The comedian’s greatest creations are reflections of who he perceives himself to be, who he wants to be, and who he is most afraid of.
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos Coutesty of Studios
The act of watching a Mike Myers project is something like being privy to 90 minutes’ worth of inside jokes between the star and himself. Whether it’s Danish sex addicts, Canadian local-news reporters, or Peter Sellers in The Party, Myers has a habit of creating characters from whatever pop-culture ephemera is tumbling around in his brain, with little care to whether or not the audience understands the reference.
Netflix’s The Pentaverate — the inscrutable, bizarre, surreal, and occasionally touching miniseries that represents Myers’s comeback project — is the most acute example of this tendency. Does the portrayal of Shep Gordon in that show mean anything to a viewer who isn’t intimately familiar with Supermensch, Myers’s 2013 documentary about Alice Cooper’s talent agent? No. Does Myers care? Also, probably no.
The infinitely fascinating aspect of Myers’s canon is that, across film and TV, each character he disappears into can be seen as a window into his psyche. These characters are reflections of who he perceives himself to be, who he wants to be, and who he is most afraid of. He portrays gremlins, grotesques, outsiders, and children with equal levels of pity and empathy. Some of his most memorable villains are misunderstood victims who just need a hug. He’s an auteur who paints with flaccid penises and hyperrealistic shit.
To rank the 20 best Mike Myers characters is kind of bizarre. It’s like putting a numerical value on a person’s diary entries. And yet, that fool’s errand is now my responsibility. I’ve judged these characters on a variety of criteria — the character’s impact on pop culture, Myers’s ability to imbue the character with emotional credibility and depth, and finally (and most crucially), how funny each one is. Characters that haven’t aged well, are one-dimensional, or are completely irredeemable are not on this list. Trust me when I say I did my best.
The response to The Pentaverate was likely not what anyone hoped. As Myers’s first large-scale project after 2008’s The Love Guru, it was assumed that he’d learned some of the more valuable lessons from that ill-fated movie. Whereas Austin Powers and Wayne’s World were centered on characters that were outwardly outrageous but ultimately emotionally grounded by a need to fit in, The Love Guru was anchored by a sketch character with a problematic origin. Guru Pitka was an idea clearly influenced by Myers’s interest in New Age spirituality and self-improvement. But it wasn’t funny or relatable. It was just odd.
The Pentaverate doubles down on that, giving the floor over to Ken, a daffy Canadian TV journalist who made a career on puff-piece human-interest stories. Ken is based on Glenn Cochrane, a real-life journalist who appears in the clip at the end of episode six. His last name, Scarborough, is borrowed from the Toronto suburb Myers grew up in. Ken’s simple, Canadian kindness is appealing, but in the idealized, perfect way that doesn’t give the character much room to grow as the show progresses. Nor is there much in the way of comedic potential to mine. He’s nice. Also, we see his penis multiple times. Myers’s portrayal of Ken works for the point he’s trying to make about the world needing some honesty and kindness, but it’s all a tad didactic. That said, we do see his penis more than once.
Lothar makes the list here because, quite frankly, I needed to fill 20 slots. The basic conceit of this oft-repeated SNL sketch that originated in 1989 is that Lothar is a simple prehistoric man who does not understand the mystery that is woman. It’s a not-so-subtle commentary on the sexual politics of the time, and the sketches shamble toward an ending rather than building to a crescendo. It’s a one-note character that makes the list because the Chris Evert sketch was kind of fun.
There’s a story in Mike’s brother Paul’s book about the Kids in the Hall where the Kids talk about Myers possibly joining an early version of the troupe and how he was the most talented performer in Toronto comedy at the time, even if he was younger than everyone else. Mike politely declined their offer, which might have been one of the most important decisions of the careers of everyone involved. The Kids always struggled to function as a unit, and Mike Myers is, for better or worse, the visionary behind everything he does.
