Michael Joshua Rowin on Wayne’s World
Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers) and Garth Algar (Dana Carvey), two metalheads whose cable access show has been bought by a local television station, are told by their new producer Benjamin (Rob Lowe) to play nice with the program’s sponsor, Noah’s Arcades. “Well, that’s where I see things just a little differently,” Wayne replies as he opens a Pizza Hut box, the company’s logo prominently displayed in front of the camera. “Contract or no, I will not bow to any sponsor.” Benjamin tries to make Wayne see reason. In response, Wayne conspicuously flashes a Doritos bag from which he’s eating, again stating his case against corporate interference. He then turns to his buddy: “Garth, you know what I’m talking about, right?” A camera shot surveys Garth from toe to head—every inch of his body is covered in Reebok athletic gear. “It’s like people only do these things because they can get paid,” he says. “And that’s just really sad.”
Behold the workings of postmodern corporate movie product, the entertainment that shaped my youth. Along with The Simpsons and various other phenomena of the early Nineties, Wayne’s World met with its audience at the perfect late-capitalist moment—a product to satisfy evolving marketing strategies, the film ornaments corporate ideology with self-conscious irony, fostering its audience’s dependence on popular culture by selling it as above-it-all satire. Wayne’s World exemplifies postmodern movie product not only because it plays up its own role as a commodity in the pop culture marketplace in order to diffuse the seriousness of the responsibilities that complement such a role but also because its creators don’t even attempt to conceal that commodity status. More than a series of advertisements hip to the antiquated model of the straightforward pitch, Wayne’s World is one huge billboard for both itself and for late capitalist complacency. For a generation weaned on such fare, the issue becomes how to fight off its charm and unlearn its directives, retaining the formative experience of its “cutting edge” hilarity to critically challenge the mass culture it wittingly serves.
Wayne’s World uncannily reflects the tensions—between dueling rock ‘n’ roll ideologies, between different stances toward corporate promoted entertainment, between oppositional attitudes of sincerity and irony, between allegiance to the ubiquitous scope of television or to the “big time” of cinema—taking place during a turning point in American popular culture. My own station at that point in time was as a 12-year-old adolescent, the eldest brother in a family with nobody older or of my age range to provide a model for music, movies, and identity. I set off on the path to forming my individual taste with impaired visibility as others in my generation also became lost in uncharted media territory. Few unobscured road signs existed to guide one through the media haze, but relevant entertainments arrived in prepackaged triumph to pronounced judgment over everything else. Thus, in rough order, Wayne’s World, The Simpsons, and Beavis and Butthead served as key cultural markers and markers of culture—entertainments loved by myself and so many other young consumers of rebellion precisely because they provided irreverent guidance through a cultural growing pain.
The major identity transitions both for the larger culture and its young adolescents cutting their teeth on music and images in the early Nineties are all accounted for in Wayne’s World. Less than a year after Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit number one and various bands formerly of the music underground, gathered under contrived umbrella terms like “alternative” and “grunge,” stormed radio and MTV, the unself-conscious hair metal and hard rock that Wayne and Garth fervently worshipped were already in their first death throes. And yet the duo’s fictional show pays lip service to the disenfranchised suburban DIY ethos then gaining traction in the mainstream, the building wave of disaffected angst about to crash down and spoil the optimistic complacency of Wayne and Garth’s feel-good “Party time! Excellent!” ethos. As a corporate product basing its appeal in part on opposite poles of the music subculture, one compliant with the system and one unsuccessfully resistant, Wayne’s World betrays a burgeoning awareness of and disgust at its own doubly schizophrenic existence, expressed in an attitude typical of postmodern comedy: self-deprecating self-reflexivity. Wayne’s World temporarily resolves the identity crisis of post-studio system, conglomerate-controlled Hollywood filmmaking by utilizing a basic tactic of the hip underground, the one responsible for such ironies as the baby swimming toward a dollar bill on a hook on the cover of Nirvana's Nevermind, the major label debut that “broke punk.”
