Wayne’s World: The Inside Story of the Comedy Classic

Wayne’s World director Penelope Spheeris brought the music to Mike Myers and Dana Carvey’s heavy metal comedy.

The Bohemian Rhapsody car scene in Wayne's World
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Wayne’s World is celebrating its 30-year anniversary and it’s party time. Excellent. Originally released on Feb. 14, 1992, and most recently re-released in a Blu-ray Steelbook edition, it brought Mike Myers and Dana Carvey’s lo-fi cable hosts Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar from weekly segment appearances on Saturday Night Live to global domination on the big screen.

Written by Myers, Bonnie Turner, and Terry Turner, Wayne’s World wasn’t expected to be a hit, much less a comedy classic with a $183 million worldwide box office take, and a sequel. It defied convention, enthusiastically breaking the fourth wall with characters directly addressing the camera, and exploring self-referential jokes, random cultural spoofs, and self-fulfilling alternative ending gags.

Also starring Rob Lowe, Tia Carrere, Lara Flynn Boyle, Brian Doyle-Murray, Chris Farley, Ed O’Neill, and Ione Skye, Wayne’s World captured every key demographic. Advertisers begged to get spoofed in the product placement take-down takeoffs, and celebrity cameos ruled.  Meat Loaf, Alice Cooper, and the T-1000 from Terminator 2 all run off with unexpected laughs.

Myers’ character Wayne Campbell didn’t originate on Saturday Night Live. Myers debuted the basement-level cable access show host on the “Wayne’s Power Minute” slot on CBC Television’s It’s Only Rock & Roll, before he joined the sketch show in 1989.

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Wayne’s World was the first film to be adapted from a Saturday Night Live sketch since The Blues Brothers, which starred John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, and was directed by John Landis. That film explored the deep Chicago blues and Stax soul sound the two lead actors celebrated in the script. Wayne’s World was a crowd surf into hard rock, if not exactly heavy metal, and hired an expert in headbanging to direct the film.

Penelope Spheeris is best known for her documentary series The Decline of Western Civilization. Extending to over three feature-length films, she took cameramen into the mosh pits of the ‘70s LA punk scene, the ’80s Sunset Strip glam-metal boom, and would go on to document the homeless gutter-punk culture of the ’90s. She backed up her one-two punk punch with the raw punk rock family drama feature Suburbia, produced by Roger Corman.

Born into a traveling carnival family, Spheeris directed Richard Pryor’s now-lost Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales shortly after film school. Spheeris founded Rock ‘N Reel, the first production studio to specialize in music video, and worked at the hard rock magazine Slash. Spheeris passed on the chance to direct This Is Spinal Tap because she didn’t trust it to be metal-friendly.

When she got the call to direct Wayne’s World, Spheeris was working on a PBS documentary on the Patton State Hospital for the Criminal Insane. For the comedy, she directed that kind of audacious veracity into music choices, fighting for the perfect Jimi Hendrix song, “Foxy Lady,” or the right replacement for an Aerosmith concert. Spheeris, who quit Hollywood in 2012, spoke with Den of Geek about Wayne’s World’s place in the metal and comedy world, and why comedy duos thrive on competition. 

DEN OF GEEK: How did Wayne’s World contribute to the Decline of Western Civilization?

Penelope Spheeris: Okay, I love that. That’s a connection I have not heard before. I would say it is actually the opposite. Wayne’s World contributed to the enjoyment of the culture. It’s more positive than The Decline is. The Decline, if you look at it real hard, is kind of a downer. Though there’s funny moments.

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The “Bohemian Rhapsody” sequence is now part of the collective subconscious, but what was the Guns N’ Roses song you wanted and why did you think it was a better choice?

So, I must officially clarify that that is urban myth. I would have never wanted Guns N’ Roses in Wayne’s World because I was pissed off at them at the time. I forgive them now, but at the time. I had just finished doing The Metal Years and their manager, Alan Niven, at the last minute, pulled them out of the movie and wouldn’t let me shoot them. I was gonna shoot “Welcome to the Jungle,” but they left, and so I was mad at them. So, I would never want to hire them in Wayne’s World.

Why do people believe that? Do you know where I think it came from? I think either Mike or Dana, one of the actors, just came up with that so they could support the fact that they thought of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And they don’t need to do that because I give total credit to Mike for writing “Bohemian Rhapsody” into the original Wayne’s World script. I give credit to myself for the way it was shot, but the actual use of the song was Mike.

How do you feel when you see how it’s influenced and been referenced in movies?

As far as people using it and referring to it and all that, I’m going to have to throw that into the category of homage. I could go “oh, how dare you steal from me?” That’s not me. I don’t care. To me it’s flattering that it is used by other people and respected, and if I don’t get credit for it, that’s fine.

I did the same scene in Dudes, which Flea and John Cryer banged their heads to “Hava Nagila.” If anybody wants to go and see where the headbanging in the car came from, they can look at that. But I can live without the credit.

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How did Meat Loaf come on board and what was he like to work with?

Meat Loaf came on board at the last minute, actually everything was a bit last minute on Wayne’s World. That’s why it’s so freaky that it did so well, because everybody was just pedaling as fast as they can, and everything was at the last second. But Meat Loaf was a friend of mine from the scene on the Strip in the 80s.

I remember, many times, standing in line trying to get into a club and arguing with a bouncer with Meat Loaf. So, when I thought of a bouncer, I thought of Meat Loaf. That’s how he became involved, and may I say he was a lovely, lovely person and profoundly talented, and I’m sure we are all going to miss him.