This is all preamble to saying that Pat Arnold is an instance of Myers having to work within the confines of an ensemble sketch that came from someone else. In the case of Bill Swerski’s Superfans, the premise was developed by SNL writers Robert Smigel and Bob Odenkirk, who initially thought the idea was “too regional.” Eventually, they were able to get the sketch on the air in 1991. Of course, the specificity of a group of boorish Chicago sports fans arguing about various topics is why it’s funny. It’s both keenly observed and totally universal.
But it’s not a Mike Myers sketch. Sure, he spent some time in Chicago thanks to Second City, but it doesn’t have the same relevance to his story that so much of his best work has. There’s no Superfan sketch that ever feels like it’s about Pat Arnold. If anyone gets the showcase in these sketches, it’s Chris Farley as Todd. The Superfans were so not about Myers that, upon his departure from SNL in 1995, he was replaced with John Goodman. To explain the difference in appearance between Myers’s Pat Arnold and Goodman’s Pat Arnold, Bob Swerski said Pat had gained an enormous amount of weight.
So, why is this on the list? Because the sketch itself became one of the most memorable recurring acts in SNL history. Also, because I’m not putting Guru Pitka on here.
I don’t like Goldmember. I’m sorry. I have a high tolerance for Mike Myers, as you probably have noticed, but Goldmember (real name: Johann Van Der Smut) never even comes close to working. The idea of a Dutch pervert in the Austin Powers universe is interesting on its face. Austin seems like the ultimate swinger, but he’s actually a scared little rodent boy who just wants his daddy to love him. Goldmember, on the other hand, is actually a dirty freak who eats his own dried skin as a snack. In theory, he’s Austin’s dark opposite — the man he’d be if he lost all sense of duty or responsibility. A walking gold erection looking for his next thrill.
But Goldmember barely registers in the 2002 movie that bears his name. It’s not that Myers doesn’t do his best to inhabit the character. It’s not even a terrible idea. It’s just that most of the story is dedicated to Austin’s attempts to win over his father, Nigel Powers. The rest is dedicated to various loosely connected sketches featuring Dr. Evil and Mini-Me. Scenes with Goldmember feel like digressions from the material we want to see, the recurring characters that Myers is clearly more interested in.
The Pentaverate might have too many characters. Okay, it definitely has too many characters. But Anthony, the daffy conspiracy theorist who makes the plot move from fuzzy Canada to HD America, is classic Mike Myers. He talks too much, too fast, and about mostly nothing. He’s embarrassing and gross, but kind of sweet. His ideas about 9/11, Hillary’s emails, and chemtrails are problematic at best, but you kind of feel sorry for him anyway. Even if you skip The Pentaverate, please do take the time to enjoy Anthony’s tour through the many beautiful motels and roadside attractions on the way to America.
So I Married an Axe Murderer has become a certified cult classic with a dedicated fan base that swears it’s one of Myers’s best films. It was Myers’s second film role and his immediate follow-up to Wayne’s World. As such, he got a lot more freedom to tinker with the script for Axe Murderer thanks to his newly won box-office clout in 1993. The original script, from writer Robbie Fox, lured the attention of Garry Shandling, Albert Brooks, Woody Allen, and (for some reason) Chevy Chase. It eventually landed in the lap of Myers and became the film you see today, filled with its star’s particular obsessions at the time: San Francisco bohemian culture, Scottish people, coffee shops.
That Myers rewrote the script with British comedian Neil Mullarky would lead one to believe that it would fall squarely in his wheelhouse. Instead, Myers seems deeply uncomfortable with the role of a regular guy in the middle of an outrageous circumstance. One can imagine this going to Albert Brooks and Charlie taking on a caustic edge. Or the one-liners of Shandling deftly defusing the Hitchcockian tension built by director Thomas Schlamme. Instead, the movie doesn’t really pop until Myers shows up in another role better suited to his talents, which appears on this list much later.