Jokes shape the crisis, forming it into a humorous acknowledgement of its own hypocrisy. But jokes puncture as much as they exorcise, and Wayne’s World’s most daring moment brings its hypocrisy out in the open. It’s not just the one aforementioned scene that tries to worm its way out of corporate sponsorship by calling attention to the sponsorship itself—Wayne’s entire world is organized according to similar pressures. The blatant product placements masquerading as satire of product placement (compare this scene to Repo Man’s spoof on corporate sponsorship wherein a supermarket is stocked with generic brands like “Beer”) are just the most obvious symptom: Tia Carrere’s presence as Wayne’s love interest was forged as part of a deal between Reprise Records and Paramount Pictures for the former to release the film’s soundtrack if only a groomed, potential star from its roster could use Wayne’s World as a promotional vehicle. And after the film’s theatrical release, the legendary opening bars of “Stairway to Heaven” were removed from one scene due to a copyright skirmish—and yet fans for whom “Stairway” and the film’s joke about its overplayed status are primarily aimed must accept the excision of this song in the television, VHS, and DVD versions of Wayne’s World as a natural occurrence, no different than a commercial interruption or product placement. Like most mainstream, corporate owned product of the post-New Hollywood age, the very elements that comprise Wayne’s World are designed according to corporate strategy.
But since Wayne’s World is at least somewhat sentient of its design, of the forces molding it into what it is, its popularity can best be understood as inseparable from its self-consciousness. Beyond humor, to which of Wayne and Garth’s values did viewers relate? The film’s overt overtures to the metal subculture (even in the pedigree of its director, Penelope Spheeris, a veteran of the series The Decline of Western Civilization who, not by coincidence, went on to helm TV show remakes The Beverly Hillbillies and The Little Rascals) and inconspicuous nods to an emerging pride in “indie” slackerdom (strip malls, fast food joints, and suburban daydreaming are all lovingly, uncritically, represented) are so pandering that they cancel each other out as believable representations. This leaves the only thing Wayne and Garth really stand for: the new American cultural consumer. The new consumer is a jaded, media-savvy youngster possessing a knowing cynicism yet still part of the same duped lineage of post-WWII youth raised on the glossy, brain dead fantasies of eternal, adolescent bliss. Wayne’s World caters to them not only in sound and images—the satiric sing-along and head banging to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” being the film’s greatest achievement in repopularizing a cultural artifact via ironic nostalgia, a portent of the endearing/condescending strategy of I Love the ‘70s—but also in a narrative that passes off well-worn clichés of underdog triumph. Victory is really a resigned position to the status quo (“Nothing really matters to me,” indeed—and why should it when Wayne’s got the girl, the guitar, the show, the obliviousness?), which the film conceals by admitting, wherever possible, its own utter preposterousness. That’s why Wayne’s World can willingly lampoon the corporate takeover of “independent” entertainment by mocking the unctuous, two-faced Benjamin’s neutering of Wayne and Garth’s show and at the same time pass off a “mega happy ending” which has Cassandra (Carrere) signed to a record contract by Frankie Sharp of Sharp Records, with the help, of course, of Wayne’s once again independent cable access show. That this ending is one of three possible denouements (the first a sad ending in which everything goes wrong, the second a “Scooby Doo ending” in which Benjamin is revealed to be “Old Man Withers,” the local amusement park owner) and that it’s also overruled by a final “gotcha” (“Aren’t we all better people? FISHNET!”) cannot disguise the film’s extreme confusion on the issue of corporate media and its own status within that system. The possibility that Sharp’s business practices might be indistinguishable from Benjamin’s predatory, yuppie shrewdness is diffused only by making Sharp virtually anonymous, a nearly faceless god whose benevolent intervention must be effaced as a convenient afterthought by Wayne’s World’s satiric free-for-all.
