Wayne’s World at 30: the rare Saturday Night Live movie that could

<span>Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive</span>
Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

Garth: “You ever get the feeling that Benjamin is not one of us?”

Wayne: “Good call. It’s as if Benjamin wants us to be liked by everyone. I mean, Led Zeppelin didn’t write tunes that everyone liked. They left that to the Bee Gees.”

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Thirty years later, that exchange in Wayne’s World seems both righteous and quaint, a cultural relic from a time when battle lines were drawn more sharply between independents and mainstream “sellouts”. After all, young adults of today have more consequential things to worry about than whether their favorite indie band signed to a major label. But as Wayne (Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey), the hosts of a freewheeling cable access hit in suburban Illinois, fret about Benjamin (Rob Lowe), the corporate slickster imposing changes on the show, the point still stands. Not all art needs to have universal appeal. Nor does stupid nonsense.

How the premise of Wayne’s World might land with different people of different generations and backgrounds is a fascinating litmus test, but a large part of the film’s enduring appeal is its 1992-ness. All movies are destined to become period pieces no matter when they’re set, of course, and there’s no doubt director Penelope Spheeris, the brilliant creator of the Decline of Western Civilization documentary trilogy, had a better sense than anyone about what independence stood for at the time. Yet Wayne’s World is a wondrous repository 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 Grey Poupon, Nuprin, Chia Pets and “The Clapper”.

The extreme self-awareness owes something to the roots of the film itself, which began as a wildly popular recurring segment on Saturday Night Live, a mainstream institution if there ever was one. Wayne’s World frequently reminds the audience that it knows about the inherent hypocrisy of celebrating integrity and outsidership through a Paramount Pictures adaptation of an SNL skit. In the middle of Wayne and Garth’s tussles with Benjamin over the creative direction of the show, there’s a whole sequence where Wayne looks into the camera and says: “Contract or no, I will not bow to any sponsor” while smiling over Pizza Hut and Doritos. They will have their cake and eat it, too. And they will tell you about it with cake in their mouths.

Still, selling out isn’t a binary proposition, but a matter of degrees. And Wayne’s World, both the movie and the show-within-the-movie, has a canny sense of what’s essential to its point of view. When Wayne first breaks the fourth wall and confides to the camera – a device the film uses to varied and hilarious effect – he confesses to still living with his parents and shares his “extensive collection of name tags and hair nets”. Wayne and Garth are thrilled to take real money for hosting the show out of a suburban basement and desperate enough not to bother sweating the details of the contract. They unwittingly sell their souls for two $5,000 checks and an oversized rum cocktail.

Benjamin isn’t one of them. Lowe plays him as a corporate alien worthy of The Man Who Fell to Earth, the type of guy who would turn up at a football game wearing an NFL hat. He needs his latest girlfriend to explain the appeal of the show, just as he needs his advertising partner (Brian Doyle Murray), the owner of an arcade chain, to explain the appeal of video games to him. (“Gelatinous cube eats village. I think it’s terrific.”) Benjamin thinks in demographics and dollar signs, glomming on to whatever hip widget keeps him in his Chicago high-rise apartment, a “fully functional babe lair”, as Garth puts it. And even then, he needs to consult multiple books on how to pick up chicks.

For SNL fans who already knew Wayne’s World as a skit exactly as silly and low-rent as the show Benjamin acquires, the plot confronts the question that hovered over the film: can this work at longer than five minutes? The answer would be an emphatic no every other time producer Lorne Michaels would try it: Coneheads, Stuart Saves His Family, A Night at the Roxbury, Superstar, The Ladies Man. But Spheeris and the screenwriters, Myers and Bonnie and Terry Turner, not only excel at supplying enough quality gags to fill 90 minutes, but sketch out Wayne’s actual world with more care and detail than expected. Their Aurora may be a suburban dead end, but it has character.

The famed Bohemian Rhapsody singalong in Garth’s AMC Pacer represents everything the film does well: the camaraderie between friends, a genuine love of music and popular culture, and an eye for the redeeming quirks of suburbia, even though the Illinois landmarks were piped in via second unit. In order to sell out, you have to have something of value, and Spheeris finds it in the chemistry between Wayne, Garth, and their long-haired buddies in the crew, and how the show speaks to other humble bros who dream of partying with Alice Cooper, but are stuck ranking supermodels on the “stroke-ability scale”. Wayne’s World is about the fantasy coming to life, including Wayne winning romantic interest from a singer (Tia Carrere) several galaxies out of his league. It’s also aware that such fantasies only happen in the movies, no more plausible than a “Scooby-Doo ending”.

Though Wayne’s World unloads an exhausting battery of catchphrases (“Schwing!” “… NOT!,” “Party on!” “That’s what she said”), most of it is still hilarious, particularly anything to do with Garth, who Carvey plays as a burnout and tech savant who thrives on the margins. Garth cannot function without Wayne – when he tries to do the show solo, he shrinks from the camera like the victim in a slasher movie – but Carvey uses his sidekick status to drift off into an unpredictable stream of consciousness. (“Did you ever find Bugs Bunny attractive when he put on a dress and played a girl bunny?”) Selling out does nothing for an authentic weirdo guy like Garth. No matter what happens, he’ll always be in a forest with Heather Locklear.