In 1989, two teenagers used a magic telephone booth to travel through time to finish a school project. For many people around their age, the movie about those teenagers, Bill S. Preston Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan, enshrined them in pop culture history: excellent avatars for a generation of affable, shaggy slackers.
For people around that age now — 31 years later, in an era without phone booths — very little of a new movie released on Friday about Bill and Ted in middle age makes any sense.
So two representatives of Gen X, Johnny Diaz and Azi Paybarah, volunteered to explain the appeal of “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” to two members of Gen Z, Christina Morales and Bryan Pietsch. The following is an edited and condensed version of that attempt to take Christina and Bryan through time.
Before the movie …
Azi and Johnny, set the scene. What was life like in the sepia-toned days of the late ’80s and early ’90s?
Johnny: Ahh, the early ’90s. Michael Keaton was Batman. Mustangs, Miatas and Camaros were popular. So were “Saved by the Bell” and “90210.” Trips to Blockbuster were routine. MTV was in vogue. Thanks to Madonna, just about everyone was trying to figure out how to vogue. Tie-dye shirts, jean shorts and Keds sneakers (at least in South Florida). Mullets.
Azi: At home, you shared a landline. If you weren’t home and someone called, it would just ring and ring.
So how do Bill and Ted enter into this?
Johnny: Bill and Ted are two California slackers with very good heads of hair and big heavy metal dreams. They have to pass history class in order to save the future by time-traveling in a phone booth — their version of the DeLorean from “Back to the Future” — to collect a handful of famous historical figures for their class project. Amazingly, everyone is able to squeeze into the booth.
Azi: Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon and Socrates walk into a mall. Two kids will write a song that brings peace to the galaxy, but they can’t get through history class. It’s ridiculously aspirational (world peace!) and absurdly low risk.
Christina and Bryan, Does any of this seem familiar? Phone booths? Heavy metal? Keanu Reeves?
Bryan: My third grade classroom had an out-of-order telephone booth that we would hang out in for silent reading time, but I’ve never used one to make a call. People still did that in the early ’90s?
Christina: I have heard of phone booths, George Carlin and Keanu Reeves. But the only memory I have of a phone booth is seeing one of those classic red ones in London … at Epcot. My familiarity with Keanu Reeves is through YouTube pop culture. I first Googled him when Trisha Paytas made videos with a cardboard cutout of him.
What do you think this movie is about?
Bryan: If you just told me the title, I would think it was about two lame bachelors who were having some sort of life struggle.
Christina: I don’t even know where to begin, but it sounds like a mix of “Weird Science,” speckled maybe with some “Dr. Who,” “The Magic School Bus” and two nerdy best friends.
Does any of this seem appealing? Or dusty and old?
Bryan: Time-travel movies are always fun. And nothing’s too dusty and old for me! Except maybe silent films.
Christina: I second Bryan. I especially like the essence of “Back to the Future” with historical figures. That being said: Anything that’s from the ’90s is dusty and old. But it doesn’t mean it’s lost its worth.
Had you heard of Bill and Ted? Do you think they’ve influenced other movies?
Bryan: In the words of Keke Palmer, “Sorry to this man,” but I hadn’t heard of Bill and Ted until we started talking about them on Slack. Maybe they’ve had an impact that I didn’t know about.
Christina: When I asked my younger brother about them, we both assumed this was related to the movie “Ted,” with the crude teddy bear and Mark Wahlberg.
Bryan: The title also conjured images of a teddy bear in my head.
After the movie …
In 1989, a reviewer for The New York Times called the first adventure “a painfully inept comedy” whose heroes were “inconsistent ciphers” and “fond of odd words, such as bodacious.” (You can read A.O. Scott’s review of the new movie, “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” here.) Where do your reviews land?
Bryan: My first laugh-out-loud moment in the movie was not from intentional comedy but from a sad irony. In the opening scene, Rufus, the time-travel sherpa, says that in the year 2688, “The air is clean, the water is clean, even the dirt is clean.” I’m anticipating that by the end of the century, people will be breathing out of tanks and there will be no water.
In a more clearly fun note: Bill’s crop top is totally back in style now, thanks to TikTok teens.
A not fun note: I thought it was cute when Bill and Ted hug each other after Ted survives a close call with a knight. But then they use a homophobic slur, a sign of how times have changed.
Christina: I also laughed at the line about the clean Earth — it’s sad that it was funny, but the irony lands the same. The movie was honestly the comedic relief I needed in 2020, even if some of the comedy doesn’t hit the most favorable note today, as Bryan said. (Like the weird sexualization of Bill and Ted’s classmate who becomes Bill’s stepmother.)
But like Bryan, there were tons of funny quotes and scenes that made me laugh, like “Caesar is the salad dressing dude.” It was also funny to see the special effects and what was thought modern in the late 1980s, like the idea that the future would be so influenced by rock ’n’ roll greats.
And some of the movie is just perennial teenage humor, like when Bill and Ted pick the number 69 or when Ted says, “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.” Like, duh, but it’s still hilarious.
Johnny and Azi, do you feel vindicated? Have you already seen the new movie?
Azi: I haven’t seen the movie, but I heard an NPR podcast review it, which feels like the perfect encapsulation of how I’ve outgrown the franchise — and which is what the Bill and Ted trilogy has tried to do, pivoting the story to their daughters and wives. What made us laugh back then would make us cringe today.
So it feels like a victory, dusting off these characters and rewriting the story to appeal more to a new generation, rather than recycle jokes for an older one.
Johnny: I couldn’t resist. I coughed up $20 to watch it. I wanted to see how their wacky humor held up (it did) and how their charming friendship endured (it’s everlasting). This was a fun nostalgia trip with two middle-aged guys who are only slightly more mature. It was great to see the next generation, their daughters, carry on the family tradition of bringing humanity into rhythm and harmony. And even 30 years later, the guys still rock great heads of hair.