Although they would ultimately join the ranks of other legendary Saturday Night Live characters like The Coneheads and Gumby before them, Aurora dorks Garth and Wayne did not immediately bowl everyone over. In fact, as we'll see in this deep dive into the very first "Wayne's World" sketch, there are a number of good reasons you probably haven't seen the duo's SNL debut, which first aired February 18, 1989, in an episode hosted by Leslie Nielsen.
First, some background. Mike Myers dreamed up the character of Wayne Campbell when he was a kid living in Scarborough, Ontario. And in 1987, a pre-SNL Myers portrayed Wayne on another show in his native Canada, titled It's Only Rock 'N Roll. With his long hair and Canadian Valley-boy patois, the character is certainly familiar, even if it's not yet fully formed:
Myers arrived in New York the following year after a triumphant interview with SNL overlord Lorne Michaels, who had been urged by both Marty Short and SNL producer Pam Thomas, the wife of SCTV's Dave Thomas, to bring the kid in. Myers began appearing on the show in January of ’89 as a "featured" performer, not quite in the show's power-packed repertory cast that included Jan Hooks, Phil Hartman, Carvey, Dennis Miller, Nora Dunn and Jon Lovitz. (The other three featured performers at the time weren't exactly schlubs: Al Franken, A. Whitney Brown and, in a notoriously brief stint, Ben Stiller.)
The polite and resourceful Myers made immediate friends with the writing staff, which included — again, wow! — Conan O'Brien, Robert Smigel, Bob Odenkirk and Greg Daniels. Asked what material he had, Myers introduced his new colleagues to Wayne Campbell. But this was Canada's Wayne with a NYC twist.
Myers had been taking in New York City's public-access cable TV system, which in the late 1980s was a smorgasbord of surreal one-person extravaganzas like John’s Cabaret, Tomorrow's Television Tonight and The Robin Byrd Show, the now-legendary NSFW late night show showcasing strippers who performed on and around the Deuce. The pitch Myers came up with was simple: What if Wayne Campbell hosted a cable-access show from his parents' living room?
"We politely told him that we didn't think it was his best idea," O'Brien recalled. Myers wrote a script anyway, titled it "Wayne's World" and brought it to a pitch meeting. (For his part, Myers only remembers O'Brien and the others being "absolutely supportive" of "Wayne's World.")
Myers would make his SNL debut on the January 21, 1989 show hosted by John Malkovich, but other than a few lines in one sketch he was invisible.
The following week, January 28, Myers hammed his way onto Weekend Update in his first appearance as over-the-top Scotsman Stuart Rankin (earning rare attaboy in the goodnights from that episode's host Tony Danza).
By his fourth week on SNL, the powers that be had decided his little public-access show could be trusted with the "10-to-1" slot — the last sketch of the night, after much of the show's audience had faded off to sleep. The only condition was that Myers had to have a co-host. He was paired with Carvey, who received only one direction from Myers before going on: "Garth loves Wayne."
Perhaps not surprisingly given its very narrow focus, the original "Wayne's World" looked a lot like the 19 other iterations that would air afterward on SNL. “Wayne’s World!! Wayne’s World!! Party Time! Excellent!!” Wayne sang in the bit. "Okay, like, welcome to 'Wayne’s World',” chimed in Garth, adding, "here’s your excellent host – Wayne Campbell!"
Their first guest was Beev (Hartman), Garth's dad and the owner of the Wishing Well c-store, who was infuriated by being made the butt of Wayne's "Top Ten Things That Beev Says" list, which concludes with an especially cringey No. 1: "My name is Beev. I’m a big fag." (This punchline may be be one of the reasons that NBC neglected to include this sketch in its ostensible "Every Wayne's World Ever" YouTube compilation. There’s also a joke with a phone caller about raping a girl after she's passed out drunk — oh those ’80s knee-slappers!)
Compared to subsequent "Wayne's World" sketches, the audience is pretty quiet during this debut. Yes, it's late and everyone's tired, but the characters were new and you sense that everyone was still deciding if this was just a ripoff of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure or what.
Then again, consider the anecdote that Myers told 20 years ago of arriving at 30 Rockefeller Center the week after the sketch aired and hearing a random NBC employee singing "Wayne's World, Wayne's World!" Myers says he asked the dude, were you in the audience? "No, no," the dude says, "we saw it on TV."
"Wayne's World" aired a second time in March, again in the 10-to-1 spot, before earning an upgrade to much earlier in the broadcast in their third appearance in May. That fall Garth and Wayne went big, appearing roughly once a month during the 1989-90 season. Then, in a true measure of the duo’s importance to SNL, the boys kicked off the show’s 1990-91 season, making their very first cold-open performance to wild cheers from the audience. To meet the seemingly insatiable demand for material, Myers and Carvey turned to writers Bonnie and Terry Turner (who would go on to make 3rd Rock from the Sun).
Finally, nearly three years to the date of the first “Party Hearty!" on SNL, the hugely successful Wayne's World movie arrived. During the film's production, a rift developed between the two stars (and director Penelope Spheeris) over the division of labor between Wayne and Garth. The bad feelings would fester and take decades to heal.
The original "Wayne's World" sketch has not aged well compared with other SNL classics of its era. Maybe that's due to its politically incorrect nature, with the Bill Cosby-ish sex tips, that can't entirely be excused as the musings of two hormonal teenage boys. Or maybe it's because in hindsight we expect more from Myers and Carvey. But it's a testament to the capacity of SNL — and only SNL — that it can still nurture talent from their first tentative appearances on screen until the whole world is saying their buzz phrases back to them. And that is, indeed, "excellent!!"
The first "Wayne's World" aired February 18, 1989. It can be viewed on Peacock at the 30-minute mark of S14 E8.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.