Movies

Whither The Weasel? Pauly Shore Reflects On The 30th Anniversary Of ‘Encino Man’

When this year’s Oscars telecast included a lengthy 30th-anniversary tribute to White Men Can’t Jump (one of many things thankfully overshadowed by The Slap), it felt like sort of an arbitrary choice. It’s a fun movie, but… why that one? It was never even nominated for an Oscar. Aren’t there countless other movies the same age that are roughly as successful and as memorable? Which got me to thinking: as long as we were doing the movie equivalent of Let’s Remember Some Guys, what other movies from 30 years ago would be fun to remember?

The answer I settled on almost immediately was Encino Man. The film, starring Sean Astin as an unpopular high school kid (sort of a proto-incel, when you watch it now) who, along with his friend Stoney (Pauly Shore) digs up a frozen caveman (Brendan Fraser) in his backyard, was released 30 years ago this week. Like most Pauly Shore films, it received mostly negative reviews (15% on RottenTomatoes), mostly unfairly so. Yet it remains one of those films about which people of my generation seem to have an encyclopedic recall, one of those undisputed cultural touchstones, like knowing all the words to the theme song from Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Encino Man lived at a weird nexus of pop culture, a sort of eighties hangover like much of pre-grunge early-90s artifacts (White Men Can’t Jump, for instance, plus Cross Colours, Kriss Kross, and Ugly Kid Joe’s “Everything About You“). It combined ubiquitous Mall Culture and the San Fernando Valley as center of civilization (Karate Kid, Bill & Ted, Fast Times At Ridgemont High) with Val-Speak and Surf Revival, using the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer plot template and sold on the strength of having an MTV personality in it when MTV was still basically the be-all and end-all of youth culture.

Encino Man was essentially a comedy vehicle meant to capitalize on Pauly Shore’s popularity as an MTV VJ (his show, Totally Pauly, in many ways a precursor to Beavis & Butthead, began airing in 1991). Its surprise success also helped launch Brendan Fraser as an actor and paved the way for another handful of Pauly Shore comedies (all of which, as you might’ve guessed, I have a soft spot for). Encino Man‘s conflict, between Astin’s failed 80s-style preppy (Ferris Bueller and Jake Ryan being successful examples), who wants to use the caveman as a ladder to popularity, and Shore’s alty, androgynous, live-and-let-live stoner (the drug use only heavily implied, this being a movie rated PG) feels almost like a passing of the cultural baton. It symbolically closed the book on 80s preppies while anticipating the sixties revivalism of the mid-90s.

It’s also imbued with that peculiar late eighties phenomenon of imagining mall culture broadly, and the San Fernando Valley in particular, as the pinnacle of Western Civilization. This was usually delivered in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek kind of way, but what both Bill & Ted (1989) and Encino Man (1992), and even to some extent Back To The Future were saying was, “What would the pillars of human existence think if they could see what had become of their project?” (Genghis Khan beating up mannequins at a mall sporting goods store in Bill & Ted’s being probably the greatest gag of this entire era).

Encino Man‘s success led to a handful more movies for Shore — Son In Law, In The Army Now, Bio-Dome — but to some extent he couldn’t escape the misfortune of having gotten famous introducing hair metal videos in the dying days of hair metal, poster boy for suddenly reviled trends. Shore seemed to become the fall guy for all of dopey SoCal surf guy culture once the vibe shift came. Obvious question, but one worth asking: did he really deserve it?

Shore was the son of Sammy and Mitzi Shore — Sammy being the original founder of the LA Comedy Store, with Mitzi taking it over after their divorce. Surrounded by an entire comedy microclimate (which still exists around The Store) by virtue of birth, Pauly, as he says “grew up on the Sunset Strip,” starting in standup comedy when he was still in high school. He developed a persona — “The Weasel,” basically, sort of Jeff Spicoli meets Jim Morrison, according to Shore himself. This persona, developed when Shore was a teenager, was such a bullseye for his pop-cultural milieu that he was basically a superstar by the time he was 21. And unlike, say, Andrew Dice Clay, whose stage persona was a misogynistic asshole, Pauly Shore’s alter-ego was basically a lovable stoner who liked chilling out, eating junk food, and chatting up girls while their meathead boyfriends were elsewhere acting tough.