Was Alice Cooper’s concert and his skit on Milwaukee a package deal?

No. As a matter of fact, Alice will always, to this day, say that the moment he came onto the set, he thought he was only going to do “Feed My Frankenstein.” Just do a performance and that’s it. But Bonnie and Terry Turner were constantly rewriting scenes. Even scenes that we were going to shoot that same day, until I gave them a 24-hour cut-off time. 

Alice didn’t know he had any dialogue because he didn’t in the script. But Bonnie and Terry wrote like three pages of Millioke history. I remember he was sitting on a couch and I handed it to him, and I’m like “so do you think you could look these lines over here, and maybe do a little scene with Mike and Dana?”

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He’s like “aren’t we just doing the ‘we’re not worthy’ thing?” I said no we’re going to do these other things, and he did it. He memorized the lines. He even says, to this day, that he surprised himself that he was able to memorize those crazy lines so fast.

You knew Lorne Michaels since before SNL, and you produced Real Life with Albert Brooks. Why did it take so long for Lorne to come to you for a movie?

That’s a really good question. Could you please get Lorne on the phone right now and ask him? Because here’s the thing: I worked on Saturday Night Live from the very beginning, and Lorne wanted me to teach Albert how to make movies. Because Albert didn’t want to be a player on the show, he just wanted to make movies. And I kept saying to Lorne “let me write one of these short films and direct it and you could put that on the show.” And he would say “well, Penelope you would have to present this to the team.”

I would come up with these ideas, and they didn’t like any of them. So I didn’t get to direct any shorts on Saturday Night Live, which was really heartbreaking. I remember it was like some ridiculous ‘30s movie where there was this little girl walking along in the snow in New York and [goes into an exaggerated voice] “I didn’t get to do this and I’m crying and I can’t get a cab. It’s horrible,” you know? “The victim.”

I think he ultimately helped me get the gig to do Wayne’s World with Paramount just to try to make up for the fact that he never gave me a break back then.

You worked at Slash magazine, which is almost the same as working at a music store. Who came up with the idea of spoofing the “Stairway to Heaven” clearance? Because there should be signs like “No, ‘Stairway’” in guitar stores!

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That’s really funny. That was written in the script. I don’t know if it was Mike or Bonnie or Terry, but that was written into the script. 

But I was told from the clearance department at Paramount that I had to stick with three notes, that’s all I could do. I shot it that way, and then after the movie became successful, we heard from Zep. Anyway, I heard from the Led Zeppelin folks that we couldn’t even use the three notes. So, I believe in the final cut of the picture, that was taken out but, as you may know I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t verify that  

How do you rate Myers and Dana Carvey as a comedy duo, along with Laurel and Hardy, Belushi/Akroyd, Cheech and Chong, or even “the excellent” Bill and Ted?

Right, right! The excellent Bill and Ted. That’s funny, I always felt that Wayne’s World kind of took a ride on Bill and Ted a little bit. Because Bill and Ted was first.  But anyway, they’re separate movies, they’re very different.

There’s a thing about comedians, and you probably know this: When you got a comedy team, part of the dynamic is competition. When they’re not on camera, they will compete to write jokes, and who can be the funniest. Lorne teaches them to do that, and I think that’s why he’s had such success for so many years with so many different players.

But, yeah, the comedy teams, they compete. It’s healthy. Over the years, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, even The Jeffersons: they argue. They did disagree. Some of them stopped talking to each other. Mike and Dana, obviously not in that category, but it’s some kind of weird dynamic that when they get on camera all of a sudden, they’re lovable. It’s Lucy and Desi, too, all of a sudden, they’re lovable. It’s a strange thing.

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They didn’t fight, Mike and Dana didn’t fight off camera. They just tried to one-up each other: “How about this,” well “how about that,” “oh no, this, this, this,” and I’m sitting there trying to sort it all out and pick out the good jokes.

Do you think there’s a print of Pryor’s Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales in Bill Cosby’s garage?

Well, aren’t you clever? Ah, Jennifer Lee Pryor and I have been going through every single piece of footage that we’ve been able to find. Unfortunately, Jennifer had a little fall out with Bill and his wife Camille, and they wouldn’t cooperate when she asked if she could try and get that footage back.

We recently released, through Time Life, a box set that’s got all the information that we have about Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales, with a long interview with me, way too long, and that was the best we could do.

But I’ll tell you something: In 1968, when I physically ran into Richard Pryor crossing the street, and got introduced to him and spent two years in the same room with Richard Pryor I got my comedy chops down. Richard was a King, man

Are you still writing a book on why you left filmmaking?

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Yes, sir. But it’s not really why I left it. It’s just an account of the things along the way, as I remember them. I’m sure other people are going to remember them differently. I bet you Bob Weinstein remembers them differently than I do, but everybody’s got their own remembrances of what happened.  

I work with a lovely writer named Simon Abrams, and we’ve been working on it for two years. Sometimes I wake up in the night and I go, “you know what? I don’t think I can say that. I don’t think I can call people ‘maggots.’” I’m just like “somebody’s going to get pissed, I’ll tell ya,” but then my fantasy is that I will die before the book comes out, so then, who cares?

Well, after this ten-year hiatus, I hope you think about putting it out as a documentary.

Oh, Wow! I hadn’t even considered that. A book is enough Penelope Spheeris, but to make a documentary, by god. I’m going to do the Decline sequel. I’m gonna do a doc about my mother running away with the carnival. I’m gonna do this book. I’m gonna probably build another house. and then I’m gonna die.