Bill & Ted Party On
And Continue to Be Excellent
On February 17, 1989, a little movie was released with little to no fanfare after having been shelved for a year by a studio, who actually made it after the studio went bankrupt. It was about two hapless high school students who had big dreams of starting a band, and were about to fail high school. Fortunately for them, help arrived in the form of a phone booth from the future, and with that phone booth, not only did the two high school students make history, but they left a lasting footprint on the cinematic world that can still be felt today.
The students were Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan, the band was Wyld Stallyns, and the movie, of course, was Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
Bill & Ted may not have changed cinema, and to say so would be foolish, but these two did carve out a family sizable chunk of pop culture. In fact, the path they carved was so big that only two years later, in 1991, a bigger and more expensive sequel was released: Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (where the titular duo are killed and go to Hell —I can’t think of a more bogus journey than that!). There was also a video game, an animated TV series, a cereal, and so much more; including a guest spot on The Arsenio Hall Show (the epitome of cool in the early ‘90s) promoting Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. (During this interview, Alex Winter referred to the sequel as Bill & Ted’s BJ, and you wonder if he immediately regretted it. This was a time before the Internet, so it was quite easy to forget.)
Look for that moment at timestamp 3:14:
The second film went on to become the hit that was every bit the equal of its predecessor. Roger Ebert wrote:
“There were parts of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey I probably didn’t understand, but that’s all right, because there were even more parts that Bill and Ted didn’t understand. This is a movie that thrives on the dense-witted idiocy of its characters, two teenage dudes who go on amazing journeys through time and space with only the dimmest perception that they are not still playing video games.”
He continued to say…
“I missed the enormously popular movie that introduced these characters, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and felt myself blessed at the time. But now I’m not so sure. Their Bogus Journey is a riot of visual invention and weird humor that works on its chosen sub-moronic level, and on several others as well, including some fairly sophisticated ones. It’s the kind of movie where you start out snickering in spite of yourself, and end up actually admiring the originality that went into creating this hallucinatory slapstick.”
Personally, I don’t think Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey is as good as Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure because, in large part, William Sadler as the Grim Reaper is so good and so funny he steals the show from Bill and Ted.
By challenging Death to get out of Hell, the movie is riffing on Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal where a knight plays chess against Death for his soul. However, this movie turns the idea on its head by replacing chess with Battleship. After all, there is no rule that says the game they play against Death HAS to be chess.
Yet, at heart of both movies, they display what makes the duo such lasting pop culture icons, even in today’s climate— a sense of humor that is both as dumb as you think it might be, but then much smarter than you’re ready for, as well as the earnestness of the duo.
The summer Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey came out, I was working as a janitor at a water park along with another guy named Ted. (Ted was not a good worker.) Among all the other “Bill and Ted” jokes that summer, my favorite was when Ted and I had to do a trash run through a certain section of the water park. He and I split up the section, so I would change all trash cans on one side, and he would change the trash on the other. I mean, that was the plan anyway. I was ready to clock out when another co-worker of mine, Russell, ran up to me and yelled, “What the hell is with Bill and Ted’s Bogus Trash Run?”
Ted had not changed a single trash can.
In 2001, I was visiting Edinburgh, Scotland for its Fringe Festival. If you’re unfamiliar, this is a festival that coincides with its International Film Festival, which there are so many plays to put on that the city runs out of official venues to show them. So, a lot of them exist in coffee shops, garages, etc. —aka the fringe. In this year, not only did I see Seth Meyers before he joined SNL, I also saw Bill & Ted’s Excellent Musical Adventure at the Fringe where the time machine phone booth was replaced by a cell phone. It only added to the hilarity, and was much better than the black box version of Reservoir Dogs. They missed the point of the movie and showed the jewelry store heist, which was complete with a lot of blank gun shots going off in too small of a space in too short of a time.
Hoever, I digress.
When writing Bill & Ted, writers and creators, Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, didn’t want to just create another stoner comedy full of the same tired old jokes. To be sure, some of those jokes are in there, but a lot of the jokes are quite smart. How else do you explain Ted’s dad, a local police chief, missing his car keys?
Aside from the intelligent humor, there is also something else in Bill & Ted: a heart.
At their heart, Bill and Ted aren’t dim or dumb. Although, perhaps they do perceive things at a slower pace than most of the other characters around them. Yet, what really makes Bill and Ted stand out from many of the lame stoner comedies back then, and even today, is that Bill and Ted are likable. They want to do good, they’re earnest, genuine, and they’re nice.
Like Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High (who has to be their direct predecessor, and was as also a nice guy that couldn’t help it if the line at the food machine made him late for Mr. Hand’s class), Bill and Ted just want to achieve their goals. If there is any question about Bill and Ted’s ancestry, watch this scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High:
Clearly, Alex Winters modeled Bill after Sean Penn’s Spicoli.