That he seems so relatively pleasant and harmless, especially by the standards of virtually everything else from the late 80s, probably makes it easier to look back fondly at Pauly Shore movies and Pauly Shore’s heyday in general. There’s also probably some shame involved. Did we collectively decide to hate this guy just because he was suddenly uncool? Why did we punish Pauly Shore for giving us exactly what we wanted?

These days, Shore, an admirably youthful 54, is still an interesting character, though he clearly doesn’t do introspection as well (or maybe just as eagerly) as we in the think-piece writing industry might like. Halfway through some of my questions I’d realize I was doing the equivalent of asking a professional athlete to write me a poem about one of their plays. Silly. You don’t need to know the tides to ride a wave.

Even if Shore isn’t a naturally cerebral guy, he is still funny and thoughtful, uniquely vulnerable/lovable, as apt to say something that sounds spookily insightful as he is to say something that sounds charmingly naive or insane. It’s sometimes hard to tell when he’s messing with you or just being naturally eccentric. Which was probably always part of his appeal, that ability to keep us on our toes. It fits well with his current status, stuck between inspiring envy for his massive success and sympathy for having been unfairly maligned and spit out by the cultural machine that created him. He remains this mix of relatable and utterly exotic.

Hey, how’s it going?

Good. Rock and roll, bro. Wow, you’re even crustier than me, dude, look at your bed. That’s funny. I like Zooms, because you can find out who the fuck people really are, you know?

Yeah, I tried to wear a collar, even though I know it doesn’t help or mean anything, but I guess I thought it might give me like a vague air of professionalism.

That’s cool. All right, let’s knock this out.

So 30 years since Encino Man, have you done any other 30th anniversary interviews or promotions for it?

Every second of my life this whole week, that’s all people have been talking about. I mean, I even got a call from Johnny Depp, he says, “Look, I know I’m on trial for all this shit, but dude, you got to make sure everyone knows that Encino Man is 30 years old.” No. No, I don’t know. All my movies, not just Encino Man, there’s a soft spot for me. I enjoyed all of them, and I’m happy that people also enjoy them, based off of what it’s like when I walk down the street, or I’m at the airport or I’m on stage. People love Encino Man. I guess you could call it, what is it, life is not a sprint, it’s a marathon, right?

Yeah. And a box of chocolates.

The what?

And a box of chocolates.

And some chocolates.

So Encino Man was basically your Totally Pauly character/persona, as adapted into a movie character, right?

It just kind of turned out that way. I was hot on MTV at the time. Disney was making the movie. It wasn’t written the way it was written at the time. Peter Paterno, who ran Hollywood Records, mentioned me to Jeffrey Katzenberg. They sat and watched Totally Pauly. They brought me in, I got offered the role, and they told me to help rewrite one of the roles in the film that was previously written to my style. So, originally, I don’t remember what the character’s name was, but it wasn’t Stoney, that’s for sure. So I think I interwove my Totally Pauly persona into this character, and made him, I don’t know, more real. And there was some drama in the film, obviously, with the third act, where Sean’s character is trying to get rid of the caveman and there’s this heartfelt scene on the road. And so yeah, I think it was Totally Pauly with heart, maybe, yeah.

So this was like a persona that you’d created for standup and MTV. How much of you was in that? How much of it was like a separate personality that you’d sort of created for comedy?

69%.

Nice.

I don’t know. It’s kind of a blurred line. I grew up on the Sunset Strip. I grew up wearing my mom’s clothes. I grew up loving Steven Tyler. And I grew up at the Store, and I grew up rock n roll and that’s kind of who I was. So I definitely wasn’t Paul Reubens with Pee-wee Herman, where Paul Reubens is this guy and then Pee-wee Herman is completely different, it was very much who I am. I’m uneducated. I never went to school. I didn’t go to college. My college was MTV. I knew as a young kid I wanted to get into standup. I love making people laugh. So I grabbed the mic at 17 years old, and just started knocking out standup, and trying to figure it out. And then five years later, I mean, it took me, ’85, ’86 is when I started standup. And then I hit on MTV, what, four or five years later. So it was about a five-year development thing, and then once MTV hit that timing was right on. I kind of developed it while I was on camera.

So when this was going on, the phenomenon of Val-speak and the Valley Girl, and just the San Fernando Valley as a cultural center was sort of happening. Do you think that sort of influenced the persona?

