Bird Watching – Revisiting Penelope Spheeris’s “Wayne’s World”
In desperate need of something to cheer me up after an awful day, and also in desperate need of something to write about for this column this week, yesterday I marched to the video store with one mission: get Wayne’s World. This was actually a bit of a gamble, because I hadn’t seen the movie in a good dozen years, and didn’t remember much beyond the most quoted bits. Would it hold up at all? Would it be the light, warm, funny rumination on male friendship I thought I recalled, or just a series of dated, silly gags? The suspense! My entire will to live was essentially resting on a comedy based on a Saturday Night Live sketch, made 19 years ago.
Luckily, Wayne’s World is still a delight. Mike Myers as the oddly charming scamp Wayne Campbell and Dana Carvey as his endearingly shy best friend Garth Algar provide a great core on which to base the shenanigans of the plot. It’s just fun to watch the two play off of each other, whether they’re contentedly hosting their cable access show out of Wayne’s parents’ basement, or squabbling after said show gets picked up by a network and unwelcome changes ensue. Rob Lowe plays smarmy perfectly as Benjamin, the producer determined to exploit Wayne and Garth’s popularity with young viewers to hawk video game arcades for a client. (His pleated billowing pants and satiny shirts alone would have been enough to make this film worth the rewatch. Lord, I love early 90s fashion.) Besides this great trio, we get a solid performance from Tia Carrere—where did she ever go?—as Wayne’s love interest, the badass musician Cassandra, and lots and lots of gleeful bit parts, from Ed O’Neill as the world’s angriest diner manager to Lara Flynn Boyle as the infamous gun-rack-gifting psycho ex-girlfriend to Alice Cooper playing himself as an expert on the history of Milwaukee.
There are really very few jokes in the film that don’t work. Even the product placement spoofs that should seem done to death are so cheerful in tone that they made me laugh more than plenty of more clever but much more cynical kinds of references have on, say, 30 Rock. (Probably the one joke I could really do without is Benjamin’s unfortunate encounter with a cop who never met a cavity he didn’t want to search, but if I fretted over every poor taste male-sexual-assault joke in crass comedies, I’d never get any other thinking done.) Overall, the script gets the balance of randomness and plot progression right, enough of the jokes come from the well-drawn characters rather than from dated references, and the world of the film is just an enjoyable place to spend an hour and a half. It’s still good, after almost 20 years.
After watching the film, I started it over to watch again with the commentary track from director Penelope Spheeris. Spheeris is an incredibly smart woman with a long, varied career in the industry who is no doubt cooler than everyone reading this article put together, so it’s no surprise that her commentary is very entertaining and well worth listening to. She has anecdotes about everything from her lack of success breaking into the “boys’ club” of Saturday Night Live to music videos she made back in the day (including the one for “Dreamweaver,” a song used so perfectly in the film when Wayne gazes at Cassandra on stage!) to injuries stunt people got on set. One of the first things she alludes to was something I’d admired as I rewatched the film, which is that no matter how surreal some of the gags get, the sense that we’re in a real world where there are real relationships and stakes never goes away. Spheeris explains that she saw it as her job as the director to keep the film “grounded,” and to let the actors do their thing while keeping the whole operations from straying too far from reality.
Spheeris speaks with confidence, but also gives frank assessments of things she thinks could have been better. She praises herself for knowing how to shoot the musical performances well, but also states that overall, if she were cutting the movie now, she’d cut it quicker. The shoot was crammed, lasting only 34 days, but she was adamant about getting in enough set-ups for each scene so that she could have nice, funny little moments like cutting away to Wayne and Garth’s headbanging friends for a few seconds in the club scenes. She describes how it was also sometimes difficult to fit everything in because they would often experiment with shooting scenes three ways—the way she thought it would be best, the way Mike Myers thought it would be best, and the way Dana Carvey thought it would be best. She had a lot of footage to make decisions over in the editing room.
Besides being so informative, the other reason the commentary is fun to listen to is because Spheeris clearly enjoys the film as well, often laughing out loud and praising the actors. She’s had a bit of a split career, making mainstream Hollywood comedies along with indie documentaries. Though she says flat-out that the main reason she makes the Hollywood films is so that she can then go spend the money on her passion projects, it’s clear that she also got something more out of Wayne’s World, her first such big film. She recalls her reaction to early test screenings, where audiences liked what they were seeing: “I can’t believe I’m responsible for making all these people feel this good.” That’s a big part of what comedy is for, and I certainly appreciated it yesterday.
To close, one more great quote from Spheeris, talking about what she says to her agent about potential projects: “Don’t give me any of these scripts that have anything to do with love, relationships or sex, cuz I don’t know anything about those subjects, you know? However, Stratocasters I can deal with.” See? She’s so much cooler than all of us.