Schwing! How Wayne’s World went from an SNL skit to a cultural phenomenon

Not long before his death in November 1991, ailing Queen frontman Freddie Mercury was visited at home in Kensington by his curly-haired bandmate Brian May. The guitarist had brought with him a VHS tape he’d been sent by Saturday Night Live comedian Mike Myers, who was hoping to get approval to use their music in his forthcoming film debut Wayne’s World. The pair sat and watched the tape together, dissolving into fits of laughter at the sight of five young men squeezed into a powder blue AMC Pacer headbanging their way through their operatic 1975 single “Bohemian Rhapsody”. “He loved it,” May told Myers and the rest of the Wayne’s World cast during an episode of Josh Gad’s Reunited Apart in 2020. “He just laughed and laughed. He was very weak, but he just smiled and laughed. How wonderful is that?”

Having received Mercury’s seal of approval, Wayne’s World arrived in US cinemas the following Valentine’s Day, 30 years ago tomorrow, and was an immediate hit. It went straight in at number one at the box office, eventually making over $183m globally against its $20m budget, and it remains the highest-grossing film ever to be made off the back of a Saturday Night Live sketch. Nobody was more surprised at this gargantuan success than the people who made it. “Honestly, we were just hoping it would get a five-theatre release,” recalls director Penelope Spheeris, down the line from her home in Laurel Canyon. “It was a total shock that it did as well as it did on the first weekend, and then the weekends after that, and then around the world. It was lightning in a bottle. We didn’t try to make a cultural phenomenon. We just did it.”

Myers was equally caught off guard. “I didn’t think they were going to release the movie,” he said in 2013 at a Wayne’s World reunion at the Academy of Motion Pictures. “I didn’t think they liked it. The initial feedback when I handed in the script was that somebody said: ‘I don’t get it.’ That was the note, which I’ve never forgotten.” Fortunately, audiences did get it. More than just a commercial smash, the film introduced a whole string of catchphrases to the cultural lexicon (“Party on!” “Schwing!” “We’re not worthy!”) and would influence comedy filmmakers for decades to come. It’s unlikely that films such as Airheads, Clerks or much of Adam Sandler’s early oeuvre would have existed without Wayne’s World. Comedy director Judd Apatow has recalled seeing the film at the cinema while sharing an apartment with Sandler, shortly before the comedian was himself hired by SNL. “We were all like: This is what we’re supposed to try to do,’” Apatow told Reunited Apart. “Then we all made an enormous amount of bad movies trying to be as good as Wayne’s World.”

Even sceptical British critics were won over. Reviewing Wayne’s World in 1992, The Independent’s Kevin Jackson sounded less than enthusiastic about the prospect of a “comedy about an oafish pair of Midwestern teenage boys” who speak in a catchphrase-laden “impoverished argot”, yet in the end he couldn’t resist the charms of Wayne and Garth and the way the film “smirks at all kinds of pomposity”. “So: excellent?” his review concluded. “Intermittently excellent, at least.”

The genesis of Wayne’s World can be traced back long before its squalling theme tune first blasted out during SNL. Myers originally created the character of Wayne Campbell, a wannabe rocker with a penchant for baseball caps and flannel shirts, while performing with The Second City improv comedy troupe in Toronto. In the early Eighties, Wayne regularly appeared on the Canadian alternative music show City Limits, and he pops up in the 1987 music video for Christopher Ward’s “Boys & Girls”. Myers continued to perform as Wayne when he moved to The Second City in Chicago, and took the character with him to Saturday Night Live in 1989. At SNL, it was soon apparent the character needed a comic foil, a sidekick to play off, and from then on with Wayne as always was Garth Algar, played by the brightest star in the SNL firmament: Dana Carvey.

Wayne and Garth hosted their fictional public access show for the very first time on 18 February 1989, at the tail end of that night’s SNL, joined by comedy icon Phil Hartman as Garth’s dad Beev. Over the next few years, the recurring sketch format became a fan favourite, with guests including Mary Tyler Moore as Wayne and Garth’s maths teacher Miss Simpson, John Goodman as a local police chief and Aerosmith, who performed the Wayne’s World theme live in their basement. Tom Hanks played their roadie.

In 1991, SNL boss Lorne Michaels approached Myers about translating Wayne’s World into a feature film and set him up with SNL staff writers Bonnie and Terry Turner to write a screenplay. However, tension soon arose as Myers worried he might be overshadowed by his then-more famous co-star, Carvey. In 2008, one source involved in the film told Entertainment Weekly: “Mike didn’t want Dana in the movie because he felt insecure that someone who had his own creative ideas would get in the way.” Lorne Michaels told the magazine that in his view this rivalry was “overstated”, but added: “That isn’t to say they’re not both comedians and that occasionally there’s not some disagreement over who should be speaking what.” Three weeks before shooting began, Carvey quit the production when he realised how many of his suggestions were being cut from the script, but was persuaded to rejoin before cameras rolled.

Presiding over these jostling egos was Spheeris, who had never before taken the helm of a studio film. She believes Michaels’s influence at SNL may have, intentionally or not, stoked the rivalry between Myers and Carvey. “Lorne teaches – I think subconsciously; I don’t think he would do this on purpose – his players to compete with each other,” she explains. “It’s usually friendly competition, and it usually produces funnier jokes. Sometimes, if people are tired or whatever, it gets a little edgy.” Back in 2008, Spheeris told Entertainment Weekly that Myers had been “emotionally needy” and had gotten “more difficult as the shoot went along”, but today she dismisses the idea that production was troubled. “When we were shooting, people liked to think it was an ‘I hate you’ ceremony,” she says. “It wasn’t. It was a love fest. I’m telling you, we had a fantastic time making that movie. I don’t know why people like to say that we didn’t.”

