Friday, May 25, 2012

If It's Not Scottish, It's Crap!! A Birthday Salute to Mike Myers

All of us here at Debris Slide wish a very happy birthday to Mike Myers, one of the foremost comic minds of this or any other generation. As with Jonathan Richman, I first saw Mike Myers in Chicago in the 1980s, when he was performing onstage with the Second City E.T.C., the second string for that venerable show. (Since I now seem obligated to offer birthday tributes for people I first saw in Chicago in the 1980s, I probably ought to look up Ron Kittle's birthday.) I recall he did an improv as a Jamaican toaster, soliciting suggestions from the audience and incorporating them into his rap. Someone had thrown out "Pop-Tarts," and Myers made mention of Milton the Toaster, which was not only a pun but a highly impressive reference for a Canadian.

I've been thinking about Mike Myers lately because all the episodes of "Saturday Night Live" from the 1990s are now available on Netflix Streaming, and I've been plowing through them. After the early years, this was probably the most impressive era for the show; it was certainly the most talented post-1980 cast. At the time, it seemed to me that Dana Carvey was touted as the breakout member, but his work doesn't stand up as well of that of some other members:

* Phil Hartman was just devastatingly funny, deadpan and note-perfect in the commercial parodies while also serving as maybe the best straight man the show ever had.  Watching the show now, I can see Carvey letting the audience in on the joke far too often, especially in his overcooked impersonation of Bush the Elder, but Phil Hartman is always completely within his characters. (Carvey's Bush got very insufferable very fast, but in his defense, it was probably easier to take seeing it once a week rather than having to deal with it a couple times a day, as I have been lately.)

* Victoria Jackson was perhaps the most underrated cast member ever. She seemed to be hired to play the  blonde bimbo, but she had a sparkling quality that elevated every sketch she was in, even when it was just as wallpaper (which happened far too often). Every line reading was fresh and unexpected. I find myself often hoping she'll turn up in every domestic sequence, just because she's such a pleasure to have around. And her Roseanne Barr/Arnold was hilarious.

* With all due respect to Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Norm Macdonald and Tina Fey, Dennis Miller was the best Weekend Update anchor ever. Things were pretty freewheeling back then, and he'd do anything from his trademark abstruse allusions to one-liners in reference to wacky news photos. He was very smart and always seemed like he was having a great time up there, which helps.

* And there's Mike Myers. I am astonished at how well he could create a fully rounded character in even throwaway skits like All Things Scottish, the store whose motto was "If It's Not Scottish, It's Crap." (He basically played the same guy in So I Married an Axe Murderer.) You can see this most clearly in "Wayne's World" and the subsequent movies: Dana Carvey is playing a caricature, while Myers is playing a character. You would no more want to see an entire movie about Garth than you would want to see an entire movie about Pat, but it's always nice to spend time with Wayne. Mike Myers is also the only cast member who was able to translate incredible sketch-comedy skills  into a long and fruitful movie career, as opposed to people like Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy, who ended up just playing themselves.

It couldn't last, of course: Miller left in the spring of 1991, to be replaced by the horrible Kevin Nealon. Nealon brought nothing to the table; it wasn't just that he had no spin or personality to put on the news, he often couldn't get through the jokes without stumbling over some words. At some points, he seemed to be racing through the items just in order to get them out with mispronouncing something. The audience sometimes didn't even know where the joke was supposed to be.

Victoria Jackson, whose tenure at SNL was reportedly not happy, left at the end of the 1991-92 season. Her replacements were undistinguished, to say the least, including the remarkable Beth Cahill, surely the least talented performer ever to appear on the show, with her weak voice, lack of stage presence and penchant for looking around for the cue cards. She starred in the short-lived Delta Delta Delta series of skits alongside Siobhan Fallon and Melanie Hutsell, and while those two were hardly Jane, Laraine and Gilda, Cahill might as well have not been on the stage for all the impression she made. If you didn't know  better, you'd think Cahill had won some sort of contest in which random civilians were invited to appear in one of the shows.

The show would soon be taken over by the likes of Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider. And while those guys could be pretty funny - Sandler was to East Coast working-class goombahs what Bill Murray had been to Chicagoland working-class goombahs - it's no surprise that they went on to make a series of movies targeted at 15-year-old boys.

But if I were to put together a dream SNL cast, probably half of it would be from circa 1990. Here's a first pass at it, with an appropriate mix of gender, race, and comedic skills:

John Belushi
Jimmy Fallon
Phil Hartman
Jan Hooks
Victoria Jackson
Dennis Miller
Eddie Murphy
Bill Murray
Mike Myers
Gilda Radner
Chris Rock

I'd watch that show.


  1. I agree with quite possibly every word of that.

    (To this day, every time I see Kevin Nealon perform, I think that he must be the nicest guy and the best friend in the world, because he ain't getting hired for the comedy.)

  2. Come to think of it, Marshall, the first time I ever saw you was in Chicago in the 1980s. I better get something ready for your birthday.

  3. Tommy? You might not admit it, but we may also have bumped into one another before school at Lounge Ax in that selfsame 1980s. Also, weren't we both at Second City (with many "Medill awfuls") the very night in '87 that the market went bust? (Answer is Yes.)