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Mike Myers Wasn’t Meant to Last

In an age of irony and disillusionment, the ‘Austin Powers’ star served as a warm, goofy counterbalance. But Kanye West and ‘The Love Guru’ exposed the limits of his irreverent appeal

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

“The interesting thing about life is, there is what you think is going to happen, and what actually happens,” Mike Myers said in 2013. “When I graduated from high school, I got accepted to [the] York University Fine Arts film program. I had done a short film called Punk in Transit, about a punk rocker who gets beaten up on the subway in Toronto, an essay on the Louis Malle film Lacombe, Lucien, and another on The Spy Who Loved Me, at a time I had no idea I would make a movie called Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. I got the letter of acceptance my last day of high school. My last exam was at 9, my audition for Second City was at 12 and I was hired at 3. I had planned to go to school to study film. I was going to be like Cassavetes, acting in movies to pay for the films I would write and direct. Then I got on Saturday Night Live, I did Wayne’s World, and then Austin Powers.”

It’s hard to imagine that other version of Mike Myers, the indie auteur who scraped by, financing his passion projects through random acting jobs. For more than 30 years now, we’ve lived with the Mike Myers we all know — the global superstar, the guy who embodied some of the most popular comic creations of our lifetime. For a while there, you couldn’t escape him — nowadays, he seems to prefer being away from the limelight, although he’s finally back, starring in a Netflix series he created, The Pentaverate, which comes out Wednesday. It’s hard for me to be objective about Myers — I’ve actively disliked a lot of what made him beloved — and yet there’s no denying his cultural impact. But now that his superstar heyday is behind him, maybe it’s a little easier to look back and see how it all happened. 

Born in 1963, he grew up in Toronto, tormented by his older brothers and absolutely adoring his father Eric, who had moved to Canada from Liverpool with Myers’ mom Alice. “My heroes of comedy were also those of my father,” Myers once said. “Peter Sellers, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, the Pythons, Sir Alec Guinness. My dad was a guy who loved to be silly and do daft things. He was a man with a highly developed sense of humor. When I used to bring my mates back home, if he didn’t think that they were funny, he wouldn’t let them in the house. He’d tell me, ‘They can’t come around here — they’re not bloody funny!’” 

Myers performed from an early age: commercials, television, improv. Along the way, he developed characters, including a metal-loving kid named Wayne, based on his friends. “I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto,” Myers said. “It was just basically the group of people I hung out with.” This was the 1980s, the age of hair metal and Heavy Metal Parking Lot, a period of dudes falling in love with the most ridiculously over-the-top hard rock of all time. If you could look past the sexism, there was a certain sweetness in these young men’s adoration of such flagrantly stupid machismo, and it was embodied in Wayne’s dopey enthusiasm. “I think there’s a certain homogenous, adolescent, heavy-metal experience,” Myers said about Wayne’s appeal. “It’s just … hanging out and being a goof.”

Myers did variations of Wayne on Canadian television before being hired for Saturday Night Live. “I wanted to be on the show since I was 11 years old,” Myers said in Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, “so I wear having done it as a badge of honor. I didn’t really audition. Producer Pam Thomas, who is the wife of Dave Thomas of SCTV, had seen me at the 10th anniversary of Second City Toronto — as had Martin Short. Pam called up Lorne [Michaels] and said, ‘Have a look at this kid’ — and so did Martin Short. I got called in for an interview and I got hired from the interview, which was very lucky for me.”

He was on the show from 1989 to 1995, the time of Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Julia Sweeney, Jan Hooks, Victoria Jackson, Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock and David Spade. Carvey was the master of impressions, Hartman the perfect sketch performer, Farley the explosion of energy — and then there was Myers, providing a boyish glee. Early on, he decided to develop his Wayne character, maybe make him the host of a cable-access show, maybe give him a best friend named Garth. (Carvey, who played Garth, later said Myers provided him with just one bit of guidance on how to play the character: “Garth loves Wayne.”

