Garth: “Ever feel like Benjamin isn’t one of us?”
Wayne: Good decision. It’s like Benjamin wants everyone to like us. I mean, Led Zeppelin didn’t write tunes that everyone liked. They left that to the Bee Gees.”
Thirty years later, this exchange appears in Wayne’s World as both sincere and quaint, a cultural relic from a time when the battle lines between independent and mainstream “sellouts” were being sharpened. After all, today’s young adults have bigger concerns than having their favorite indie band sign to a major label. But when Wayne (Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey), the hosts of a free-running cable access hit in suburban Illinois, become concerned that corporate slickster Benjamin (Rob Lowe) is forcing changes on the show, the point still fixed. Not all art needs to have universal appeal. Neither is stupid nonsense.
How the premise of Wayne’s World resonates with different people of different generations and backgrounds is a fascinating litmus test, but a big part of the film’s enduring appeal is its 1992-ness. Of course, all films are destined to be historical pieces no matter when they are set, and there’s no doubt that director Penelope Spheeris, the brilliant creator of the documentary trilogy The Decline of Western Civilization, had a better grasp of that than anyone what independence stood for back then. Yet Wayne’s World is a wondrous collection of pop arcana, with carbon-dated references to the babes of the day (Heather Locklear, Claudia Schiffer), Robert Patrick in Terminator 2, and commercials for Gray Poupon, Nuprin, Chia Pets, and “The Clapper.”
The extreme confidence owes something to the roots of the film itself, which began as a hugely popular recurring segment on Saturday Night Live, a mainstream institution if there ever was one. Wayne’s World often reminds audiences that they recognize the hypocrisy of celebrating integrity and misfits through a Paramount Pictures adaptation of an SNL skit. Amid Wayne and Garth’s arguments with Benjamin over the creative direction of the show, there’s an entire sequence of Wayne looking at the camera and saying, “Contract or not, I’m not going to bow to any sponsor,” while smiling at Pizza Hut and Doritos. They will have their cake and eat it too. And they will tell you with cake in their mouth.
Still, the sell-off isn’t a binary matter, it’s a matter of gradations. And Wayne’s World, both the film and the show-in-the-movie, has a keen sense of what is essential to her point of view. When Wayne first breaks the fourth wall and confides in the camera – a device the film uses for varied and hilarious effects – he confesses that he still lives with his parents and shares his “extensive collection of name tags and hair nets.” . Wayne and Garth are thrilled to take real money to host the show in a suburban basement and desperate enough not to bother sweating the contract details. They unwittingly sell their soul for two $5,000 checks and an oversized rum cocktail.
Benjamin is not one of them. Lowe plays him as a corporate outsider worthy of The Man Who Fell to Earth, the guy who shows up to a football game in an NFL hat. He needs his newest girlfriend to explain the allure of the show, just as he needs his advertising partner (Brian Doyle Murray), the owner of a chain of arcades, to explain the allure of video games. (“Gelatinous cube eats village. I love it.”) Benjamin thinks in terms of demographics and dollar signs, gawking at every hip gadget that keeps him in his high-rise Chicago apartment, a “fully functional baby hideout,” as Garth puts it. And even then, they have to consult several books on how to raise chicks.
For SNL fans who already knew Wayne’s World as a skit, just as silly and cheap as the show Benjamin is acquiring, the plot confronts the question that hung over the film: Can this last more than five minutes? The answer would be an emphatic response from any other time producer Lorne Michaels tried: Coneheads, Stuart Saves His Family, A Night at the Roxbury, Superstar, The Ladies Man. But Spheer and screenwriters Myers and Bonnie and Terry Turner not only excel in delivering enough high-quality gags to fill 90 minutes, but also in outlining Wayne’s actual world with more care and detail than expected. Your Aurora may be a suburban cul-de-sac, but it has character.
The famous Bohemian Rhapsody singalong in Garth’s AMC Pacer represents everything the film is good at: the camaraderie between friends, a genuine love of music and pop culture, and an eye for the redeeming quirks of the suburbs, though Illinois landmarks are second-line were recorded unit. To sell out you have to have something of value, and Spheeris finds it in the chemistry between Wayne, Garth, and their long-haired crew buddies, and how the show speaks to other humble brothers who dream of partying with Alice Cooper, but they’re stuck in the supermodel rankings on the “Stroke Ability Scale.” Wayne’s World is about fantasy brought to life, including Wayne gaining the romantic interest of a singer (Tia Carrere) who is several galaxies out of his league. It’s also aware that such fantasies only exist in movies, no more plausible than a “Scooby-Doo ending”.
Though Wayne’s World discharges an exhausting battery of catchphrases (“Wing!” “…NOT!” “Party on!” “That’s what she said”), as a burnout and tech savant who thrives on the fringes. Garth can’t function without Wayne—when he tries to solo the show, he recoils from the camera like the victim in a slasher movie—but Carvey uses his sidekick status to drift into an unpredictable stream of consciousness. (“Did you ever find Bugs Bunny attractive when you put on a dress and played a girl bunny?”) Selling out doesn’t do anything for an authentic weirdo like Garth. No matter what happens, he’ll always be in the woods with Heather Locklear.