Media Circus


Sara Baird
May 1, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)


of all Mike Myers' creations, the character perhaps closest to his own
personality type is Simon, the little English boy in the bathtub Myers
portrayed during his six years on "Saturday Night Live." Both are
simultaneously shy and silly, amped on the joys of their own creativity.
Simon excels in "drawer-ings," Myers' comedic skills have made him a
household name.

And both like to show off their bum. "You want me to turn around, don't
you? Cheeky monkey!" Simon taunts onlookers. (More on Myers' exhibitionism later.)

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Myers is only 33 but has already invested 15 years in showbiz comedy
(Second City Toronto and Chicago, the Comedy Store in London, "SNL"), creating an army of colorful personas along the way.
There's Linda Richman, host of the show "Coffee
Talk," a big-busted, long-nailed Jewish woman who worships Barbra Streisand.
There's Simon the bathtub boy. There's Dieter, the cold, black-clad German aesthete who
hosts the talk show "Sprockets." And of course there's Wayne Campbell, who
as the long-haired, short-on-IQ host of "Wayne's World" unwittingly rammed
a whole new teen-speak down America's throat. ("Party time! Excellent! We're not worthy!")

And now he's created a new hero: "Austin Powers, International Man of
Mystery." Right at home in his time, the swinging '60s in London,
Austin is a fashion photographer by day, British intelligence agent by
night. He has moves no Cold War enemy can beat, no free-love chickie-baby
can resist. But when he's cryogenically frozen and then defrosted in the '90s,
Austin discovers he's an eight-track tape in a CD world. He finds the world
a different place politically, and he's always on the incorrect end.

"Bring on the sexy stews, man!" he hollers boarding a plane, before being told that "we're
called flight attendants now." Suggestions that co-star Elizabeth Hurley
might like to "shag" are met with cold indifference -- at least at first.
But Austin is undaunted, cheerily refusing to give up either his
swashbuckling, free-love behavior or his crushed velvet bell-bottoms. Think Maxwell
Smart crossed with Mick Jagger, circa "Satanic Majesties."

Salon sat down with Myers in Los Angeles, where the Canadian native says he eschews the Hollywood scene, sticking
close to home and the comforts of his wife (writer Robin Ruzan) and their three
dogs, fanatically playing ice hockey in his spare time.

You had several nude scenes with Elizabeth Hurley in "Austin Powers." Was Hugh Grant
jealous?

(Laughs) You've seen me naked and you still want to ask me that question?

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Now, now. Elizabeth said that you as Austin were, and I quote,
"very, very sexy."

(Blushes) Well that's sweet of her ... I think if Austin is sexy it's
because of his self-confidence. Quite the fantasy role for me!

Were you worried about the feminist response to lines like, "Come
on, baby, let's shag!"?

No, because we really took it over the top so everyone knew how archaic
it was. I mean, Austin's first line when he was defrosted pretty much said
it all. (In Austin Powers cockney): "As long as people are still having
promiscuous sex with many anonymous partners without protection while at
the same time experimenting with mind-altering drugs in a consequence-free
environment, I'll be sound as a pound, baby!"

You've been described as shy but you're also something of an
exhibitionist. You manage to either do strip-teases or have bun shots of
yourself in every movie you've done.

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There's the through-line to your story! Yes, there's a long tradition
in English and Canadian comedy of male nudity. Whether it's John Cleese in
"A Fish Called Wanda," or the Kids in the Hall getting "naked for Jesus." We just
love to dress up as women or be naked. I think there is a cultural
repression at work. Those things are so taboo that they are delicious.

Well, you seem to be very good at it, or at least very at ease.

It's just so ... silly. It's not like I'm ever going to take myself
seriously as a sex symbol so I have nothing to lose. Not hurting the
franchise because there's no franchise there.

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The first time I saw myself projected on a big screen, all I could see was no chin and acne scars. Tremendous video death.

So is there anything about yourself that you like?

(Grinning) My ass! I want to see my own ass. I'm only happy if I can
see those two moons shining down at me. "Nice Ass -- Shame About the Face"
should be the title of this article. But seriously, sometimes I take a
writer's pride in things I've written. "That was a good joke." Like that.

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Who do you think the audience for "Austin Powers" is going to be?
Fans of "Wayne's World" wanting to see their hero in a crushed
velvet suit?

I really don't know. I make stuff to make myself laugh and put it out
there to the universe. We never thought "Wayne's World" would be a hit and
it made over $100 million. I think anybody can come to "Austin Powers" and
enjoy it. There is no required reading. There will be no quiz afterwards.
And you don't need to have experienced the '60s.