“Wayne’s World” debuted on Myers’ fourth episode. “[It was] the last sketch of the night,” Myers said in Live From New York. “And it went really great. On that next Monday, as I was coming into work, I heard somebody working in the building singing the theme song from ‘Wayne’s World.’ I was like completely blown away.” Ordinarily, the show’s final sketch was an oddball choice, not something the creative team thought was the episode’s strongest. “Wayne’s World” stopped airing that late in the evening soon after, quickly becoming one of SNL’s most popular recurring bits.

So popular, in fact, that it became a movie. Before Wayne’s World debuted on Valentine’s Day of 1992, only one other SNL sketch had made the leap to the big screen: the Blues Brothers. But Wayne’s World was a massive hit, outgrossing the likes of Basic Instinct and A League of Their Own, and ushering in a wave of other SNL films, such as Coneheads and It’s Pat. It made Myers a big star and also began his reputation for being controlling, especially in regards to his costar Dana Carvey. 

“It’s not like they butted heads or argued a lot or anything,” Wayne’s World director Penelope Spheeris said in a 2019 piece for The Ringer. “But I’ll tell you what they did — and Lorne teaches all of his people to do this — and that is compete with each other. Lorne loves — I don’t care if you quote me, I’m getting too old for this shit — to have people argue and try and please him and compete with each other to the point where someone’s in tears.” 

Over the years, there had also been stories that Myers and Spheeris fought during filming, although she tried to put those rumors to bed earlier this year, saying, “I am going to break the myth right now. When we were shooting Wayne’s World, there really were no clashes with the actors. The reason people think that is I wasn’t able to direct Wayne’s World 2 because I didn’t want to make any cuts to the first one that they asked me to do. And that was the only point of contention that we had, honestly.”

Regardless, the success of Wayne’s World helped to mainstream the immature-buddies aesthetic that Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure had introduced in the late 1980s, leading to Beavis and Butt-Head soon after. Myers had an ability not just to craft funny characters but to create catchphrases at a time when quotable comedy lines were a social currency. As much as grunge and Nirvana symbolized the early 1990s’ disillusioned youth, Wayne and Garth were a more endearing but still cynical offshoot, skeptical of adulthood and mostly concerned about getting laid, conversant in pop culture while probably dealing with mental-health issues before such concerns were taken seriously by society at large. 

Alice Cooper, who played himself in Wayne’s World, seemed to understand what Myers was tapping into with Wayne and Garth. “I don’t think there’s anything destructive about them,” he told Rolling Stone. “They’re the average American mentality. Sometimes you look at that and say, ‘I hope they’re not going to run the country.’ But there’s a certain wisdom there. The characters have a great sense of humor. They see right through the establishment. Right through their parents. I always say it’s cool to act stupid but not to be stupid.”

Wayne’s World was Myers’ first film. (“This has given me a new respect for movie actors and crews,” he said in that same Rolling Stone piece. “It’s honest, honest, honest hard work.”) But it got him closer to his childhood dream of being a director, although his second film, So I Married an Axe Murderer, despite its later cult following, suggested that maybe he couldn’t play a traditional leading man. I remember nothing about the film except for the fact that Myers also played his character’s obnoxious dad, Stuart, who’d berate people in his thick Scottish brogue. Myers couldn’t do ordinary — he had to go broad.

During this first taste of stardom, though, Myers was personally going through a tough time because of the death of his father, who passed away in 1991 but had been battling Alzheimer’s long before. “I’ll never forget that my dad died on a Thursday and I did Saturday Night Live that weekend where I played a young English boy in the bathtub who talks about mummy being with the angels,” Myers recalled in 1999. “Life is very weirdly written sometimes. I did that, and it was killing me. Then my dad’s funeral was on Monday. And the first screening of Wayne’s World was on Thursday. Not long after it opened and it was this huge success, I was living in a small apartment in New York and the scripts were literally being shoved under my door. There were agents and fans and paparazzi. And it didn’t mean a thing. Not one thing.”

