We can learn a lot from Bill and Ted.
I’ve long called myself a child of the 80s, but that doesn’t quite fit. I vaguely remember when Mt. St. Helens blew and when the hostages got released from Iran. I’m a tad to young for either to have influenced me.
But I’m not a child of the 90s, either. I’m way too old to be able to distinguish between punk and ska or half the boy bands that popped up. I’m solidly high school class of 1992.
And that means I was just the right age, a high school freshman, to fall in love with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
It was the first movie I saw multiple times in the theater, which is saying something, seeing as I had no job and no driver’s license. I literally scrounged coins from the couch to see it again and again.
Later, as a parent of four, I did my due diligence to be sure my children were raised properly. Naturally, that means appreciating the classics my parents raised me on (including White Christmas, Lawrence of Arabia, the Rat Pack, and Hitchcock).
But it also meant making sure that my children were familiar with important cinema from my youth.
And Bill and Ted are right at the top of that list.
My kids can quote the film. (*sniff* I’m so proud.)
I’m even prouder that on learning a friend hasn’t seen it, my children become properly horrified and correct the glaring gap in their peers’ cultural literacy.
I’m just one of millions who adore this movie and have passed that love on to the next generation. I’m one of millions who celebrated the announcement of a Bill and Ted’s reunion film, the same people who have been counting down until its release.
(Bill and Ted Face the Music is out NOW! It’s in some theaters, and it’s also available for streaming!)
When the original film hit the world in 1989, it became a unicorn of influence: the kind of movie that can’t be planned but is nearly perfect and influences us all, settling into our cultural landscape for good.
For me, I think part of the fun was that Bill (Alex Winter) reminded me of my brother, who is almost exactly the same age. Mix Bill with Goose, and I swear, that’s my brother in 1989. (He’s been told a lot that he looks like Goose, but I swear, a lot of Bill’s in there, too.)
I believe that the movie struck a chord for others because of a few important factors that too often, we — meaning audiences as well as creators — forget.
With mad props to the genius screenwriting team of Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, and with more lessons to come from them, I present:
4 Things Writers Can Learn from Bill & Ted
Audiences Are Smart
By many measures, Bill and Ted as characters might not be the smartest bulbs, but the screenwriters assumed the audience would be.
Jokes and one-liners fly with abandon, and not once do they stop to make sure the audience caught it. Not once did they have a character explain that the philosopher’s name isn’t pronounced SEW-CRATES, that the last name of the famous psychologist they took back to the future didn’t rhyme with DUDE. They assumed the audience would figure it out, and if someone didn’t (say, the six-year-old in the second row), no worries — the show would have plenty more fun stuff.
This approach to the film not only made it delightful to watch; it also made it infinitely rewatchable. Some jokes get funnier the second and third and fourth time, and I caught a few lines as an adult that went over my head as a teen. And remember, I loved this movie as a teen. That didn’t mean I needed to understand every word.
Innocence Is Awesome
You could also call this one a lack of guile: Bill and Ted possess an attitude that makes them eager to learn and do. They aren’t “slackers.” Rather they have a childlike innocence — not naivete but and underlying goodness and belief in the goodness of others. Sometimes that innocence leads to not quite grasping consequences. That is arguably immaturity (see every teenager ever), but not stupidity.
Consider how they study history before Rufus shows up with the phone booth: they go to the Circle K and literally ask random strangers for help. And they assume that others will be happy to oblige.
“Excuse me, do you know when the Mongols ruled China?” Ted asks of a cashier heading inside.
They always assume the best of others, even when they’re back in Medieval times and face the torture device called the iron maiden. Naturally, they think of the rock band and celebrate with air guitars.
When they visit ancient Greece and learned that “The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing,” Bill’s eye open wide, and he declared, “That’s Us, Dude!”
A lack of knowledge isn’t a lack of intelligence.
Unlike some claim, Bill and Ted aren’t stupid, and the film isn’t a celebration of stupidity.
They learn as the movie goes — maybe not how to pronounce Socrates, but plenty of other things. By the time they give their speech, they’ve gone from not knowing when the Mongols ruled China to being able to talk about their leader.
Here’s how they introduce Genghis Khan:
BILL: It is indeed a pleasure to introduce to you a gentleman we picked up in medieval Mongolia in the year 1269.
TED: Please welcome, the very excellent barbarian…
BILL & TED: Mr. Genghis Khan!
TED: This is a dude who, 700 years ago, totally ravaged China, and who, we were told, 2 hours ago, totally ravaged Oshman’s Sporting Goods.
Stupid? Not hardly.
Influence Go Both Ways
As writers, Chris and Ed knew that Bill and Ted would definitely be affected by their adventure and the many historical figures they encountered.
They also knew that those characters would be influenced by Bill and Ted in return.
We’re all affected by one another, which, frankly, is the theme and point of the whole movie.
That very theme is summed up by one of their new historical friends, a man who, we can imagine, went back to his time of the U.S. Civil War and abolished slavery after embracing the catchphrase the film is known for, which he declares at the end of the movie:
“Be excellent to each other.”
(And let’s not forget: “And party on, dudes!”)
Annette Lyon is a USA Today bestselling author, an 8-time Best of State fiction medalist in Utah, and Whitney Award winner. She’s authored over a dozen books, including the Whitney Award-winning Band of Sisters, a chocolate cookbook, and a grammar guide, and is a regular contributor to the Timeless Romance Anthology series, and has a particular love of historical women’s fiction. Annette is represented by Heather Karpas at ICM Partners. Learn more: https://taplink.cc/annette.lyon