So you're not worried that kids who never watched a "Laugh-In" show
might not get it -- the fashion, the pop-art sensibility.

It doesn't matter. The mail I got for Linda Richman, for example, was
from all kinds of people. You didn't have to be a 52-year-old Jewish woman
from Queens to get the humor.

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She's a good example of one of your "Saturday Night Live" characters
who has become part of the popular lexicon -- "I'm getting verklempt!" Do
your creations follow you around? Is it odd when someone asks you to "do
Dieter," for example?

Not at all! I'm always flattered that anyone should care at all.
As an artist you can't have any expectations of anything. You
don't go to a laboratory and say, let's mix the right ingredients to come up
with a hit character. You'd never come up with a guy who runs a TV show
from his basement or a sexually ambiguous German aesthete.

I have to ask you where you got the idea for Dieter.

There was a guy in Toronto who was an exchange student. He worked at
our favorite bar. He'd come up to you and say, "I vill take yoh ordah NOW."
And I'd say, "Yeah, I'd like the hot dog with ..." And he'd say, "Yoh ordah
has gwown tiresome! Now is the time for me to dahnce." And he would drop
his tray and dance. He'd also say, "I want to tell the specials for da
night but fuhst I must tell you that I am a silly bitch." And you'd say,
"Okaaaay, I'll have some fries." And we befriended him, you know? And he
took us to this art gallery installation, with a giant penis protruding
from the wall, with the word "empire" written on it. Instead of pubic hair,
there was barbed wire. He'd look at it: "Eet's breathtaking!" We exchanged
phone numbers when he left and I was supposed to visit him in Stuttgart, but
I never made it. I even took that "I Can Speak German, I Really, Really
Can" course. For a whole summer, it was like: (an unintelligible stream of
German), which translates to "I see the dog, the dog is big!"

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The Second City (comedy troupe) in Toronto was your first job -- hard to
believe since you were just out of high school.

Right, my last exam was at 9 a.m., I was hired at Second City at
3 that afternoon. So I never went to college.

Is that something you regret?

Yeah, and I intend to go at some point. But I read a lot. I just
finished a book on Orson Welles, and "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe" by Carson
McCullers. "Candide," by Voltaire. And "100 years of Hockey Heroes." I am a
reading rainbow, a virtual library on wheels.

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And a certified hockey fanatic, it seems. What's up with that? Are
you a wannabe Toronto Maple Leaf?

I'm actually a really crappy skater so when I took a year off, I learned
how to power skate. Hockey was sort of my therapy.

You disappeared there for a while. Why?

Right, I took a year off and then another year to do "Austin Powers."
Why? Because after six years on "Saturday Night Live," three movies, a
bestselling book, three prime-time specials, three MTV specials, getting
married, my father's death and my brother-in-law's death, I needed to do
something for myself, something that had no real usefulness. And it was
great. I played hockey four times a week. It was on the advice of Bill Murray. On
his time off he studied at the Sorbonne. And my equivalent was skating.

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But where do you do something like that in L.A.?

There are some rinks. I was in a public pick-up game, and then some
friends have pick-up games, and I took lessons privately. There are a lot
of Canadians in exile.

Do you surf the Net?

Every night. This is for the Internet, right? That fancy-schmantsy
cultural magazine, right? (Grins)

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Yes. You also play a lot with your dogs.

I have a life now. I have a home with my wife and three dogs. I have
two labs and a dog we liberated from the pound. It was of utmost concern to
Robin and me that they have a yard and that they have friends.

So do you arrange little doggie play dates?

Yes, we invite their friends over. They love their friends. And they
have a couple trees that they love. It's become for us our nest. We're
finally out of our futon phase and now we're in our dog phase.

You sound like a couple who really needs to have children.

In two years. We'll have the requisite 2.5. I'd like to have twins,
actually -- get it over with. I'll take them to hockey practice. Robin
always jokes that I want to have kids so I can play with their toys.

What's your next project?

I don't know. There's this old saying that the fox knows many things
but the turtle knows one thing really well. I'm happy to wait until
something really perfect comes along.





Taps for a curmudgeon


An appreciation of the king of Chicago journalism, Mike Royko.
BY SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN

a perverse scene, even a faintly scandalous one, would unfold shortly after 9 each morning in the newsroom of the Suburban Trib: Reporters and editors, each in the employ of the Chicago Tribune, no sooner reached their desks than they dived avidly into the pages of the rival Sun-Times. Checking to see if they had been scooped by the competition? No. They were engaging in a communal rite larger than any such schism -- reading Mike Royko's daily column.