Perhaps Sharp’s music industry credentials make him exempt from the ridicule Benjamin, a representative of the television industry, receives. Another irony, since Wayne’s World was born of television and by the point of the film’s release had achieved such name brand recognition that any antiestablishment claims it could make were bogus. If anything, the film’s revulsion toward the television stems from a need to distance itself from a medium considered more “corporate” (and “unsophisticated”) than the one to which it aspired. But these things weren’t supposed to matter to the youth who loved Wayne’s World in 1992. Like the comedies on which myself and others grew up honing our absurdist and ironic sensibilities—the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker classics especially—Wayne’s World is an excuse for a lot of buffoonery and lampooning, most of it well-executed and funny; but it diverges from truly subversive satire by pulling punches out of concern for its own image among a specific audience. How corporate metal and hard rock can somehow “wail” and corporate television somehow cannot, the film never explains. Nor, considering the inquisitiveness of its fan base, does it ever need to.
At first glance Wayne’s World is no more disingenuous than Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? , the 1957 comedy purporting to mock the artificiality of a society bombarded by advertising and television even as the film simultaneously exploits those influential industries’ alluring images—Jayne Mansfield’s breasts being the most obvious—for its own success. But Rock Hunter still subscribes, no matter how dishonestly, to a viable alternative of “authentic” values, as promoted in hero Tony Randall’s fidelity to both workplace ethics and his girl-next-door fiancée. In Wayne’s World, Wayne undergoes no similar journey to discover the things that truly matter because there are no things that truly matter. Media—corporate television, film, music, styles and images handed down from a universe seemingly flooded with nothing but information about what is and isn’t cool or fun—is all. The film can’t find alternatives to Benjamin’s corporate falsity because it is corporate falsity. Benjamin’s right hand man Russell (Kurt Fuller) tries selling the “Wayne’s World” show to Noah Vanderhof (Brian Doyle-Murray) of Noah’s Arcade by explaining, “Kids can relate to this show. These guys aren’t phonies. Kids can spot phonies, they’re very smart.” Vanderhof: “Kids know dick. I watch them in my arcades. They stand like laboratory rats hitting the feeder bar to get a food pellet. But as long as they keep pumping in the quarters, who gives a shit, right?” As much as Wayne’s World wishes to prove Russell’s point, to prove through the triumph of Wayne and Garth’s unpretentious refusal of corporate ownership the ability of its audience of “kids” to spot and reject inauthentic entertainment, the movie’s incessant, almost panicky need to mask over its origins in corporate ideology proves Vanderhof’s.
In pointing out the evolved, insidious corporate dynamics of a film like Wayne’s World I’ve mostly neglected to mention the film’s substantial wit—perhaps more impressive to the version of myself from fourteen years ago, but still admirable. And that’s the point—Wayne’s World works in its seduction. No wonder my generation accepts the compromised relationship of movies to corporate culture as inevitable, no wonder we accept the infiltration of corporate propaganda into visual media to be hardly a big deal. We were raised on this funny, inviting stuff. It’s constituted our learning centers, our pastimes, our memories. When we become as self-aware and sophisticated as the entertainments that have formed us—if we reach the heights of knowing that Wayne and Garth and their successors have easily scaled—we therefore usually only pose challenges within the parameters that have been set by the global media conglomerates that make them the fine-tuned products they are. The greatest danger for film and media criticism written by my generation is that our investigations remain at the level of content, the level of consumer choices, and fail to delve into the complex networks of corporate marketing responsible for generating the content. It’s not enough to say Wayne’s World (and The Simpsons, and Fight Club, and Minority Report, and The Family Guy, and so on) avoid corporate culpability because they’ve made a self-satiric admittance of it. We can’t be so humorless as to refuse to, or so lazy as to think enjoyment precludes serious analysis—we can enjoy these films and shows but in order to produce relevant criticism we must recognize the context in which Hollywood exists in the 21st Century and probe its mechanisms. Wayne and Garth deflected the responsibility of their alliance with corporate media by way of ironic antics; even as their students, we cannot.