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Credit: Orion Pictures

This Week in Genre History: Whoa! Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure began 32 years ago this week

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Feb 17, 2021, 9:07 PM EST (Updated)

Welcome to “This Week in Genre History,” where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

No, Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, the writers behind Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,  weren’t smoking anything when they came up with the title characters of their iconic comedy. “We were not stoned, though everyone thinks we were,” Solomon said last year. “I was not a stoner then. I had a bad experience in college and I had a f***ing meltdown because I was such a wimp.” 

The two men had met as part of an improv troupe, where they developed the idea of Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan, eventually deciding — thanks to the prodding of Matheson’s dad, I Am Legend novelist Richard Matheson — to turn it into a script. Lots of people loved it, including Stephen Herek, a director with only one feature to his name at that point, the gonzo sci-fi comedy Critters. “I fell out of my chair laughing,” he later recalled about reading the Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure screenplay. “It wasn’t like the John Hughes slice-of-life comedy, it was a bit out-there: two guys from San Dimas who go back in time to research their school history report. I remember saying this is either going to be a huge hit or a huge flop.”

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was a hit when it opened on Feb. 17, 1989, establishing its bumbling buddies as a righteous comedic duo that’s been beloved for more than 30 years. The film starred Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves as Bill and Ted, who are in danger of flunking high school until an emissary from the future, Rufus (George Carlin), gifts them with a time machine that will allow them to collect historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, Socrates, and Joan of Arc and bring them to the present day for a class presentation the teens need to ace. If Bill and Ted fail, not only will Ted be sent to military school, their headbanging band Wyld Stallyns will break up, which has huge consequences for Rufus’ utopian future society. Can these two lovable bozos save the day?

A mixture of goofy jokes, guitar heroics, and male bonding, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure put a nice punctuation mark at the end of a decade of teen comedies. The guys’ trademark “Whoa!” and “Excellent!” would become the films’ enduring catchphrases, and even years later Winter and Reeves remain synonymous with these roles, despite all the impressive work they’ve done in subsequent years. The world can be a terrible place, but Bill and Ted are a permanent force for good. And their wisdom still speaks to us: Truly, all we are is dust in the wind, dude.

Why was it a big deal at the time? Before there was Wayne and Garth, or Beavis and Butt-Head, Bill and Ted helped define the Gen-X buddy comedy. (You could say theirs was the original bromance, long before Judd Apatow helped popularize the genre.) As Herek mentioned, the 1980s had seen an explosion of comedies geared to (and about) teenagers, often focusing on their crazy exploits. Whether it was Fast Times at Ridgemont High or John Hughes classics like The Breakfast Club, Hollywood had figured out that young people wanted to see themselves up there on the screen, but no one had conceived of high schoolers as silly and spaced-out as Bill and Ted, who were endearing parodies of Valley kids. (Herek recalled the confusion some executives had about the film: “I got a lot of comments like, ‘Are there kids that really speak like this?’”)  

The movie’s stars were known, but not exactly household names. Winter had been in The Lost Boys as part of Kiefer Sutherland’s vampire squad, while Reeves appeared in River’s Edge and Permanent Record. (In a very change-of-pace role, he’d also co-starred in the costume drama Dangerous Liaisons.) “Everyone was auditioning for both roles,” Reeves told The Hollywood Reporter. “When I arrived at the location for the rehearsal, I just met Alex — there was no one else there yet. We had some stuff in common — we both played bass — and just started to talk. We hit it off. We have kind of similar humor and interests, and then when we were working together there was something else there that was cool.”

“We both came up in theater,” Winter told me last year, “and we both built characters from the inside out, having been trained in theater. We both came into that audition playing them totally straight — not like attitudinal teenagers, not like stoners, but very innocent, joyful, kind of childlike teenagers. That’s, to this day, how we view those guys, and they’re really fun to play because they’re sincerely innocent — it isn’t meta at all or self-reflective.”

That sense of sweetness permeated Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, including the casting of George Carlin as Rufus. Known as one of his generation’s most brilliant (and filthy) comics — after all, he is the man behind the infamous “7 Dirty Words” routine of the 1970s — he wasn’t renowned for his acting, and initially the character was conceived as being someone in his 20s. But when the script changed and Rufus was rewritten to be older, the comic got the part, initially intimidating his young costars. “When we found out it was Carlin, we were honestly kind of blown away,” Winter once said. “Then he shows up, and he’s this larger than life, beautiful, spiritual, incredible human being.” In that same interview, Reeves recalled that Carlin was so nervous during the shoot that, after a take, he’d turn to him and Winter and ask, “Was that okay? Was that okay?”

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure had a rocky road to completion, with the film’s production company going bankrupt during post-production. (“We went through a very tumultuous time, actually, even getting it on the screen,” said Herek. “There was a period of time where it wasn’t even going to be released.”) But once the filmmakers started doing preview screenings, they could tell they had something. “We hadn’t really seen it for ourselves in front of an audience,” Herek recalled. “The audience went crazy. Being in the audience was such a pleasurable experience. People were laughing and screaming and yelling and just cheered at the end of the movie.” These two Valley dudes were about to be big.