The Pentaverate is both a love letter to a bygone era of genteel, aw-shucks local media and a satire about everything Myers perceives as wrong with modern society — cynicism, greed, paranoia, and intolerance. Perhaps that’s why his funniest work in the show comes from the loathsome characters. Rex Smith — an even more grotesque version of Alex Jones — allows Myers to cut loose and fire off a variety of depraved one-liners that never quite have to amount to much in the story. That’s a big reason why the character works so well. It’s just a sketch character, albeit one performed by one of the art form’s greatest practitioners. The Infowars parody has been done countless times by now, but Myers is just better than everyone else at doing it.
I can’t say this for certain, but I am fairly sure Myers hates cynicism. I’ve already listed it as one of his modern pet peeves, but the best Myers characters have no trace of it in their DNA. Phillip — the hyperactive, hypoglycemic 6-year-old in the bicycle helmet and the harness who debuted on SNL in 1993 — is not a cynical character. Under the broad physical comedy of Myers trying and failing to free himself from the harness tied to the jungle gym is a deep affection for the guilelessness of childhood and the extreme lengths adults go to protect their kids. From a modern perspective, it might seem like Myers is making fun of Phillip for being different. But with every one of these characters that come from his mind, there’s an element of the personal that’s anything but mean-spirited. Phillip could have ranked higher, but he only appeared in two sketches on SNL, both with the same ending: chocolate gives Phillip superpowers. Anyone who’s been a kid (everyone) can relate to that.
Myers has not starred in a big-budget studio drama since 1998’s 54, a splashy box-office failure during a moment of conspicuous disco nostalgia. His turn as Studio 54 co-founder Steve Rubell in Mark Christopher’s historical adaptation is a showcase for Myers’s ability to mimic and subsume himself into a character. It makes use of his greatest gift: finding comedy in pity. Rubell is pathetic, or at least he believes he is. That self-hatred curdles into greed, narcissism, and emotional manipulation of the beautiful men that pass through his club begging to be discovered.
Rubell is pitiful in the way Fat Bastard is pitiful. He so completely cannot stand himself that he fashions himself into a sociopath for protection. What keeps this performance from working as intended is that Myers is used to bringing pathos to broad comedic situations. He can weave painful realizations into jokes about drinking another person’s shit, but when it comes to drama, it’s clear he’s a painter with a broad brush. His performances are not subtle. They are a joy to watch because they are rarely concerned with the kinds of small gestures that other actors employ in dramatic situations. Sketch acting is rarely subtle, because emotions and ideas have to be conveyed in rapid succession to fit into a brief run time of a few minutes.
Myers’s Rubell is a good performance, especially the brutal scene of a drunk/high Rubell trying to coerce Breckin Meyer’s Greg into a sexual encounter. It’s a heartbreaking moment of corrosive vulnerability from a selfish man who doesn’t know how to make real connections with people. And it ends with Rubell puking onto a pile of money — nothing subtle about that. Myers’s performance is bleak, affecting, and sometimes difficult to watch, but you can’t help but feel like the ending to that scene isn’t quite the tragedy the filmmakers intended. Instead, it comes off like the punch line to a sick joke.
The appeal of The Gong Show probably confounds most people younger than about 35. What once might have been referred to as a “freak show on acid” in a more insensitive time doesn’t immediately make sense to reboot for a 21st-century audience. After all, The Gong Show was … kind of mean. More often than not, a risible act would come on the show, the celebrity panel would gong them, and the show would go on. It was anarchic and completely reliant on its terribleness. If an actually talented variety act appeared on the show, it seemed like a betrayal of the premise. It also worked because Chuck Barris was so appealing in his lackadaisical hosting style. It was perfect disposable entertainment for the ’70s. So, of course, Myers would try to revive it.
Nostalgia animates his imagination: Wayne’s World is a paean to teenage obliviousness, Austin Powers is inspired by years of watching old ’60s spy movies, and Phillip and Simon are innocent children trying to make sense of the adult world. So bringing back The Gong Show in 2017 made all the sense in the world for Myers in his post–Love Guru phase. That he chose to host the show in character as fictional British TV presenter Tommy Maitland is also very post–Love Guru, in that seeing the real Myers in public now is more and more rare. The whole gimmick of the first season was that no one connected to the show would admit it was Mike under the makeup; the illusion and misdirection are part of the point.
