Postmodernism in Wayne’s World
‘Postmodern’ is a broad and complex term that encompasses numerous issues in a variety of fields such as philosophy, art, sociology and economics. In film, the diverse postmodern traits that have been identified by scholars include pastiche, discontinuity, self-reflexivity and general playfulness. This essay will focus on how the comedy film Wayne’s World (Penelope Spheeris, USA 1992) uses self-reflexivity to deconstruct the artificiality of the media. To demonstrate this, the evolution of the television show Wayne’s World will be analysed as a useful illustration of postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard’s argument that mediated images turn the real into endless simulations, thereby creating a hyperreal world (1992 : 152).
As a patchwork of intertextuality alluding to more than fifty references from Alice Cooper to Scooby Doo (Cartoon Network, USA 1969), Wayne’s World is nothing if not a product of postmodern culture. Indeed, James M. Collins, in his essay ‘Accounting for Taste in Popular Culture’, explains that:
The self-reflexivity that was once considered a marker of high art because it reflected a high degree of sophistication in the part of both artist and eventual audience, is now constitutive of all popular entertainment that depends upon a high degree of media literacy (1994: 218).
In this way, the movie is in a constant dialogue with a hyperconscious postmodern audience. This is reflected in Jason Rutter’s essay on Wayne’s World and postmodern comedy, where he states that ‘an essential part of postmodern comedy is its self-conscious play with references and the game it constructs with its audience’ (1998: 115). Always aware of itself as a film, Wayne’s World never lets its audience suspend their disbelief. Instead, characters often address the camera directly, and in the scene where Wayne speaks Chinese, he even waits for the subtitles to finish translating his sentence. The movie also uses subtitles to expose filmmaking strategies such as the “Oscar clip” (which exists for the sole purpose of getting an Oscar nomination and therefore better audience reception), or the “Gratuitous Sex Scene” (which would be included as an element of exploitation). As Rutter points out, this self-consciousness highlights the artificiality of films which are put together as a product of capitalism, rather than a work of art:
The humour associated with these devices comes from the satirizing of film conventions which while being artificial, have through use and experience, come to appear logical and natural (1998: 121).
Wayne’s World itself is always aware that it is part of this industry. This is clearly expressed in a scene where Wayne and Garth make a speech against sponsorship and “selling out” while at the same time showing off famous brands such as Reebok and Pizza Hut. This exposes the essential contradiction of the movie: this is a story about friends trying to resist capitalism, told in a film that is ironically very conscious of its status as a product of capitalism. Thus, ultimately Wayne and Garth’s moralistic speech cannot be taken seriously. Describing this scene, Timothy Shary points out that it takes the irony that is common to postmodernism to another level:
Ben Stiller […] has said, “Irony is the only defence this generation has against the commodification of their culture” (Appelo 1994: 30). But this scene in Wayne’s World implies that even irony has been commodified, since its unsubtle quality is not nearly as ironic as the actual selling of these products (1998: 83).
Furthermore, this irony is expressed in the movie’s three endings. By showing that all the protagonists’ efforts were pointless, the first ending is realistic yet chaotic. It is followed by Wayne and Garth exclaiming “As if! As if we’d end the movie like this!”, thereby mocking the mainstream belief that a movie should have a happy ending, no matter how unrealistic. As artificial as it may be, the “Super Mega Happy Ending” exposes the audience’s need for satisfaction, thereby highlighting that people are more comfortable in a cocoon of hyperreality – when ‘the sign becomes more real than reality itself’ (R. Stam 1999: 305), making audiences aspire to an image that is pure simulacrum.
This concept of simulacrum is defined in Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulations (1988). He writes that the image has four successive phases:
(1) It is the reflection of a basic reality.
(2) It masks and perverts a basic reality.
(3) It masks the absence of a basic reality.
(4) It bears no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum (1992 : 152).
This progression is illustrated in Wayne’s World, where we witness the erosion of Wayne and Garth’s public access television show from real to simulacrum. (1) At the beginning of the film, Wayne’s World is a talk show run by a group of friends and shot in Wayne’s basement. Their show is introduced as popular with the young audience who can identify with them and laugh at their unpretentious jokes. They are, arguably, the only ‘real’ people left on television. (2) However, when a company offers to produce their show, a replica of Wayne’s basement is built in a studio. Looking down on the set from a soundstage, Garth makes a revealing comment: “Does this seem weird to anybody else? I mean, we’re looking down on Wayne’s basement, only that’s not Wayne’s basement. Isn’t that weird?”. In Baudrillard’s terms, they are now looking at a simulation. The set is, though seemingly identical, somehow different from their original show: the producers now choose their guests and a green screen is installed to allow more simulations. (3) When Wayne and Garth return to host Wayne’s World later in the film, they no longer recognise it and are extremely uncomfortable. Their trademark jingle is now performed by a professional announcer; they are given cue cards to read from and all spontaneity is effaced by the producers. Nothing about their show is ‘real’ anymore. It has become hyperreal as all reality has been polished off by the production company. (4) Later, after writing his own jokes on cue cards, Wayne is promptly fired and told that the show is no longer his. Without Wayne, the show has lost all relation it had to the original. Left to host alone, Garth is terrified. In this way, the show becomes increasingly uncanny to Wayne and Garth: what they knew so well is no longer recognisable to them. The terror of the characters – coupled with a creepy horror music in the last phase – correlates with what Baudrillard might call the ‘destruction’ (1992 : 158) of Wayne’s World.
It is in its self-consciousness that Wayne’s World criticises contemporary media and exposes it as artificial: films are made as products of mass consumption, they are springboards for advertising and in the process of giving audiences what they want, production companies feed hyperreality. Interestingly, the core plot of the film – the loss of Wayne and Garth’s television show – follows quite literally Baudrillard’s description of the process in which reality becomes a simulacra at the hands of the media. These elements, added to the intertextuality of the movie and its nostalgic undertones make Wayne’s World a postmodern movie on many different levels.
Baudrillard, J., 1992 . ‘Jean Baudrillard from ‘Simulacra and Simulations’’. In: P. Brooker, ed. Modernism/Postmodernism. London: Longman, pp.151-162.
Collins, J.M., 1994. ‘By Who’s Authority? Accounting for Taste in Popular Culture’. In: D.J. Crowley and D. Mitchell, eds. Communication Theory Today. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 214-234.
Rutter, J., 1998. ‘Stepping into Wayne’s World: Exploring Postmodern Comedy’. In: A.A. Berger, ed. The Postmodern Presence: Readings on Postmodernism in American Culture and Society. London: SAGE Publications, pp. 112-124.
Shary, T., 1998. ‘Reification and Loss in Postmodern Puberty: The Cultural Logic of Frederic Jameson and American Youth Movies’. In: C. Degli-Esposti, eds. Postmodernism in the Cinema. Oxford: Berghahn Books, pp. 73-80.
Stam, R., 2000. ‘The Poetics and Politics of Postmodernism’. In: R. Stam, ed. Film Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, pp.298-307.
Wayne’s World (Penelope Spheeris, USA 1992)
Scooby Doo (Cartoon Network, USA 1969)