What was the impact? After a bidding war between studios, Orion put out Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure over the long Presidents Day weekend of 1989. (The other high-profile debut that weekend was the Tom Hanks comedy The ‘Burbs.) The film landed at No. 3 at the box office, but Wyld Stallyns had legs, staying in the Top 10 through mid-April. Herek had been anxious about how audiences would react to the movie, so he went out of town for the opening weekend, avoiding any word about its performance. (Remember, this was before smartphones or the internet, when disconnecting was a lot easier.) When he got home, his answering machine was full. “I listen to the messages and they’re all congratulatory messages for this weekend,” he remembered. “It did well and then it became the little engine that could and kept doing the same thing, weekend after weekend after weekend. Then it became this hit and they were talking about a sequel.”

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure ended up making more money than several other comedies from that year, including The ‘Burbs, Fletch Lives, and Weekend at Bernie’s. And in short order, a follow-up was commissioned, with Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey arriving in theaters in the summer of 1991. In between, there was also a short-lived animated series, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures, which saw Winter, Reeves, and Carlin all reprising their roles.

There were no new Bill and Ted adventures until last year’s Bill & Ted Face the Music, but in the interim, the culture embraced them as slacker heroes — even if, like Solomon, Winter pushed back against the idea that they were potheads. (“A lot of times [Bill and Ted] are talked about as stoners,” Winter said, “and that couldn’t be farther from who we are and how we played those guys.”) Their adorable daffiness and no-worries vibe made them awfully appealing, and they paved the way for other clueless fictional teen buddies. (Ironically, although Mike Myers had created the Wayne character long before his time on Saturday Night Live, the first installment of the long-running “Wayne’s World” sketch occurred the night after Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure opened.) Plus, there was nothing mean-spirited about Bill and Ted. They were just looking for babes and some good times.

The film’s longevity snuck up on its creators. “I think when we first started, we were truly only trying to make ourselves, the two of us, laugh,” Solomon said. “And we had no idea that [Bill & Ted] would catch on in any way. This movie went through so many different starts and stops that we never knew if this movie would ever even get out to the public. I personally didn’t feel like we’d hit anything culturally until somebody sent me a T-shirt from the [1992] Clinton-Gore campaign. And the front of the T-shirt said, ‘Bill and Al’s Excellent Adventure,’ and the back of it says, ‘George and Dan’s Bogus Journey,’ and I thought, ‘Whoa, did we actually put a footprint in culture?’”

Of course, “Whoa” was among the film’s biggest contributions to pop culture — not to mention their excited exclamation of “Excellent!” and their constant use of “dude” in every situation. Soon, the whole world was talking like these SoCal bros, adopting Bill and Ted’s laid-back worldview. And although the movie goofed on its famous figures — Napoleon (Terry Camilleri) is just a twit — our heroes were here to impart an important message: “Be excellent to each other.” Oh, and also, “Party on, dudes!” Who could argue with that philosophy? 

Has it held up? Considering the amount of excitement surrounding the release of last year’s Bill & Ted Face the Music, it’s clear there’s still enormous affection for the original film and the series in general. Reeves has gone on to be a global superstar thanks to the Matrix and John Wick franchises, but there’s still a lot of Ted within him. (It didn’t hurt that his Matrix character, Neo, also says, “Whoa.”) And Winter has focused on a directing career, which has produced a series of pointed political documentaries, as well as the recent HBO doc Showbiz Kids, a touching look at the perils of being a young actor in Hollywood. Still, he knows what role defines him. “I think it’s sweet that people will say, ‘He was Bill,’” Winter said, “because I like Bill & Ted. It was a very happy experience for me. I certainly understand why [people] would say that — it’s certainly the thing that’s had the most global awareness.”

The original movie remains a low-key charmer, even though its writers acknowledge that an unfortunate strain of homophobic humor slightly mars the experience now. Asked what he would go back in time to tell himself, Matheson recently replied, “Don’t write that gay joke, Chris. It’s a bad joke. Don’t write that joke.” And when Bill & Ted Face the Music was in the early stages a couple of years ago, Winter noted on Twitter that the first two films’ use of an offensive homophobic epithet “speaks to the insensitivity of those times, that none of us are proud of. And certainly don’t intend to repeat.”

True to his word, Bill and Ted had grown up for the 2020 film, still dumb and still sweet, but no longer using that kind of language. What was always appealing about Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure — beyond the catchphrases and the funny historical figures and that time-traveling phone booth — was the optimistic idea at its core that teenage boys don’t have to be mean. Bill and Ted aren’t necessarily cool, but they love their lives and each other. They didn’t smoke pot to be that way — kindhearted was their natural state. You could see why they’d be the secret to a future utopian society. 

Tim Grierson is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Will Leitch review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.