There is no other reason to include this next scene other than it’s funny and continues to show Spicoli’s surfer humor. You can decide how it informs Bill and/or Ted:
Anyway, Spicoli wanted to surf, and Bill and Ted wanted their band to make it big — and anything that got in the way of achieving that goal was just white noise; even if it was failing high school, or Ted being shipped off to Oates Military Academy.
This is where the future comes into play by George Carlin as Rufus. We learn Wyld Stallyns does hit it big, so big in fact that their music not only sets the stage for world peace, but becomes the foundation for which the future society is based. He introduces them to a phone booth, with which they can travel through circuits of time and pick up various historical personages along the way: Napoleon, Billy the Kid, Socrates (whom they call So-Crates), Sigmund Freud aka “The Freud Dude,” Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc (who is not Noah’s wife, by the way), and even Genghis Khan, who loves Twinkies it turns out:
(Genghis Khan was played by Al Leong, who served as a memorable villain in many ‘80s action movies, including Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. He was a regular at a restaurant I used to work at, a restaurant famous for bottomless fries, and when I noticed him, I brought him a refill of fries. I then said, “While it is quite widely known that Genghis Khan loved Twinkies, it is much less well known that he had an affinity for French fries.” I dropped them off, and Al Leong got a big laugh out of it.)
With the historical figures in tow, not only do Bill and Ted ace their history exam, but Ted is saved from the military academy, and they are now allowed to go on to pursue their dream of making music that will change the world. Though when we first hear of it, we are dubious of Rufus’ claims about how good their music might be.
If there is one aspect of Bill & Ted that does not hold up, it is their latent homophobia and the recurring use of the word “fag” in both movies. While true for the characters of the time, the uses of the slur date the movie and make us wince. It is the one fault we can truly find in their characters. It should not be overlooked, nor should it simply be dismissed as a product of its of time. It should be recognized as what it is —two men who are uncomfortable when it comes to admitting they care for each other. It is a problem that exists in society even today, and we wonder if the music of Wyld Stallyns would have cured not only the whole world, but also Bill and Ted of this issue.
In the immediate aftermath of Bill & Ted, I remember seeing in the video section at my local Smith’s grocery store (remember when grocery stores had video departments?) a straight to video knock off called Norman’s Awesome Experience. While the tagline to Bill & Ted read, “History is about to be rewritten by two guys who can’t spell…,” the latter’s tagline lamely stated, “Norman thought the 20th Century was bad. But now, he’s got a date with the Roman Empire.”
The success of Bill & Ted put its two stars on the map in Hollywood. It was a success that no one saw coming— not even the people involved could have imagined how big it would become. Keanu Reeves, who played Ted, had been a working actor since 1984, and had 18 credits to his name before Bill & Ted; his biggest credit being a role in Dangerous Liaisons:
Alex Winter, who played Bill, had seven credits to his name, with the biggest being the first vampire to die in The Lost Boys:
The fact that Bill & Ted was so successful shouldn’t have been as a big of a surprise as it was considering the pedigree behind the camera. Chris Matheson had no previous credits, but Ed Solomon (who parodied his name in the sequel by giving it to the bad guy, De Nomolos) had been credited as a writer on eight episodes of Lavern & Shirely, and also the short-lived TV show, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Lavern & Shirley may have thrived on slapstick, but if that was all it had, the show would not still be so fondly remembered to this day. Laverne & Shirley also had heart, which we see in full display in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (less so in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, which relies more on slapstick). Solomon would go on to write the first Men in Black, which seems to fall right in line with the Bill & Ted sense of humor.
This was not the director’s first movie, either. Before this, Stephen Herek directed Critters, a story about a voracious horde of aliens that crash land in a small town on Earth, and start eating everything in sight. Critters cheerfully ripped off The Terminator, E.T., Gremlins and Starman, but it did it with such a sense of style and panache that you couldn’t help but to be entertained and delighted by it. “The director, Stephen Herek, likes to break the mood occasionally with a one-liner out of left field, and he gives the critters some of the funniest lines,” wrote Roger Ebert. “What makes Critters more than a ripoff are its humor and its sense of style. This is a movie made by people who must have had fun making it.”
Ditto, Bill & Ted. Though aside from using a phone booth to travel through time (paging Dr. Who), and casting its leads in the mold of Jeff Spicoli, otherwise it seems to be a fairly original premise.
The lasting impact of Bill and Ted is evident even today as rumors, speculation and hope continues to swirl about a possible second sequel, which is currently entitled Bill & Ted Face the Music; the duo must face the mounting pressure of writing the song that makes their band famous, and it goes on to change the world. The second sequel brings back the writing duo of Matheson and Solomon (just as it did for the first sequel), and all I can say is I hope the rumors are true…
As of today, it looks as though they have a release date of August 1, 2020:
We wish the movie could have been made before George Carlin died, as sadly Rufus feels just as integral to the series as Bill and Ted are. We hope for the best.
They might be simpletons, but there is a grace to them, a humility, a kindness that seems largely absent from the world in which we live today, and it would be nice to see some of that earnestness be restored— even for only a little bit. After all, if we’re not going to be excellent to each other, then who is?
Party on, dudes.