Myers’s contemporary peers in character comedy, of which there are few, still peek out from underneath the latex and the spirit gum often: Steve Coogan will disappear into Alan Partridge every few years, but he works steadily in straight roles. Eddie Murphy maintained his movie-star bona fides out of makeup in between doing multi-character romps like The Klumps or Bowfinger. Peter Sellers fought against his gift for anonymity and desperately wanted to play the action hero. But Myers seems perfectly content to disappear. Tommy Maitland is here less for the work itself and more for Myers’s commitment to the magic trick.
I feel for anyone who has not enjoyed the pleasures of Kenneth Reese-Evans (or, as I like to call him, “Cucumber Jones”), the host of “Theatre Stories,” a recurring sketch that debuted on SNL in 1991. Reese-Evans was one of the first in a long line of Myers characters that poked fun at the pomposity intrinsic to a certain type of Englishness that was prevalent on TV at the time. It was also another opportunity for nostalgia, as the guest characters on “Theatre Stories” were often impressions of famous actors of yesteryear. Phil Hartman played a clueless Charlton Heston. Dana Carvey played a version of Mickey Rooney that was bitter about his fading relevance. Unlike the Superfans sketches, “Theatre Stories” was an ensemble sketch that was still a showcase for Myers’s unique vision of sad “Cucumber Jones,” who couldn’t modulate the sound of his own voice. He remained the focal point of every sketch he appeared in. Reese-Evans would appear four times on SNL, twice in season 17 and twice in season 19. He was clearly a favorite character with John Goodman, who was the host for half of the character’s appearances.
Simon, the weird boy who draws in the bath, plays differently in 2022 than it did back in the early ’90s. A kid talking about you looking at his bum in the tub feels a tad creepy. But without taking all of that unintended subtext into consideration, it’s another simple idea: A child grapples with his mother’s death and his father’s deteriorating mental state and tries to make sense of it through his art. It’s often not funny at all. When you see through the absurdity of the drawings, it’s actually quite sad. It’s a distillation of so much of Myers’s work and is almost self-aware. All art is a fool trying to understand that which is unknowable. Simon is so innocent that he doesn’t even realize that his father is on a manic-depressive, self-destructive bender. The laughter comes from how ridiculous his father’s problems become, but even those are infrequent. And yet, Simon returned five times between 1990 and 1994. What makes Simon such a powerful character is that he unlocks the rest of Myers’s work and what it means. It might be his most poignant and dramatic work yet.
Does anyone remember Paul Baldwin? The first “Coffee Talk” sketch, from October 12, 1991, is an idea in search of a joke. It’s a one-note affair in which Myers as Baldwin says various things in a New York accent. It’s not memorable. The second “Coffee Talk” is the one that made the impact. Myers based the new host of the segment, Linda Richman, after his real-life mother-in-law named … Linda Richman. It was another hyperspecific reference that expressed something universal. It’s also Myers’s most indelible drag character. To Myers, a shy Canadian, the real-life Linda must have seemed like an alien. The East Coast, unabashedly Jewish milieu that the person and character represented is far from Scarborough, culturally if not geographically.
As is often the case, Myers here seems fascinated by culture, creed, and nationality. Part of that is likely just due to the mimic’s natural inclination to replicate the uniqueness of speech and mannerism. But there might also be a hint of yearning to be something. Canada’s humdrum plainness is a stereotype, one he’s happy to play with in The Pentaverate. In Canada, the footage is analog, pan-and-scan, and “fuzzy.” America is pristine, crystal-clear HD. One could read Myers’s oeuvre as a hope for the clarity of being part of a tribe. Whether it’s Linda Richman’s Semitic flair, the patriotic Englishness of Austin Powers, the repeated use of Scottish accents, Dieter’s German absurdity, or even the textual appropriation of Guru Pitka in The Love Guru, Myers keeps coming back to this need to have an identity. There’s comedy in specificity, but there’s also quite a bit of comfort to be found in belonging.
