‘Wayne’s World’ & Me

As a kid, I identified with Garth Algar, the shy sidekick of the 1992 movie, who taught me about how to be a real person in a branded world.

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Credit…Farah Al Qasimi for The New York Times

There’s a bit in “Wayne’s World” that I think about all the time. Wayne (Mike Myers), the host of a public access show with a cult following, is grandstanding about the artistic integrity of his program when the scene spontaneously combusts into a surrealist orgy of product placement. Wayne slickly presents a Pizza Hut box, crunches a Dorito, takes a refreshing swig of Pepsi. The scene culminates with Garth (Dana Carvey), Wayne’s introverted sidekick, languidly reclining in head-to-toe Reebok gear. “It’s like people only do things because they get paid,” Garth says. “And that’s just really sad.”

I keep that Garth moment handy, in GIF form, to deploy whenever I recognize that ambivalent impulse in myself and others, which is all of the time. When I first watched “Wayne’s World” as a little kid, I identified with Garth’s shy, proud demeanor. Like Garth, I was muted by social anxiety, hypersensitive to attention and frustrated at being misunderstood; my favorite part of the movie was watching Garth’s sheepish exterior crack into boiling rage. But over the years, I have been drawn to the character on a more existential level. He has become a kind of beacon — a guide to being a real person in a branded world.

The appeal of “Reebok Garth” lies in the sincerity radiating from beneath the hypocrisy. A throwaway joke from 1992 now seems to articulate a permanent condition. “Selling out” has become an inevitability: My generation is working harder than ever for stagnant wages and massive debt. It’s not just that we’re shopping our personas to corporations — it’s that we’re volunteering them for free, fusing our leisure with work, contorting ourselves into “personal brands” and exposing our lives on social media to court sponsors and compete for scraps. Our pursuit of “authenticity” is also a fetish of branding. All of our social interactions are seeded with thrumming anxiety. This is a time for reflexively critiquing “late capitalism” even as we jostle for its prizes.

“Wayne’s World” is a movie obsessed with authenticity but built on layers of artifice. It is an “SNL” sketch stretched into a movie, set amid the drama-kid fandom of Queen and Alice Cooper. Garth’s look feels rummaged out of a costume trunk — bedraggled blond wig, Buddy Holly glasses, mom jeans — but Carvey plays him with such feline sensitivity that l have always recognized him as a kindred spirit. Garth grew out of Carvey’s warm impersonation of his brother Brad, an impish savant who could fix the family dryer with a butter knife. And though he participates in Wayne’s brand of post-pubescent schwinging, he has an androgynous, childlike presentation; he finds condoms icky and flaps his hands when he dances.

Wayne is the star of “Wayne’s World,” but Garth is its moral center. After Wayne and Garth sell their basement cable show to the slippery producer Benjamin (Rob Lowe), Benjamin sets to work crushing the show’s soul to serve his corporate interests, and the rest of the plot charts Wayne and Garth’s slow realization of the true price of their sale. At one point, Garth pages through Benjamin’s journal and naïvely reads an entry aloud: “Thursday: Purchase feeble cable access show and exploit it. Whoa, I feel sorry for whoever that is.”

Wayne, who dreams of doing “Wayne’s World” for a living, falls easily under Benjamin’s influence, but Garth eyes the whole process at a skeptical remove. Part of his appeal is his seeming lack of professional aspiration or consumerist drive. When the deal with Benjamin nets them $5,000 each, Wayne spends his windfall on a rare Fender Stratocaster, but we don’t see Garth buy anything. The film is strewn with non sequitur scenes of Garth pursuing hobbies with no commercial purpose: In one, he assembles figures from doughnuts and toothpicks; in another, he wears a gear-covered helmet as he welds a rubber hand to a robotic arm. As Wayne seizes his new guitar at the local shop, Garth picks up a pair of drumsticks and executes an unexpectedly virtuosic solo. “Dude, you’re amazing,” a longhaired bystander raves, to which Garth shyly replies: “I like to play.”

I’m sure that I was drawn to Garth as a child because he, too, exists in a childlike state, a cul-de-sac Peter Pan. I was not considering the earning potential of my creativity when I was buzz-cutting my Barbies’ hair in the crawl-space beneath the stairs. While Wayne seeks to cash in on the show he named after himself, Garth is after a more personal kind of recognition. He is eager to be understood but uncomfortable articulating himself to the world. While Wayne struts through the film, ministering to his audience through the camera, Garth whimpers away from the lens. And as Benjamin’s corporate takeover of “Wayne’s World” plows forward, Garth’s introverted posture begins to feel like a form of resistance.

When Benjamin tells Garth, “I love what you do on the show,” Garth refuses the compliment; he doesn’t “do” anything “on the show.” He has been happy to be Wayne’s sidekick as long as it’s not fashioned into some kind of TV role. When the new monetized version of “Wayne’s World” debuts, and Wayne walks off the set in a huff, he leaves Garth behind, anxiously crawling on the simulated furniture of Wayne’s simulated basement. At his lowest point, Garth uncomfortably parrots Wayne’s catchphrase: “I’m having a good time,” he says. “Not.”

Benjamin threatens Garth’s pursuit of comfort, joy and fellowship, and Wayne’s issues with Benjamin feel superficial in comparison: He doesn’t like being told what to do, and he feels threatened by Benjamin’s pursuit of his rock star girlfriend Cassandra. By “Wayne’s World 2,” Wayne has evolved into a kind of proto-hipster, clinging to the aesthetic trappings of D.I.Y. even as he moves up in the world. When he ascends from his parents’ basement, it is not into a Benjamin-esque yuppie high-rise but a sprawling converted warehouse. He hangs out at a place called Komrades, a Lenin-themed bar, as he plots a festival he calls Waynestock. He becomes the very thing he once loathed: the music promoter.

Before endless film installments became the norm — and were reframed as Hollywood’s ultimate service to the fans — the movie sequel was synonymous with selling out, and “Wayne’s World 2” is so bad that it reads almost like a meta commentary on cashing in. Under the direction of Penelope Spheeris, the first movie deftly recognized its supporting characters, privileging Garth’s perspective and Cassandra’s career. Even Stacy, the ex-girlfriend Wayne calls a “psycho hosebeast,” is gifted with a dissection of Wayne’s contributions to her low self-esteem.

In “Wayne’s World 2,” Spheeris is cast out and Cassandra and Garth are sidelined in the pursuit of indulging Wayne’s wish fulfillment. Garth is no longer tasked with prodding at Wayne’s contradictions. Instead he is reduced to programmatically schwinging at passing women at the club. In a prelude to Myers’s “Austin Powers” schtick, Garth pursues a sexual relationship with a woman named Honey Hornée, who is painted as an uncomplicated psycho hosebeast.

Recently, I watched the sequel in horror, then cued up the original to cleanse my brain. As I watched, I realized with deflation that in adulthood, I had grown into more of a Wayne than a Garth. Like Wayne, I’ve chosen a path that organizes my talents into a professional career, including a video series named after me; everything I write is published alongside a photograph of my face; if I got $5,000, I would probably spend it on something dumb. Garth was always an unattainable ideal; he is so pure that he seems unable to practically support himself. But he is still a comfort to watch — a reminder that it is enough to do things just because you like them, not because somebody’s watching.

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