I mean, you can say I’m a little bit Valley Girl, little bit Jeff Spicoli, little bit Bill & Ted’s, little bit Jim Morrison. I don’t know. I mean, we all are influenced by people around us, so I was just a sponge. But I’m authentically Sunset Strip, I’ve been there since I was born. That was what I saw. I was watching a Dave Grohl special recently where he talks about, I don’t want to say “stealing,” but that drum beat from Teen Spirit with the disco beat, but that’s what he pretty much said. As a kid, we’re, we’re all sponges. I’m a little bit Sam Kinison. I’m a little bit Steven Tyler, and then also myself, so I don’t know.

The movie is set in the Valley and it’s basically like, what if a caveman came back to life and became a mall kid of the late ’80s or whatever. What was it about mall culture that it seemed like every comedy in that era was about that and the San Fernando Valley?

Well, let me answer the first question. So to me, Encino Man was very much like the movie ET, where ET is this kind of alien, and then there are these real characters around him, but the alien had heart. And so we didn’t treat the caveman like it was the caveman, he became our friend. So that’s the first thing that I thought really made sense, and why I think one of the elements of why the movie to this day, people really like. Because there’s something to be said about treating everyone equal, especially in this time and age, with the race stuff and all that stuff.

And then as far as the mall stuff, I mean, Mall Rats, mall this, mall that, Fast Times, and that was kind of our Amazon in those days. In the ’80s and ’90s, everyone just went to the mall. Now, I live in Vegas, but I go to LA a lot, and you look at the Beverly Center in LA, and it’s just this big eyesore. It doesn’t make sense to even go in there anymore, but back when I was growing up, the Beverly Center was awesome. Like, “Yo, let’s meet at the Beverly Center.” You know what I mean? There’s the food court and there’s the shopping, but no one shops at stores anymore, they order shit. So it’s just, that’s what it was.

I mean, that was like a thing that people did, but I also feel like movies around that time, like this one and Bill & Ted, and some other movies of the time, it feels like part of the joke is treating mall culture as the pinnacle of Western civilization. Like, “it’s all been leading up to this!” I feel like that is not a thing in comedy now. What was it about that era that made people like to look at themselves as like, “we are standing at the high point of civilization?”

Well, it’s kind of like TikTok now. All the kids are on TikTok. So back in the ’80s and ’90s, all the cool kids went to the mall. There’s no real answer to it. It’s just the way it was back then.

Do you feel like you had that experience at all? Or was growing up on the Strip a different thing?

No, I’ve been going to malls my whole life. I mean, back when I was a kid. I mean, I even did a movie called Phantom of the Mall, where we were in the mall. It was just, I don’t know, it’s where all the kids went. And at the time, the kids, as you know, they run the world.

This movie did a lot for you, though I mean, you were already sort of hot off MTV, but it seemed like it made Brendan Fraser’s career, to a certain extent. What did you think of him at the time?

Well, the best comedy comes from comedians playing off of really good actors. Brendan Fraser is a really good actor. And when he played the caveman, he became the caveman. It wasn’t like he was playing a caricature of it. You really felt like he was that guy. So that was one of the, I guess, genius parts of Brendan, was the way he played that role. And it made my comedy better, because he was so serious and real, and that’s what I adored about him.

He gets some nice slapstick moments. I know he’s the straight man–

Yeah, but that’s after he’s locked into the character. After he’s locked into like looking around and smelling and being kind of animalistic. And then once he starts to get more comfortable, then, yeah, he becomes a little wackier.

What do you remember from the set? What was shooting the movie like?

Sean Astin and I were very different. He came from kind of a different world of acting than I did. And, again, I think that lent itself to us popping off of each other. So it wasn’t like Bill & Ted’s where it’s like those two characters are exactly the same. So I really liked that, that he was kind of very vanilla, and very kind of rated G and very kind of conservative. And I liked the fact that I wasn’t. I think, again, comedically that worked. And I thought that’s part of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s, genius who ran the studio at the time, making sure that he cast the right people around me. Because I was the first cast in the movie. They actually wanted me to play the caveman.

Really?

So we meet and I say, “I’m not playing the caveman.” I go, “Cavemans don’t speak. I have a language. I have a style. I have a persona.” And then from there [Jeffrey Katzenberg] says, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I want to rewrite the best friend with the writer and make me the best friend, the third lead in it.” He says, “Go for it.”

