Wayne’s World, a key cinematic touchstone of the early 1990s that’s developed a durable cult following, is celebrating its 25th anniversary on February 14th. To honor the occasion, the movie is getting a full-fledged big-screen re-release on February 7 and 8, as well as an anniversary DVD and digital release a week later.
The movie, of course, was an adaptation of a Saturday Night Live sketch, which hasn’t exactly been known over the years as the world’s greatest source of quality movies. From It’s Pat to A Night at the Roxbury to Stuart Saves His Family to Superstar, there has been much evidence over the years that what makes a six-minute sketch work is rarely the same as what drives a successful 90-minute movie.
Wayne’s World, along with The Blues Brothers 12 years earlier, managed to break the curse for several reasons. Part of it was in the execution; the film was simply better-conceived and written than several of the more slapdash adaptations that followed. Among its other virtues, the movie did an outstanding job of building out a world beyond that of the one-room setting of the sketch. There was simply more depth to the characters of Wayne and Garth than there was to, say, Pat, or Stuart Smalley, or The Ladies Man, none of whom were ever fleshed out enough to justify a feature film. Moreover, Dana Carvey and Mike Myers had both the talent and the presence to carry a movie in a way that Julia Sweeney, Al Franken and Tim Meadows didn’t.
Wayne’s World got its start in Myers’ native Canada in his Second City days, making its TV debut on the CBC series It’s Only Rock and Roll. The sketch debuted on Saturday Night Live in early 1989, starring Myers as Wayne Campbell and Carvey as sidekick Garth, a pair of longhaired, guitar-strumming teenagers who hosted a cable-access TV show — essentially, an early-‘90s version of podcasting or Ustreaming — out of Wayne’s basement.
The sketch, which ran around 20 times during Carvey and Myers’ SNL run, begat the world several catchphrases, most notably “Schwing!,” “We’re not worthy,” and “Not!”; Wayne also used “that’s what she said” years before Michael Scott did. The sketch also did quite a bit of commentating on pop culture and current events; one memorable installment, oddly enough, riffed entirely on TV coverage of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
In February of 1992 came the movie, released while Carvey and Myers were both still SNL cast members and shot in 34 days in the summer of 1991. Directed by Penelope Spheeris, otherwise best known for the series of punk documentaries The Decline of Western Civilization, and written by Myers along with Terry and Bonnie Turner, the film took Wayne and Garth out of the basement and into a plot that was nevertheless true to the spirit of the sketches.
The movie’s plot has Wayne and Garth offered the insultingly low sum of $10,000 by a shady local TV producer (Rob Lowe) to take their show professional. Meanwhile, Wayne falls for a gorgeous rock star (Tia Carrere) and gets to play the white Fender Stratocaster that’s long been his dream guitar. The finale has our heroes trying to save their show and get the girl.
What’s striking about Wayne’s World is that most of the funniest and most memorable moments have nothing to do with the plot. There’s the scene when the movie stops dead in its tracks so the characters can sing along in a car to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which helped put that song back on the charts 17 years after its first release. There’s the sequence when Wayne and Garth goof on product placement while engaging in it. There were hilarious cameos by the likes of Alice Cooper, Ed O’Neill, Chris Farley and Robert Patrick, goofing on his Terminator 2: Judgment Day role just a few months after he played the T-1000.
Then there were narrative tricks, from nearly constant breaking of the fourth wall to the ending, which doubles back multiple times (including a “Scooby Doo ending”). Along with the in-car singalong, Wayne’s World used these tricks long before such things became fashionable, if not cliched.
All of these elements combined to connect with audiences in a big way. Wayne’s World was a huge hit, earning over $120 million, which was a pretty big box office number for a comedy in 1992, much less one without established movie stars. And between the catchphrases and the music, the film made a huge cultural impact.
Wayne’s World had its oddities, too. The characters were ostensibly teenagers in the early ‘90s, but they were played by much older actors (Carvey was 37 in 1992, while Myers was 35.) At the height of the grunge era, these guitar-loving rock ’n’ rollers eschewed Nirvana and Pearl Jam and instead favored Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith- in other words, the music that was popular when Myers and Carvey were teenagers. Wayne drove an AMC Pacer, a car that was all-but-defunct by the ‘90s. And while the dialogue was full of references to “partying,” there was never so much of a hint of drug use or sex.
The less great (but still entertaining sequel) Wayne’s World 2, which arrived in late 1993, was even weirder — Christopher Walken played the villain — and full of pop culture callbacks even older. For a movie released in 1993, just about every reference, from Jim Morrison to Woodstock to The Graduate to The Village People to a Charlton Heston cameo, was dated between 1968 and 1978.
Carvey and Myers left SNL soon after the second movie. Myers developed a couple of hugely successful franchises afterwards with the Austin Powers and Shrek films, although his career in movies has mostly stalled out; an attempt at another Myers-led SNL movie adaptation, Sprockets, fell apart in the early 2000s. Carvey never really achieved durable movie stardom and even took several years off at one point, although he’s occasionally resurfaced, including with a new Netflix comedy special last year. Wayne’s World has also been revived on SNL a couple of times over the years, such as when Carvey hosted in 2011 and for the 40th anniversary special in 2015.
But entertaining as those sketches are, old and new, the best Wayne’s World ever got was that first movie. It managed to thread the difficult needle of turning a popular sketch into a popular movie, while remaining true to the characters and comedic values of the sketch. That’s something just about no one in SNL’s nearly 50 years, with the exception of John Landis and The Blues Brothers, has managed to pull off, although we can argue about The Coneheads and MacGruber.
Great as The Blues Brothers is, one must give the edge to Wayne’s World as the best SNL film, simply because it was so surprising and did so many things right. And 25 years later, its unique, ’70s-infused take on life in the early ’90s still holds up fine.
Wayne’s World will be shown on screen nationwide, via Paramount and SpectiCast Entertainment, on February 7 and 8. After the film, a taped panel discussion will be shown on-screen, with Myers, Carvey, Spheeris, Lowe, Carrere and Lorne Michaels. The special DVD and Digital HD release will follow February 14. See the Wayne’s World 25 page for showtimes, theaters, and other information on the commemoration.
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