I was one of those journalists back then, almost a generation ago, who regarded Royko with the same longing as I did the Chicago skyline. On a clear enough day, I could see it from the parking lot of our unremarkable two-story office in Hinsdale, 35 miles from the Loop, pricking the eastern horizon, taunting me with its odd combination of proximity and distance. Royko seemed every bit as looming and inaccessible. His death on Tuesday only sharpens the memory.

Royko was the king of Chicago journalism, deflater of the almighty Mayor Daley, champion of the lunch-bucket masses and the inspiration to us ink-stained rookies who rode to work not on the El but the Tri-State Tollway and bought our morning coffee at a gas station's convenience store.

We were, in other words, not of Royko's generation, nor of his demography. Most of us had grown up in suburbs like the ones we were covering. While Royko was the son of an immigrant saloonkeeper, a street kid who had dropped out of college and lied his way into his first newspaper job, we had trod a newer career path, majoring in journalism at the vast public universities of the Midwest and then reporting on the doings of school boards and township highway departments.

Chicago's white, middle-class population had made a similar sort of migration -- to the tract houses and shopping malls -- and the Tribune was astute enough to provide them with coverage superior to anything the parochial weeklies could muster. It was honorable work. Our editor had exposed the abusive treatment of migrant farm workers. We investigated poverty and political corruption. Big city newspapers like the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Miami Herald, conscious of white flight from their own circulation areas, sent study teams.

Still, there was no pretending we were comparable to our betters downtown. Ever in search of "reader service," our management would devise a weather map covering a single suburban county. Our columnist, a brilliant satirist named Bill Geist, wrote about strip malls, leisure suits and garage-door art. Readers knew us as "the Little Trib," and, as our superiors regularly reminded us, it was corporate policy never to transfer reporters from the suburban operation to the parent paper.

So we read Royko for a connection to a world we feared we would never inhabit: the Chicago of ward heelers, mob bosses and unmeltable ethnics like his fictional alter-ego, Slats Grobnik. But he was no sentimentalist. Of all the Royko columns I devoured during three years on the Suburban Trib, the one I saved was his tribute to "you wild, crazy Chicagoans" for electing Jane Byrne over the machine's incumbent mayor, Michael Bilandic, in the 1979 Democratic primary. Years later, trying to describe the way New York state's Democratic machine assumed the Election Day loyalty of black voters whom it detested, I remembered the phrase Royko had used to describe the contemptuous view Bilandic's crew had for blacks in Chicago -- "deliverable darkies."

Every so often, we suburban reporters tried to cross the divide between Royko's world and our own. We went drinking at Billy Goat's, near the Sun-Times building, occasionally eyeing Royko from across the room, never daring to approach him. Once, a journalism group held a festival of films about newspapers, starting it off with an open-bar reception. Heady with the free drinks, I grabbed Bill Geist and pulled him over to Royko.

"This is Geist," I blurted. "He's good."

"You young guys," Royko said, waving us off, "you think you're gonna take over."

We never thought anything so arrogant. We only wanted to be part of the tradition Royko so lustily embodied. We wanted a piece of the journalism that maddened the mighty and cheered the powerless and then had a shot and a beer. Like listening to Sammy Lawhorn play the blues in Theresa's, like sweating in Saul Bellow's favorite bathhouse, reading Royko gave us a momentary purchase on Chicago. It made us feel less like poseurs.

Ultimately, the Tribune shut down the Suburban Trib and hired some of its best people. One of them, editorial writer R. Bruce Dold, won a Pulitzer Prize. Bill Geist -- rechristened William E. -- became a columnist for the New York Times. After Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times, Royko himself moved to the hated Tribune.

In the last year or so, living on the East Coast, I read articles about the supposed change in Royko. Arrested for drunk driving, he had insulted cops with an anti-gay diatribe. He was turning into a crank, it was said, he was turning conservative.

Well, it had always seemed to me as a reader that Royko had plenty of the curmudgeon in him. And if his spirit had indeed turned ugly toward the end, then he would not be the first liberal firebrand to turn crotchety in his dotage. None of Royko's alleged crimes against sensitivity can dim his example. Blunt, funny, fearless, he belonged in the pantheon of Chicago writers, stretching from Hemingway through Algren to Mamet.

Most of all, though, Royko brings to mind James T. Farrell, author of the Studs Lonigan trilogy, the epic of Chicago's working-class life. Farrell once described his genre of writing as "bottom-dog literature," and Royko practiced its nonfiction equivalent. He preserved what was big-hearted and transcended what was small-minded, in Chicago's famously clannish neighborhoods and elsewhere. Even the rank novices that we were on the Suburban Trib, we understood each morning that Royko was singular.


Sara Baird

Sara Baird is a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Sara Baird

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