The greatest Adam Sandler comedy of the 90s is turning 25 this year. Is it Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, or The Waterboy? Give up? Wrong, dickhead. Trick question. It’s Airheads, and Lemmy IS God. I didn’t mean to introduce myself so harshly, but if you’re an Airheads fan you probably forgive me to the extent that you aren’t stewing over me appropriating one of the movie’s most memorable quotes. Apart from being a memorable movie and former Comedy Central staple with likable characters and quotable lines, Airheads came out in 1994, the year that many consider to be heavily influential in film, television, music, and so formative on a personal level that I did a year long podcast talking about it. I did that podcast in 2018 so we were celebrating the 24th anniversary of everything, because I am an expert in taking a good idea and drowning it in a bathtub. The point is, 1994 was a great year for movies, and while Airheads was overshadowed by the Jim Carrey coming out party (Ace Ventura, The Mask, Dumb and Dumber. Same year. Insane) it retains a lot of love and residual goodwill from comedy fans.
Most of the movie’s strength comes from a very likable case that works well together. Brendan Fraser stars as Chazz, metalhead and frontman of The Lone Rangers, who has quixotic dreams of rock god-dom. Fraser is wonderful. He is like a gummy bear dipped in sunshine. He’s such a national treasure that Justin Bartha wants to travel all over DC helping you find him. The remainder of the singularly named band consists of Steve Buscemi and Adam Sandler. Buscemi is the band sleazeball, a role he really leans into (and then air humps), and he’s perfect. When I called this Adam Sandler’s best comedy of the 90s, I wasn’t entirely joking. In the role of Pip, Sandler plays the lovable dummy he popularized through many of his SNL characters, something he got away from in later starring roles when he became meaner and more aggressive. Pip golden retrievers his way into a girlfriend and the audience’s hearts.
The supporting cast is full of inspired performances, chief among them Michael McKean as the station manager and Joe Mantegna as DJ Ian “The Shark.” Would you believe that McKean’s character is smarmy? Chris Farley also plays a small role as a police officer and Michael Richards, Ernie Hudson, Amy Locane, Judd Nelson, Reg Cathey (also in The Mask), David, Arquette, and LEMMY! make appearances. I was certain Phil Hartman was in it as well until I checked the IMDB page a few minutes ago. He’s not, but can you imagine if he was? I bet he’d be very funny!
The plot is pretty straightforward, so I won’t spend too much time recounting it. Plus, if you had a cable subscription between 1997-2004 there’s a very good chance you’ve at least accidentally seen Airheads five or six times. The Lone Rangers are trying to get their demo played on the air at the radio station managed by Michael McKean. After failing, they pull out water pistols that look like real guns and take everybody in the station hostage, except for Michael Richards, who hides in the air ducts. Their demo is destroyed, the cops are called, there’s a standoff, Chris Farley scours the city for Chazz’s ex-girlfriend to get another copy of the demo, they make ridiculous demands (“naked pictures of Bea Arthur”), Chris Farley does some Chris Farley yelling, an opportunistic record executive played by Judd Nelson offers them a deal, they attempt to play an impromptu concert for the crowd assembled outside the station, they discover the instruments are fake and it’s just for show so they refuse to play along, win over the crowd, go to jail, and become a famous metal band. That’s Airheads in a nutshell.
Airheads is very much a movie of the 90s. It was the last era when the radio played an outsize role in determining the general public’s taste, and a performer could still get a break by having his or her song played on it a la Rodney on the ROQ. It also features the last vestiges of the LA metal scene, keeping the spandex industry in business and trying to keep a toe hold while being eclipsed by grunge and rap. Pip is a pool cleaner, the most 90s movie California job a person could have outside of guy who drives a dune buggy through a beach volleyball game. Since it’s the 90s and rock related, even Beavis and Butthead and Kurt Loder make cameos.
Even though it’s very of its time visually, Airheads has an enduring appeal because of the strength of its cast and the journey it depicts. There will always be creative people vying for their shot, and sometimes taking extraordinary steps to get it. While the medium has shifted to YouTube, Instagram, and SoundCloud, the motivation remains the same. Airheads bombed when it was released in August of 1994, but it’s stuck around in the edges of the comedy consciousness because of its message. And at least it aged a lot better than PCU.
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