As a longtime Saturday Night Live sketch player and brain behind the Austin Powers and Wayne’s World franchises, Mike Myers has created a massive number of quotable jokes. Among those that have lingered is the evergreen “not!” joke — that is, the seemingly genuine assertion followed by a loud exclamation of “Not!” (To quote Wayne in Wayne’s World, which came out 25 years ago this month, speaking to the inventor of a hair-removal system called the Suck Cut: “What a totally amazing, excellent discovery — not!”)
Since it was popularized in the early ’90s by Myers and Dana Carvey, a.k.a. Wayne’s sidekick Garth Algar, it’s never entirely disappeared; it popped back up in Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat and in a tweet from Donald Trump. Here, Myers talks about the “not!” joke’s origins, its connection to 16th-century academic Sir Thomas Bodley, and how it feels to have people yell old jokes at him in the street.
Vulture: It might just be how seamlessly it fits into the world of Wayne Campbell, but the “not!” joke feels like it could easily be a part of your suburban Ontario metalhead childhood. Was it observed first, or did you write it?
Mike Myers: It was definitely observed first, and absorbed. With a lot of things I’ve worked on that end up in the culture, none of it is engineered. I don’t have a laboratory with the target demographic attached. Having parents that had a different accent than me — they grew up in Liverpool and came to Canada — you get very attuned to how different people talk and the various ways that things are said. That’s the basis of anything that I do: I like earworms, things that stick out to me.
Do you remember hearing it when you were a kid?
I spoke that way. That’s the thing. With what little traveling I did, the universality of the suburban, heavy metal, adolescent experience was mind-blowing. I remember a soccer tournament and these kids from Argentina were like, “Oh, we sit in our basement and listen to Led Zeppelin,” and they had long hair and denim jackets with the Zeppelin ZoSo symbols. I was just like, Wow. It never goes away. There’s always that heavy-metal kid with the denim jacket and the long hair.
How much do you think this joke is a specific product of the ’90s, when sarcasm was becoming more prevalent?
It’s just adolescent. It’s ham-fisted rebellion, you know? I’m going to comply with you, but I’m not really complying with you. That would be the mathematics of it. Also, strangely enough, I was really, really interested in integers. The negative symbol. One of the best pieces of fan mail I ever got was from a mathematician who said it was Bodleian [after Sir Thomas Bodley]. He sent me the formula for “not.”
How do you recognize those earworms you mentioned?
I can’t remember, in Three Days of the Condor, Max von Sydow says, “A man will approach you. He will hold open the door.” Not, “He’ll hold the door open.” [Laughs] Now I can’t say, “I will hold the door open for you,” I have to say, “I will hold open the door for you.” I don’t even know why. It just stuck in my head.
And you try to mimic that sort of irresistible oddity when you script things?
It’s as whimsical as that. It’s just, “Oh, that was cool. Remember … ?” That’s the fun of it.
How did you feel when the “not!” joke had a resurgence in the Borat movie?
There hasn’t been a particular season for anything I have made. Because I have three kids now, I am constantly getting sick. You know when you’re so sick that you can’t even sleep? All I could do was watch TV for 18 hours, and there were about 11 Wayne’s World references. Eleven Wayne’s World references in an 18-hour period! It was unbelievably flattering. The amount of whimsy that goes into things — that’s what’s so gratifying, how whimsical it is.
What about last year’s Donald Trump tweet, dissing Obama with a “not!” joke?
Again, it’s strange, just that it has embedded itself into the culture. How did that happen?
How strange was it to see the joke used in a political context?
It’s not the first time. George Bush had done it, Bill Clinton had done it, and Tony Blair had done it. I don’t really remember that well — when you have three kids in five years, there’s time before the kids, and time after the kids, and it sort of all becomes a blur. But I have lots of friends send me stuff they come across. That’s always the same. How fantastic — in the true meaning of the word, a fantasy — and weird.
It occurred to me that it’s a really simple construction that can turn anyone into a comedian instantly, so long as they follow the formula. You lead someone down a path and —
There is the final negation. Yeah, I do love when things have a home version.
After all these years, when someone runs up to you and says, for the millionth time, “Hey, Mike, I like that jacket — not!” and thinks they’re hilarious, is it possible to love the thing you set in motion?
Only evermore, to be honest. There’s no guarantee that anything is going to be anything, so to me, every time, I’m shocked by it. This is the thing: The majority of interactions on that level are so unbelievably nice and affirming and positive. And every time, I’m like, Wow, that happened. That’s crazy.