Spheeris had made her name with 1981 punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization and believes it was in part her 1988 heavy-metal follow-up The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years that led to her landing the Wayne’s World gigbecause making that film had given her plenty of experience working with headbanging metal fans. As you know, Wayne and Garth like to think about themselves as headbangers,” she says with a laugh. “They were just posers to be honest. They’re wannabes. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been listening to Queen. A real headbanger would have had Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Megadeth or Metallica, but not Queen. That’s a poser headbanger!”

One issue on which Spheeris and Myers did disagree was over the film’s final cut. After Myers saw her version, he handed her several pages of suggested changes. She refused to touch her edit. “The fact of the matter is we had tested the film while Mike was out of town,” she explains. “Unfortunately, his father had passed away and he was out of town when the test screening happened. He wasn’t present to see that the film worked in the form that I finished it in. It’s not his fault, but he argued to take out quite a few of the jokes that I thought should stay. The one that stands out is when his ex-girlfriend Stacy, played by Lara Flynn Boyle, hits the car and falls over the hood. He didn’t think that should be in the movie. Like I said, Lorne likes to teach these people to always fight for themselves getting the laughs. He wanted to have the laughs, but Lara got the laugh there.”

As director, Spheeris had the final say and stuck to her guns even after Michaels warned her it might cost her the job of shooting the sequel. “Lorne took me aside and said: ‘If you want to keep it the way it is, then Mike probably will not approve you as director on Wayne’s World 2,’” she recalls. “I had to make that critical decision. I did it and man, that was a hard one. I hated suffering through the rejection, but whatever, it taught me how to be tougher than I was already.” She feels vindicated by the film’s financial success. “I don’t care because I was right in the end,” says Spheeris, who, as predicted, didn’t return for Wayne’s World 2. “Go ahead and criticise me all you want, but look at the numbers.”

It was Michaels who suggested Rob Lowe for the part of Benjamin, the sleazy yuppie who cons Wayne and Garth into selling out their beloved show. Spheeris was initially shocked, given that just two years earlier a scandal had erupted when a sex tape surfaced of the actor, who was 24, with a 16-year-old girl in a hotel room during the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. “At first, I refused,’” recalls Spheeris. “And Lorne said: ‘But he’s gonna be really cheap now.’ So we got Rob Lowe – and he was cheap!”

The role helped salvage Lowe’s career – not just by giving him a job when few would, but by proving he could do comedy. It’s safe to say there’s no Chris Traeger in Parks and Recreation without Benjamin in Wayne’s World. “I think the role of Benjamin in Wayne’s World even surprised him that he could be funny,” says Spheeris. “He was always the good-looking, handsome leading-man type, and they’re not usually funny those guys. He was thrilled to learn he could be funny.”

The part of Wayne’s love interest Cassandra, meanwhile, caught the eye of Hawaiian actor Tia Carrere. At the time, Carrere was in the final stages of auditioning to play David Hasselhoff’s marine biologist girlfriend on Baywatch but skipped the final swimming test to go up for Wayne’s World instead. The casting call had asked for someone who “rocks like Pat Benatar”, so Carrere performed an acapella version of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” at her first audition. “I remember going, ‘Oh my God, this is the part that can change my life,’” Carrere told Vice in 2020. “And I can think of no one else that can do the acting and the singing and the rocking. But I can.’”

Spheeris agreed, and fought for Carrere to win the role. “Nobody else could do what she could do,” she says. “She’s not only a singer, and she can play an instrument or two, but she’s an onstage performer. It’s really hard to teach an actor how to do that naturally. Plus she’s gorgeous, she’s just sweet as anything, and she spoke Cantonese. How are you going to get all that in one person?”

Although it would become a runaway success, Wayne’s World never seemed pre-destined to be a hit. Feuding leads, a first-time studio director and a big name star returning from a scandal may not seem like a recipe for box-office triumph and critical longevity, but Wayne’s World proved to be much more than the sum of its parts. Tonally, the film pulls off something of a magic trick. On one hand, it is deeply rooted in Myers’s own adolescence growing up in Scarborough, Ontario, where he really would drive around headbanging to “Bohemian Rhapsody” and venture out to the airport with his brothers to watch planes land directly over their heads. On the other hand, the film quickly abandons realism in favour of fusing together a wide variety of comic styles, with plenty of breaking of the fourth wall, various subtitled gags, and even a sharp-witted satire of product placement. On Reunited Apart, Myers recalled Michaels telling him, “Naturalism’s dead”, and says he felt encouraged by this pithy maxim to let his imagination run wild. “When he said that, I was like: ‘OK, Well then maybe there’s a room where people are being trained for James Bond.’”

The end result is a film as joyous and exuberant as driving around headbanging to Queen. As Myers once put it, Wayne’s World is “dumb comedy done by smart people”. Three decades after its release, it is recognised as a masterpiece that inspired a generation of young comedy fanatics – and delighted Hollywood royalty too. Myers once recalled the moment he met Henry Mancini, the Oscar-winning writer of such classic tunes as “The Pink Panther Theme” and “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “Hey, kid! That thing you did with “Bohemian Rhapsody”? One of the greatest moments of music in film!” bellowed the composer, approvingly. “And I’m Henry f***ing Mancini!”

Wayne’s World: 30th Anniversary Blu-ray is available now

Dana Carvey, Rob Lowe and Mike Myers in ‘Wayne’s World’

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