So I worked with the writers, Shawn Schepps and George Zaloom and the director, and I basically changed the best friend role that was originally written, which was kind of like two versions of Sean Astin, you know what I mean? Those type of guys.

Do you feel like you became a victim of the popularity of the persona that you’d created towards the later ’90s or early 2000s?

I mean, I don’t think, it’s true. It’s hard to sustain that. I was doing albums. I was doing HBO specials. I was doing MTV. I was starring in movies. I was touring. Shit’s going to come crashing down, and I had a good run. And fortunately for me, I was able to realize that it was a run and I saved my money, and I stepped away and did other things. And here we are 30 years later talking about a movie that maybe at the time, critics and people didn’t appreciate. But as time goes on, everyone has realized, pretty much all the movies I did were successful, and have made a lot of money for the studios, based off of them licensing it. I know Son in Law is the number one rated film on CMT all the time.

All of them are movies that I think people of my generation watched over and over, to the point where they’re kind of just part of our cultural vernacular or whatever. But going back to creating that persona, I was reading an article where someone was interviewing you, I think it was like ’91 or ’92, you were 21 years old. And they were doing the thing that they did in almost every article, where they have definitions of the slang that you’ve created for your show. They were asking you the same question that I was asking you, which was like, how much of this persona is you? And how much of it is a stage persona?

And you said something like, “This way that I’m talking is going to go away and I’m still going to be around.” It felt like you were basically predicting that you were going to get trapped in that persona, to a certain extent, which seemed crazy for someone who was like 21 at the time. But it felt like you kind of knew what you were doing. That you were sort of creating this persona, but that you knew you were going to outlive the persona.

[Quote: from The Boston Globe, June 17th, 1991: “”I know I’m gonna be around for a long time, and I don’t think that character or that thing will be. It’s been done. Of course, I say ‘dude’ once in a while. I never say ‘awesome’ or ‘radical’ though.” ]

It’s interesting, because in our business, and I’ve said this a thousand times in a thousand interviews, and I’ll say it again, because I believe it: we work so hard to create our own kind of stamp and our own imprint and style. And then we work so hard to get away from that imprint and style. It’s like a double-edged sword. So like they said, time heals all wounds. Does that make sense?

Yeah.

I’ve been gone for a while, and people, I feel, are rooting for me, because they know I never did anything harmful. I just did my acting and my movies. And then people scratch their head, and go, “Wait, these things were awesome.” And they’re like, “Fuck, where’s Pauly Shore?” And then I go out on tour and I sell shows out, because people miss me and they love me. And they remember those times. And when I’m in my autograph line, after my shows, people cry, more than once, “Because of you, I was able to say goodbye to my father, because we used to watch Son in Law all the time. It was our movie.” “Because of you, I have a tattoo all over my leg.” “Because of the wheezing the juice, I got a da, da da.” “Because of the leaning tower of cheeza…”

I mean, it just goes down the line. And I pat myself on the back, I was obviously very sensitive when I came crashing down, and I was very hurt by what people were saying, but like I said, time heals all wounds, and I pat myself on the back a lot now and I say, “Hey, you did all right.”

When you say like, “Things hurt,” you mean like The Razzies and things like that? [four wins, five nominations]

I don’t know. You want to be liked, let’s be honest. I didn’t care so much about the critics until I stopped getting offered big films. And when that started happening, then I started believing it more. And that’s when I did Pauly Shore is Dead, which, to me, is my best film. I don’t know if you ever saw that, but it took me five years to make it, and it was awesome. Not only do I think it was one of the funniest films I did, it was also one of the darkest films I did. And it was before Curb Your Enthusiasm, it was before Being John Malkovich, it was before this movie that Nicholas Cage just came out with where he plays himself. I did it first. We shot it on HD. The only people that were shooting HD at the time was me and George Lucas. So if you research that, I shot that in 2000, and I was able to make fun of the fact that my career was fucked. And to me, Pauly Shore is Dead is the beginning of the second part of my career. So now when people talk shit about me, which believe it or not isn’t that often, thank God, I see a lot of love.

It seems like there’s enough distance now to understand that you sort of created that persona. And it was a smart persona that worked and was funny. But it seems like there’s a process of pop culture, where it’s like, we want to binge on something so much that we get nauseous on it. And then we blame the thing for it. It seemed like people were like, “Oh, we want the weasel. Give us more of that.” And they binged on it to the point that they got mad at it.