In his sadness, Myers took time off, and during that interim, an idea that his dad would have loved came to him. It was a goofy concept about a British superagent who’d been frozen since the 1960s, thawed out decades later to battle his archnemesis Dr. Evil, only to discover that the Swinging Sixties are long since past. Austin Powers, which opened in May 1997, was a tribute to Anglophilia, an homage to his father’s upbringing in Liverpool and the culture he absorbed. It was a spoof of James Bond but also a love letter to bygone British comedy icons like Peter Sellers. 

“I wrote it in 1995, and the bones of the script came out in two weeks,” Myers said in 2017. It was one of those things where I didn’t know if anybody would get this movie who didn’t grow up in my house.” He found a creative soulmate in up-and-coming director Jay Roach, who responded to the script’s under-the-radar set of references. As Myers put it, “Jay and I would sit around and think, ‘What if Austin Powers were based on an obscure British comic book that we were turning into a movie?’”

Because of its subsequent cultural impact, Austin Powers is sometimes mistakenly assumed to have been a smash at the time. It wasn’t, instead benefiting from an era when people would discover a movie on DVD, and then keep renting it over and over again. As with Wayne’s World, Myers had a ball playing an outrageous, foolish, essentially goodhearted soul, developing a bunch of new catchphrases to go along with “We’re not worthy!” and “Not!” (Anyone alive in the late 1990s had to hear someone knowingly say “Do I make you horny?” in public in a terrible British accent as if they were the first person to do so.) 

And as with Wayne’s World, Austin Powers was a fun sketch-length idea that felt a little protracted at feature-length. Nonetheless, it became one of those movies whose memorable moments got embedded in the culture, practically transcending the film in which they derived. Even if you didn’t love Austin Powers, you generally enjoyed the world of Austin Powers — the character’s confusion concerning modern societal norms, the so-dumb-maybe-they’re-brilliant sight gags, the madcap irreverence of the whole thing. It almost didn’t matter that Austin Powers and its sequels weren’t very good: There comes a point when certain films are so embraced — so part of the fabric of life — that they become staples. Some things are opinions, but if enough people feel the same way, they transform into amorphous facts. Austin Powers and Dr. Evil are funny because the world decided they are.

The same is true of Shrek, Myers’ third and final enormously popular franchise. Like the previous two, this saga of a grumpy ogre was a mixture of sincere and snarky, frantically riffing on pop culture while catering to mainstream audiences. Starting with his days at Saturday Night Live, Myers has always had an ability to be hip in a broadly appealing way. His creations were never too edgy or alienating — they wanted you to like them. Speaking to GQ in 2014, he explained the different aspects of his creative temperament, one of which was “the audience is my boss, it’s a lot to ask for them to come to see something, so it had better be of the highest quality. This is the mentality I grew up with with my dad — that you have to be nice to your boss, and you have to work hard for your boss. Everybody on the planet is in the service industry. That’s the paradigm: that we’re here to serve.”

Rocking a Scottish accent, Myers’ Shrek was a lovable malcontent who finds community and love. Initially, the role had gone to Chris Farley, who died during production. Myers took over, initially recording his lines in his regular voice before insisting that he needed to start from scratch, even if it ended up costing Dreamworks an additional $5 million. “There is a class struggle in Shrek between the fairy-tale kings and queens and the common people,” he explained in 2010. “I always thought that Shrek was raised working-class. And since Lord Farquaad was played English, I thought of Scottish.”

Riffing off Eddie Murphy’s wisecracking Donkey and serving as an unlikely romantic partner to Cameron Diaz’s Princess Fiona, Myers helped make Shrek one of 2001’s biggest hits, winning the first Best Animated Film Oscar. There were three sequels, which weren’t as good but also made a lot of money. Amazingly, the first two Shrek movies were widely hailed by critics, a surprising development considering Pixar’s animated fare was far superior. But similarly to Austin Powers, Shrek connected with viewers, its genial, vaguely subversive tone smartly paired with a sentimental streak in the storytelling. Despite my misgivings about the franchise, Myers put his all into these movies, drawing on his personal likability to give that ogre some heart. 

