Austin maestro - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

Austin maestro

Brought up on a diet of Goons, Monty Python and Carry On films, Mike Myers was born to be Wayne. And Austin Powers - secret agent and all-round sex machine - is his way of saying thank you to his father for giving him the gift of comedy.

When Mike Myers came to England after two years with Canada's famous Second City comedy troupe (roughly the Canadian equivalent of Saturday Night Live), he landed a regular spot on a British TV show. If you're in your twenties, you may remember it with a grudging fondness. If you're older, then chances are the very mention of its title will bring back the memories of all those traumatic early mornings when your precious lie-ins were interrupted by the foghorn sound of the programme's theme music, your young ones singing tunelessly along: "Weeeeeee're WIDE AWAKE!" The best thing about The Wide Awake Club was that it had boundless energy. The worst was that it started around 7am and was presided over by Timmy Mallett and his enormous foam-rubber hammer.

I had considered being the first British journalist not to ask Mike Myers about his days sharing dressing-rooms and make-up boxes with the man who invented Chris Evans. But what the hell.

"Everyone I speak to in England wants me to dish the dirt on Timmy Mallett," Myers says, still slightly bemused. And though he cannot reveal whether Timmy took to snorting copious amounts of cocaine off the end of that famous mallet, Myers speaks very fondly of his time in England. It was a memory from Toronto, though - a memory of a sad, chain-smoking clown who used to sit on guard at the funhouse entrance - upon which he drew when he and Neil Mullarkey devised "The Sound Asleep Club", the section of the show which they presented together.

"We were these two guys in bath-robes who spent the whole time being irritated by kids. We introduced these very dull items - `How to make a glass of water' or `How to tie a knot' - with the subtext being `Yeah, yeah, kids, just keep the bloody noise down'."

Mike Myers has been responsible for many priceless comic characters, most of them aired on America's foremost comedy show, Saturday Night Live, where he worked at the start of this decade. There was Middle-Aged Man, who has the power of understanding mortgages. And Linda Richman, a fiftysomething Jewish woman from Queens born out of Myers' fascination with the way his mother-in-law pronounced the word "coffee" ("I thought: what is this thing c-a-u-p-h-e-y?").

Due to the frustratingly erratic import of SNL episodes, most readers will be largely unfamiliar with these creatures. The newest of them, Austin Powers, a photographer, fashion guru, secret agent and all-round sex machine, will be dictating the nation's catchphrases as soon as Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery opens. But Myers' most popular character, the overgrown Toronto teenager Wayne Campbell from the Wayne's World movies, will surely set bells ringing even in the farthest corners of the globe's Amish communities.

Wayne was a fearless Messianic spokesman for a generation scarred by disillusionment and rendered punch-drunk by a society that could offer its youth only despair. Not!

Actually, he was everybody's best buddy. "It was very flattering and kind of weird the way everyone took to Wayne," Myers reflects. "He was basically a composite of all the kids I knew growing up in Toronto. I had written this sketch around him on SNL and handed it to a fellow writer, who said, `Hmm - wouldn't hand it in.' But I didn't have anything else that week. Gilda Radner used to say that SNL was a monster that ate your material insatiably. Come Tuesday night, you had to have two sketches. She also called it `an under-rehearsed Broadway opening once a week'. I thought of it as Das Boot on Fantastic Voyage. That particular week, it was Wayne or nothing. The sketch played well, we got a ton of mail. And next thing you know, George Bush is using our catchphrase, and this team of astronauts in space are going `This satellite's going to be a breeze to get back into the bay - not!' That got a big laugh at Houston space control."

Getting that big laugh has been important to Mike Myers for as long as he can remember. His father, a Liverpudlian who was so intensely proud of being English that he never became a Canadian citizen despite moving to Toronto before Mike was born, raised his three sons on a diet of The Goon Show, Monty Python's Flying Circus and the Carry On series. The first time he ever took Mike to see a film, it was a drive-in screening of The Party, starring Peter Sellers. Most of Mike's childhood memories revolve around the endless pursuit of laughter.

If somebody came to the Myers household and turned out to be too slow on the draw with a one-liner, that unfortunate soul was doomed to expulsion.

"Get him out of here," Mr Myers used to tell his sons. "He's not funny."

"But Dad," they would protest. "It's not a crime! It's not his fault!"

"Who cares? He's not funny." And that was that.

Growing up in a household where comedy was king, Mike Myers had been blessed with the closest thing to vocational training that a comic could hope for. Like geeks all over the world, he had spent his school days cracking gags as a defence mechanism.

"I had terrible acne, greasy hair, and I was five foot nothing," he remembers. "You have to make it work - somehow." Even now, he concedes that performing comedy takes him back to "being in kitchens at parties and making girls laugh".

Myers' transition from goofing around with his family to goofing around on TV and getting paid for it was swift. It was his last day of school. His final exam was at 9am. His audition to join Toronto's Second City team was at noon. At 3pm he was told that he was in. After two years with the team, he came to work in England, created "The Sound Asleep Club" - and then had his trip suddenly, shockingly curtailed by a telephone conversation with one of his brothers.

The message was: You might want to come back. Dad's not doing so good.

It was Alzheimer's. He died in 1991, without having had a chance to savour his son's accomplishments.

"My heart was broken after he died," Myers says quietly. "My dad was hilarious. He was really silly in the best sense. Here are two things he would say - `Everything's gonna be OK' and `Let's go have some fun'. I had a really close friendship with him. You know how in Vegas they pay you in chips and until you go to the window at the end of the night and exchange it for money, it doesn't really mean anything? Well, until I went to my parents' house on a Sunday to tell my dad what I'd done that week, it hadn't really happened."

After his father died, Myers knew things had to calm down for a while. "I wanted to let my dad's passing resonate fully." Having just finished a period where he had been filming constantly - his gentle comedy So I Married an Axe Murderer sandwiched between the two, more rambunctious Wayne's World films - he simply stopped working. And he maintains that it was the best decision he ever made.

"I'd spoken to Bill Murray and he advised me to do it. He took two years off and studied French at the Sorbonne. I thought, what's the equivalent for me? So I took hockey lessons, every Wednesday, 9 to 11, playing with firemen who were on disability insurance. They're the only people who have any time during the day. Them and out-of-work actors. I did that for a year. I read books. I came to Liverpool, found out that I was related to Wordsworth - I'm talking real documentation here - and went to my dad's old school. Smartest thing I've ever done.

"Then a year and a half ago, I'm driving back from hockey practice when the Burt Bacharach song `The Look of Love' comes on the radio. Suddenly I got the idea for Austin Powers. Right there in the car, I started talking like Austin - `Yeahhh baby, let's go in the back and shag! You're a fabulous bird, can I take yer photograph?' I wrote the script in three weeks and it got green-lit immediately. Awesome. The movie was a joy to make. The material spoke to my heart. And it's a perfect tribute to my father."

Can we expect to see Austin returning in all his groin-thrusting, grubby- toothed glory?

"Maybe. You know, if someone said my next 200 movies had to be Austin Powers movies, I would be very, very happy indeed"n

`Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery' is reviewed on page 8

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