People weren’t quite sure what to make of Mike Myers’ (alleged) hosting gig as Tommy Maitland on the new Gong Show. Why the makeup? Why the backstory? “The novelty of Maitland’s presence on The Gong Show, however, becomes tired quickly,” wrote Decider’s Jade Budowski. “With such a great lineup of judges, why not just let Myers host the show as his kooky real-life persona?” The thing is, Myers doesn’t have a real-life persona. Like Peter Sellers, Mike Myers seems to be more comfortable behind a character – preferably one with an accent and maybe a prosthesis or two. That isn’t to say we don’t know the real, hardworking, staunchly Canadian Mike Myers. We just have to find him in his work.
Auteur theory, popularized by Cahiers du Cinema and the French New Wave, posits that the director is the true author of a film. Using the camera like a pen, the director employs angles and cuts to write his movie (and it’s usually his movie). Each film then becomes a window onto the director’s soul: his preoccupations, his tastes, his deepest held beliefs. You can do the same thing watching the work of writer-performers. An Apatow joint is different from a Showalter joint is different from a Lena Dunham. Mike Myers, notorious micro-manager, puts his fingerprint on everything his makes, starting with SNL and ending with The Gong Show.
Mike Myers was one of the most load-bearing players in his SNL years. “It inspires the hell out of me,” says UCB improviser/Broadway actor/fellow Mike Myers apologist Michael Hartney. “I picture that hungry young man sitting on the floor in the hallway of the 17th floor (when he got there, he didn’t have an office), just cranking out this gold like a one-man band. It’s almost superhuman.” His most famous recurring sketches were fake talk shows, with accents and wigs. He addressed the camera, he had catchphrases, he hung a lampshade on every TV convention. “I loved the way Wayne’s World deconstructed the conventions of TV hosts,” says Hartney. “Openly mocking guests, unnecessary zooms, and, as Wayne might put it, a tasteful melange of brow both high and low.” Openly mocking guests is a classic Myers move. He seems to take perverse delight in making the biggest cameos into the biggest losers on the planet.
Myers’ characters are all defined by their exterior. Wayne Campbell is a hat and an accent. Linda Richman is a wig and fake nails. Both Austin Powers and the soccer hooligan talk show host are defined by their teeth. Starting with SNL, Myers became comfortable with addressing the camera. The Wayne’s World films, the Austin Powerses, even The Love Guru sees the Myers character telling the audience things like his internal monologue and exposition. The character does this, but Myers never does. There’s always a mask in the way.
Myers’ characters always take center stage, yet the work isn’t character-driven. Many jokes throughout the Myers oeuvre are almost interchangeable. There’s a reliance on dad humor and puns (“Asphinctersayswhat,” “Who does Number 2 work for?”), cerebral observations from otherwise brain-dead characters, a smattering of racist, sexist, and ableist humor and of course, catchphrases. And no film series of the ‘90s spewed more catchphrases from its maw than Austin Powers 1-3.
My personal favorite convention of Myersian cinema are the musical numbers. In the first 30 minutes of Goldmember there are four musical set pieces. They are the only watchable parts of Goldmember, and not just because they are the most Beyonce-ful. I have watched the title sequence of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery more times than there are stars in the sky.
It’s a visual collage that gives me new tidbits with each viewing. There are references to Blow Out and A Hard Day’s Night, as well as a dance sequence lightly borrowed from Sweet Charity. Austin Powers’ style and occupation is a nod to Jason King and the Flint series. The visual style is as important to Austin Powers as the comedy. In fact, the two are inextricably linked. Austin Powers isn’t a fun misogynist unless he is a cartoonishly outdated misogynist. We can’t like him if we aren’t charmed by his outlandish look. The ‘60s of the Powersverse moved in time with Austin’s swinging beat. So when he’s thrust into the khaki ‘90s, he has to adapt. It’s the closest to a hero’s journey a Mike Myers film gets, save perhaps Shrek.
That’s not necessarily a criticism. Myers’ lack of consideration for plot is as telling as Jean Luc Goddard’s jump cuts in Breathless. Goddard didn’t make traditional cuts because he wanted to highlight the fakeness of film. Mike Myers will tell the camera the backstory and stakes of his film in the first ten minutes for the same reason. Myers simply doesn’t value plot, and that’s fine. In comedy plot is a nice addition, but not the backbone of the work. A comedy is still a comedy if it’s just a bunch of funny stuff happening, set piece after set piece. It’s not a comedy if there aren’t jokes.
What matters, then, to Mike Myers? Metanarrative, deconstruction, hockey. In every Mike Myers joint, a usually dumb character will say something uncharacteristically erudite. This is funny, because expectations and juxtaposition and what not, but it also highlights the fact that someone is writing this shit. An actor is acting words a writer has written, in a set a set decorator has decorated. Sponsored by Pizza Hut. Myers wants you to know this and reinforces the simulacra of it all every chance he gets. He calls out the obvious body doubling in Wayne’s World 2, the California doubling in The Spy Who Shagged Me, and someone else stunt doubling his gymnastic flips in the opening credits of both International Man of Mystery and The Love Guru.
Seen from this angle, Myers’ turn on The Gong Show isn’t a depressing career low point – it’s the perfect synergy of everything he holds dear. Accents, fake noses, speaking directly to camera, musical numbers, needlessly elaborate backstory, celebrities debasing themselves, even contortionists (which pop up in both Goldmember and The Love Guru). Most of all, it’s got good ol’ fashioned vaudeville flim-flam. There’s nothing more Mike Myers than someone very obviously in old age makeup with a fake British accent, except that person saying semi-rude things to Joel McHale. I’d like to think Myers was presented with an opportunity to phone it in for easy money, and decided to turn it into something fun. He took a potentially soul-sucking job and made it, for lack of a better word, shagadelic. And that’s my bag, baby.