“I could understand Shrek in the first film not feeling good enough to love and then not feeling good enough to be a married father,” he said as the series wound down with 2010’s Shrek Forever After. “In this one, he struggles over whether he is good enough to have a happily ever after. That kind of pain I understand.” Incidentally, he was going through a divorce from his first wife Robin, whom he’d known since he was a teenager.

Myers’ franchises had a way of inspiring eternal devotion. This is perhaps true of all intellectual property during the social-media age — everybody stans their favorites 24/7 — but a generation raised on Austin Powers and Shrek have retained their fondness for those series. My friend and colleague, film critic Scott Tobias, found this out the hard way about a year ago when, on the occasion of Shrek’s 20th anniversary, he wrote a scathing takedown of the movie, declaring, “What’s left is an all-ages film that’s somehow more crude and juvenile in its appeals to adults than children. The grownups in the room can snicker knowingly at Farquaad’s name and the repeated references to his penis size while the kids are left with fart jokes and the wanton diminishment of timeless characters and stories.” The internet exploded as fans heaped abuse on Tobias online, with one Twitter user calling him a “joyless chud.” 

Again, this kind of extreme fan reaction is commonplace these days, but with Myers, the love seems to come from a more wholesome place than usual. Partly, that may be because, unlike other celebrities of his era, Myers hasn’t been subsequently laid low by #MeToo allegations. Other than a tendency toward being creatively controlling — hardly a sin or a crime, and certainly not a rarity in Hollywood — Myers doesn’t have the kind of personal blemishes that have rendered other stars toxic. His secret weapon has always been his likability, his insistence on being self-deprecating in interviews. Comparing himself unfavorably to the horny Austin Powers, Myers once said, “I’m a nerd. Basically, I’m a sexless geek. Look at me. I have no chin. I have acne scarring. And I’m 5-foot-nothing. It’s not exactly a recipe for sexual dynamism.” 

Even his controversies were only tangentially about him. When he appeared on a 2005 Hurricane Katrina benefit alongside Kanye West, who live on camera blurted out “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” his stricken expression represented one of the few moments that he didn’t face the public in character. It also illustrated the stark contrast between the two stars: In that moment, West was viewed as a bold truth-teller, while Myers was seen as a comfortable, staid movie star. “For me it isn’t about the look of embarrassment on my face, it is truly about the injustice that was happening in New Orleans,” Myers said in that GQ profile, later adding, “I’m very proud to have been next to him.” 

Later in 2005, Myers showed up on SNL to do a bit with West, who was that episode’s musical guest, where they pretended to awkwardly run into each other for the first time since the Katrina benefit. The bit mostly underlined Myers’ perceived lack of cool. In his movies, Myers was always center stage — for once, he didn’t have control.

By the time of 2008’s The Love Guru, you could sense a slowly growing cultural shift against him. (The wretched 2003 kids’ movie The Cat in the Hat certainly didn’t help matters.) But shortly before The Love Guru’s release, Entertainment Weekly ran a piece identifying a growing annoyance in the industry with Myers. An unnamed executive who had worked with him said, “I honestly root against him.” Spheeris, who, again, later would claim there was no bad blood between Myers and her during Wayne’s World, told the magazine, “Maybe he could open, like, a children’s hospital to clean up his rep. He’s got to do something pretty quick,” later adding, “He was emotionally needy and got more difficult as the shoot went along. You should have heard him bitching when I was trying to do that ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ scene: ‘I can’t move my neck like that! Why do we have to do this so many times? No one is going to laugh at that!’”