The great lost Myers movie is Dieter, a.k.a. the “Sprockets” movie. Dieter is simultaneously one of the easiest Myers characters to understand (funny voice, German, monkey friend) and also the strangest. It’s a parody of the European avant-garde that most American audiences would have no frame of reference for. From the ominous nuclear explosion in the title card to the staccato dance that ends the show, every “Sprockets” sketch feels like a message in a bottle from a distant apocalyptic dystopia that just happened to look a lot like 1989.
That might be why the planned film version of the sketch never got made. The script, co-written by Michael McCullers and Jack Handey, is hilarious. It also starts with a first act in Germany that was intended to be shot in black-and-white by director Bo Welch. The script reportedly went through 14 drafts, with one of the consistent problems cited being the fact that Dieter — a cruel German talk-show host that takes pleasure in hurting his guests and everyone else around him — was not likable. Sadly for the studio, that was the entire joke of the “Sprockets” sketch. The journey Dieter takes to America in the script is so that he can find his beloved monkey, Klaus. You can probably see how a main character’s only emotional connection being to a monkey is both very funny and not satisfying to American moviegoers looking to feel good about themselves when the movie’s over.
Myers backed out of Dieter, was sued by Universal Studios and Imagine Entertainment, then sued Universal and Imagine himself before agreeing to star in the abysmal The Cat in the Hat in exchange for not having to fulfill his obligation to Dieter. It’s a shame, because Dieter is one of the only Myers characters that truly feels mean, that has an absurdist edge. The film probably would have been an ahead-of-its-time masterpiece if it was made.
I will be the first to admit that most people loathe Fat Bastard. And why not? The entire joke is that he’s disgusting because of his size. He’s also Scottish and eats babies for some reason. Oh, and he coerces Felicity Shagwell into sex in exchange for favors. Much of 1999’s The Spy Who Shagged Me, like the ’60s and ’70s movies it parodies, has aged poorly when watched purely as a broad comedy. But, as Myers has admitted to himself, the character is incredibly sad and a reflection of his own painful body-image issues. As we’ve seen throughout this list, the characters in Myers’s career are engines for him to explore dark or painful or sensitive aspects of his life. If it’s his body, his masculinity, his fears of aging, or his withholding father, his most memorable creations are ones that attempt to make sense of deeply personal ideas.
Speaking of withholding fathers, the most beloved scenes in So I Married an Axe Murderer belong to Myers as Stuart Mackenzie, Charlie’s father. Charlie is the least interesting part of the Mackenzie clan, and maybe overall the least interesting part of the movie itself. This sort of mirrors what Myers has said about his own family life. “My mom would say … ‘Everyone in the house step forward who’s funny. Not so fast, Michael,’” he told Charlie Rose back in 1999. That might be why he so rarely acts without prosthetics or makeup of some sort now. These tools give him the distance to “be funny” without the interior judgment that he isn’t.
Stuart is loud, brash, and unapologetically Scottish, which is probably pretty exotic to someone from Canada. Stuart pops like so many supporting characters in Myers movies because it feels like a precious gem of a TV sketch in the middle of a grander narrative. It’s crystal clear, undiluted comedy, whereas films require drama, stakes, and action that has no obvious comedic purpose. Stuart was the launching pad for Myers to realize how he could work his magic on film as someone besides Wayne Campbell. And for that, we should be grateful.
I once referred to Austin Powers as “the most annoying character in his own movie.” He’s unlikable, creepy, and socially maladjusted in his first screen appearance in 1997. He thinks he can and should have sex with every woman when he wakes up from his cryogenic sleep. The idea of spending even a minute with a real-life Austin Powers would make the most even-keeled person snap. But that’s sort of the point. Austin is Myers testing his appeal and ability to make even the most irredeemable characters sympathetic. It’s his secret weapon. He just has a face that makes you feel for him, which allows him to plumb the depths of human inanity.