It got old! It got old. So yeah.

But they couldn’t separate the fact that you created that from the fact that a persona is like any joke that was funny at the time.

And then, also, when stuff slowed down for me and I stopped getting the offers, and then Hollywood was kind of distancing themself from me, I had two choices to make. I could have patted myself on the back, and been like, “Wow, man, you had an awesome run. Chill out for a couple of years. Go away.” That’s what would’ve been the right thing to do. But the wrong thing to do, which is what I did, which was follow my heart, was I fired everyone. I wasn’t blaming them for my career, I fired everyone because I wanted to just be alone. I wanted to be alone, and I wanted to start relating to people more. I was 30 when shit started slowing down, and I wanted to connect with America. So that’s when I hit the road, and my standup to me got better and more real and it was more relatable because I was the guy that got spit out. Everyone has gotten spit out before. So immediately I related. I did an album called Hollywood, We’ve Got a Problem, which did really well for me. And I really learned how to make shit from scratch, based off of the fact that I fired everyone.

Now, the other option would’ve been, don’t fire everyone, chill the fuck out, relax, go to Bali, go surfing, and just chill and let the stock stay down, and eventually the stock will go up, and then, I’ll be like Howie Mendel or some shit, where I start hosting game shows, and da, da, da, da, da. But my heart got in the way of my mind. I should have listened to my mind, but I didn’t. But in return, looking back, I think I did make the right choice, because I put myself, by myself, out in the world. I learned how to figure shit out. I started producing and directing and writing and starring in several projects, which made me a really good director, and a really good writer and all that shit. And I possibly feel that, if I didn’t spit myself out with no representation, I don’t know if I would’ve ever learned all that shit. And now the internet came, I can make anything. I belong on a movie set. That’s where my home is, helping people make movies.

Do you think you’re more at home there than doing standup? I mean, you’ve had a pretty consistent career in comedy for a long time.

I like doing movies better, because it’s harder, and it’s a bigger payoff. I love acting with other actors on camera. I love playing off them. I love that back and forth. It’s kind of like a tennis player, he loves to just compete, you know? Or a UFC fighter, loving to scrap with this buddy in the gym, I love acting with good actors. It’s my number one thing.

Do you miss the days when MTV was this sort of cultural juggernaut that influenced all of youth culture?

I miss the days of old Hollywood. Meaning, the simplicity of it. Now it’s pretty much white noise. Everyone has got a podcast. Everyone has got a this. Everyone… You know what I mean? There’s too many channels. So I stay in my lane, I create my own stuff, and I’m happy I got in when I got in. And I’m glad I’m not trying to make it now, in this fucking day and age. But the upside to these days is that anyone can do it, and I think that’s awesome. I can come up with an idea today and I don’t have to pitch it to my agent and my manager and get funding and go to a studio and develop it for six months to a year. I can develop it and put it online right now. Will the marketing be as big? Absolutely not. But will I get out what I wanted to get out? Probably yes.

Do you have any projects that you’re working on that you’re excited about?

Well, they keep circling with Bio-Dome 2 and Encino Man 2, so we’re talking about that. If you go on my website, there’s a treatment and a film that I wrote with a friend called Stuck in the Hood, which is basically, I’d say, like Son in Law meets Fridays. You know? And it’s me with a whole bunch of black actors, and it’s a fish out of water, and my character saves the hood. And at the end I bring the blacks and the whites together. And it’s, obviously, a timely piece, because of what’s going on in the world of the race. But I think I’m the only kind of white comedic actor that could pull this off. So I’m reaching out to all my black comedian friends, and I’m trying to get this thing produced and financed. I think it’s a really funny idea. And you could tell your fans and the people that are listening to this to go to my website, and read it, it just called Stuck in the Hood.

Other than that, I’ve been working on my one-man show, which is called Stick With The Dancing: Stories in My Childhood. It’s kind of my version of Mike Tyson’s Undisputed Truth, where it’s all my stories of my childhood leading up to the guy before I made it to MTV. So it’s all the shit around the Store and all that stuff. So I’ve been doing that. Oh and don’t forget at my band, the Crustys. So I have a band, if you go to YouTube and you see my band, it’s me and these old guys, it’s awesome.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.

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