a martial arts cheapie, simply because that’s always something Wayne wanted to do, and since this is his movie, he can do whatever the hell he wants.

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Wayne’s World is a product of the VCR and cable era, so it gravitates towards pop culture references a broad cross-section of the audience can easily identify.

In another context, introducing such a preposterous fantasy element might compromise the film’s reality, but that would imply that Wayne’s World has a baseline reality to compromise. It does not. Wayne’s World’s contempt for realism only increases as it progresses and reaches a giddy apex when the film rapidly cycles through three separate, very different endings.

The first ending, implausibly enough, is a deeply unhappy one. The girl doesn’t get the recording contract, a psychotic ex-girlfriend shows up pregnant, the cad ends up with the girl (in a tropical paradise, no less), and for good measure, there’s a near-fatal fire as well. Needless to say, Wayne and Garth (and, by extension, the movie) are not terribly invested in that ending, so like a teenager flipping through channels, the movie offers up two more. The second is a Scooby-Doo homage in which Lowe’s perfect visage is revealed to be an astonishingly realistic mask and the ostensible “TV hotshot” is revealed to be the geriatric “Old Man Withers, the guy who runs the haunted amusement park!”

It’s a testament to how much the film loves TV — and doesn’t love reality — that the actual, happy ending is given only slightly more weight than one rooted exclusively in the audience’s campy nostalgia for the cartoons of their youth. Wayne’s World is a product of the VCR and cable era rather than the internet, so it tends to gravitate towards the pop culture that a broad cross-section of the audience can easily identify, whether that’s Scooby-Doo, Led Zeppelin (when Wayne goes to the music store to lust after a sweet-ass guitar, there’s a sign asking customers not to play “Stairway To Heaven”), or even Terminator 2, which figures prominently in one of the film’s most timely and consequently most dated references, when Robert Patrick’s murderous cyborg shows up during the climax.

Wayne’s World is curious proposition. It’s the enormously likable, even lovable, brainchild of one of the prickliest men in show business, a man notorious for being difficult and litigious. It’s also a tribute to friendship and a wonderful buddy comedy starring two men with such an acrimonious relationship that, at one point, Myers famously tried to cut Dana Carvey out of an early draft of the script. It’s a great collaboration between Myers and Spheeris, who hated working with each other. It’s a wonderful movie about the Chicago suburbs that was filmed almost exclusively in L.A. Lastly, it’s a fundamentally sweet, even tender film whose pleasures go far beyond pop culture nostalgia even though they’re deeply rooted in it.

Is Wayne’s World as good as I thought it was when I was 16? No, because nothing, honestly, is as good as I thought Wayne’s World was when I was 16. That’s okay. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth celebrating. In the 24 years since its release, Wayne’s World has come full circle. It’s now a beloved fixture of the pop culture past it spends so much of its running time both spoofing and celebrating — albeit not to the point where it couldn’t still wring copious laughs out of it in the bargain.


Nathan Rabin if a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin

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