Austin finally does something halfway decent when he abstains from taking advantage of a drunk Vanessa after the Vegas montage in the original film. The airheaded libertine has a code of ethics and morals. He’s capable of learning and growing by the end of the movie. We even find out that he has daddy issues long before Daniel Craig took James Bond in that direction in the late 2000s. Austin might not be as complicated as his brother, but he’s also more than just a parody of ’60s spy melodrama that was birthed from Myers’s novelty mod-revival band, Ming Tea. In a sense, he’s a parody of masculinity itself.
One could argue that Shrek is a more popular character than Austin Powers or Wayne Campbell combined — that Myers might be known as Shrek before any of his other creations. After all, we are still talking about Shrek 12 years after the last movie came out. I would not say I’m a fan of Shrek, but as I said in the intro, cultural impact counts in these rankings — and Shrek certainly affected our culture. What’s remarkable about that is Mike Myers wasn’t even the first choice to voice the character. Chris Farley recorded an entire performance as Shrek that had to be replaced when he died in 1997. When Myers came aboard, his initial intention was to play the character in his normal voice. But, with 90 percent of the film recorded, he asked to do it all over again, at the cost of $4 million, in a Scottish accent. It all paid off when the film finally came out in 2001, taking in over $480 million in the global box office. The Shrek franchise is a master class on diminishing returns, but the initial germ of the idea fits comfortably in Myers’s canon. Once again, he’s playing a monster who just wants to be loved. It’s just that in Shrek, it’s no longer subtext. It’s just text.
Wayne’s World is the film that took Myers from beloved SNL player to megastar. The movie was a cultural phenomenon in 1992, but one that was nearly impossible for him to replicate. Wayne’s World 2 was a tortured, difficult production that didn’t make nearly as much money as the first. It would take five years for Myers to have another hit film.
The process of playing Wayne seemed to be unpleasant for Myers. Penelope Spheeris, the director of the first movie, recalls Myers being misanthropic throughout the production. She told Entertainment Weekly in 2008 that 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!’” Of course, plenty of people laughed at it, but part of acting and most of comedy is about needing validation. As a sketch actor on a live variety show, laughs come immediately from the studio audience. On a film set, there’s no audience to respond.
Fortunately, Wayne is in many ways just as needy as any one of us. His dogged, quixotic pursuit of Cassandra is relatable and endearing. Wayne’s an innocent who’s uncorrupted by self-hatred. His emotional longing is pure and untainted. Part of that is he’s kind of dumb, as so many adolescent comedy characters were in the ’90s. Wayne’s World was another in a long line of suburban coming-of-age fantasies, and it hinged on the unlikely heroics of awkward, naïve Wayne.
The greatest Mike Myers character of all time is the one character of his that truly gets to evolve. Most memorable sketch roles in the SNL mold are successful in penetrating popular culture because they come in, repeat the same jokes, and evaporate after five minutes only to come back a few months later with a slightly different tint. The Austin Powers universe is, as I mentioned above, an elongation of the sketch format. But stretching out the structure of a sketch gives Myers a chance to add a third dimension to his work.
Dr. Evil is a parody of Blofeld, but he’s also a fun-house-mirror version of Lorne Michaels, a caricature of an absent careerist father, and a lonely adopted child who doesn’t fit in anywhere. The Austin Powers movies are about the fragility of masculinity and our collective inability as men to grow up. That theme is expressed most fully in Dr. Evil, who is so desperate to be adored by someone that he creates a miniature clone of himself that possesses his worst instincts. At the same time, he neglects his actual child, who grows up to be even more evil than his father because of the rejection.
Every movie and TV show now is about inherited psychic trauma, but Austin Powers did it first. Dr. Evil’s pain at being rejected by his parents is passed down to his child, and it’s only when it’s too late for Scott that “Dougie Powers” emerges. If most of Myers’s early SNL characters were reflections of the awkward longing of childhood, his greatest character is his twisted, absurdist version of growing up.