If The Love Guru had been a hit, maybe such grumblings would have gone away. But the film famously tanked, and critics were merciless. The New York Times review was so scathing — “The Love Guru is downright antifunny, an experience that makes you wonder if you will ever laugh again” — that when GQ’s Chris Heath tried to bring it up to Myers years later, the comic said, “I’ve never read it. I won’t read it, and I’d love not to know.”

Like Austin Powers, his Love Guru character Pitka was inspired by his dad. “To be enlightened is to lighten up, which ironically is the only thing my father used to say,” Myers said around the film’s release. “The source of my pain is my dad would say, ‘C’mon, let’s go and have some fun, Mike. We don’t want to be serious all the time.’ So that became the basis of the philosophy.” 

Once again channeling Sellers’ chameleonic comedy chops, he played a Hindu guru, drawing criticism from those who found the film’s depiction of their faith offensive. Whereas the cultural plundering in Austin Powers was playful, The Love Guru’s spoofing of Indian cinema and customs felt like gross appropriation. Also, the movie wasn’t any good, sending Myers into what appeared to be a self-imposed exile. But even when the film came out, he talked about his desire not just to make movies. “When you create [a film], write it and produce it, it just takes a long time,” Myers explained. “On top of that, I like my spare time. I like to play hockey, I like to paint, I play the ukulele, I watch the Military Channel.”

Where has he been for the last decade? He made one last Shrek movie. He did a cameo in Inglourious Basterds. He wrote a book. He did commercials as Wayne (for Uber Eats) and Dr. Evil (for General Motors). He directed his first film, a documentary about music manager Shep Gordon. He showed up in Bohemian Rhapsody. And he remarried and became a father three times over, a life development that seems to have altered him. “Anyone who tells you fatherhood is the greatest thing that can happen to you, they are understating it,” he said in 2013, after the birth of his first child, a son. “I am the happiest I have ever been in my life. I knew I wanted to be a father, I didn’t know it was going to be this awesome or that my kid would come out so beautiful and lovely.” 

This could be a comeback year for Mike Myers. First, there’s The Pentaverate, a sly reference to So I Married an Axe Murderer that allows him to play lots of wacky characters in the Austin Powers mode. And then he’s going to be part of Amsterdam, David O. Russell’s highly-anticipated fall film. Much like Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler, who have done some of their strongest work recently after fallow periods, Myers seems well-positioned for the sorts of warm reconsiderations that greet veteran comics returning to the scene. 

As someone who was never much of a fan, I don’t know how I feel about a possible Myers renaissance. We now reside in a movie landscape where there aren’t many comic stars anymore outside of a Ryan Reynolds or Channing Tatum. Will Ferrell’s glory days seem behind him, and broad comedies take a backseat to superhero movies and action flicks. (Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar exists on the margins, while The Lost City merely recycles 1980s action-comedy tropes.) He wasn’t my cup of tea — I preferred Jim Carrey’s inspired rubber-faced genius or, later, Melissa McCarthy’s slow-burn wit — but he thrived at a moment when mainstream comedy flourished, yet another thing we’ve lost as Hollywood continues to narrow its focus to just tentpoles. 

I don’t miss his heyday — I haven’t even mentioned his stabs at drama (54) — but I do miss a time when a Mike Myers was allowed to do his thing. In recent years, whether dressed up in costume for a Halloween appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert or doing those Uber Eats spots, Myers has fallen back on shtick that used to make him famous. His stardom occurred during an age of irony, when caring and trying hard were seen as unbecoming. Myers, for all his faults, always cared, always tried his best, always considered the audience the boss. 

Spheeris has flip-flopped over the years in her public comments about her Wayne’s World star, but I believe the director when she describes him as needy, because that’s the Mike Myers I always saw on screen. There was always too much of a desire to please, to get the audience to like his zany creations, to find them endlessly adorable and cheeky. For so many, responding with affection and adoration was easy, but I always found myself a little resistant. I appreciate being treated like the boss, but nobody likes a suck-up.