Great movies – the really great ones – evolve as you rewatch them. To a youthful viewer, Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop can be enjoyed as a gaudy, riotously entertaining shoot-em-up. An older film-lover can appreciate it as a brutal parody of the ’80s cultural landscape, as a gun-crazed Jesus metaphor, or a meditation on the schism between the mind and body. At the same time, RoboCop is also just gaudy and riotously entertaining.
Wayne’s World, the 1992 comedy based on a popular Saturday Night Live sketch, probably doesn’t deserve the masterpiece status of RoboCop. But like Verhoeven’s 1987 classic, Wayne’s World has a bit more going on under the surface than its slang-filled, fourth-wall breaking jokes initially suggest. In its own goofy way, Wayne’s World actually has something quite pertinent – and timeless – to say about creativity, commerce, and the fragility of the former in the face of the latter.
In his movie debut, Mike Myers plays Wayne Campbell, a guy of indeterminate age who runs a zero-budget cable show from his parents’ basement in Aurora, Illinois. With the shy, painfully awkward genius Garth Algar (Dana Carvey, in a contrasting blonde wig) as his co-host, Wayne’s show – Wayne’s World – is a semi-improvised stream of observations and gags at visitors’ expense.
As the film starts, Wayne interviews an oblivious guest about his new invention, a patently terrible gadget that vacuums up hair and chops it off at the same time. (“It certainly sucks,” Wayne not-so-subtly remarks.)
By most normal yardsticks, Wayne’s World is objectively awful television, but therein lies its appeal. Broadcast late at night, the show’s an expression of these two slackers, their early-90s slang, their passion for stadium rock and puppyish affection for models like Claudia Schiffer. Wayne’s World is shot on a pittance, but it’s popular enough that it’s made Wayne and Garth minor celebrities in Aurora, where they spend the rest of their spare time hanging around in coffee shops, singing to 70s rock standards in their car, or going to gigs.
Wayne’s World’s following is such that it’s eventually brought to the attention of a slick, well-bred television producer, Benjamin Oliver (a perfectly-cast Rob Lowe). The show’s scruffy charm is completely lost on Benjamin, but he quickly spots a business opportunity. He has a potential sponsor, a stuffy old arcade owner called Noah Vanderhoff (Brian Doyle-Murray), who wants to find a way of getting more kids into his chain of amusement spots. Benjamin therefore hatches a plan: buy up Wayne’s World and turn it into a glorified advert for Noah’s Arcade.
Unaware of all these meeting room plans, Wayne and Garth cheerfully accept Benjamin’s cheques for $5000 a piece, and sign a contract that – little do they know – gives the producer the right do whatever he wants to Wayne’s World.
This writer would humbly suggest that what happens next is up there with the best moments in ’90s comedy. Benjamin and his director, a useful idiot brilliantly played by Kurt Fuller, recreate Wayne’s basement on an expensive studio stage. But while the couch is there and the backdrop’s present and correct, something’s off – it’s all too slick, a bit uncanny valley: a Body Snatchers copy, not the real thing. Or, as Garth so perfectly puts it, “I mean, we’re looking down on Wayne’s basement. Only that’s not Wayne’s basement.”
As a hideous Noah’s Arcade neon sign is lowered into view and a synth-heavy, de-fanged version of Wayne and Garth’s opening theme plays, the reality finally dawns on the two heroes. What they’ve signed up for isn’t Wayne’s World, but a cleaned-up, corporate-approved imitation of it.
Like Wayne and Garth themselves, Wayne’s World’s Type-B silliness belies an ability to express something complicated in a beautifully simple and amusing fashion. The movie shows just how easy it is to take something creative – even something as ephemeral as an amateur cable TV show – and strip all the humanity out of it. Anyone who’s into music will be familiar with the age-old story of a rock band who record a raw, honest demo, but then have it toned down and auto-tuned into oblivion by a music producer who wants to flog their music to a mass audience.
Wayne’s World cheerfully plays around with all angles of this dreadful fate, from a skit on product placement (“Maybe I’m wrong on this one, but for me, the beast doesn’t include selling out”) to Wayne’s new girlfriend Cassandra (Tia Carrere), whose rock band is being courted by the same sleazebag producer who’s snapped up Wayne’s show – Benjamin. For writers Myers, Bonnie, and Terry Turner, what makes Benjamin such a villain isn’t necessarily his wealth or his slickness, but his opportunism. He buys a TV show so he can exploit it for profit; he feigns an interest in a rock band because he’s attracted to the lead singer.
This hatred for the passionless and opportunistic is perfectly underlined in a scene with Doyle-Murray’s Noah Vanderhoff. A former owner of a meat-packing business, Noah has no interest in videogames whatsoever: he simply saw a bunch of kids throwing coins into an arcade machine one day and spied a business opportunity. (“They stand like lab rats hitting the feeder bar to get food pellets. As long as they pump in quarters, who gives a shit?”)
Wayne’s World is, of course, a product of its time, and some of the musical references and turns of phrase would probably mystify younger audiences today. All the same, Wayne and Garth’s Faustian pact with a cold-eyed producer still rings true: for every few dozen young people with creative ambitions or dreams of success, there’s probably someone, somewhere waiting to exploit them.
Wayne’s World expresses all this in a comedy so unassuming and harebrained that the sentiment’s easy to miss. Director Penelope Spheeris’ movie shows how delicate a piece of art can be when placed in the wrong hands. Whether it’s a song or a ramshackle TV show, what makes art special is its uniqueness, its passion, its rough edges. Smooth all those off, and you’re left with a soulless photostat.
It’s a cautionary tale, then – but mostly, Wayne’s World is just a fun, harebrained 90s comedy. “Contract or no, I will not bow to any sponsor…”