If you weren’t around for it at the time, as I was not, you can watch the original “Gong Show,” the amateur un-talent show that ran on NBC and then in syndication from 1976 to 1980, on YouTube. It is an impossibly, almost magically, weird television program. Its weirdness began with its host and creator, Chuck Barris, who died in March, and who, as the master of ceremonies, brought an impish charm to the odd proceedings. He spoke in a digressive, choked rasp—often while the audience was still clapping or hooting, so as if to himself—with various hats pulled low over his eyes.
With a mix of sarcasm and genuine affection, he would introduce each act, which performed in front of a panel of three celebrity judges. If the performers were good, they were allowed to finish. If not, one of the celebrities would put an end to things by striking a large gong. The show was set on nuking the straitlaced variety shows that had dominated TV’s earlier decades, and it seemed to do so by channelling an eleven-year-old boy high on Pixy Stix. With its crass gags and broad sexual innuendo, it was either a giddy antidote to Carter-era malaise, or else acute evidence of that very thing. Regardless, it was singular, which means that folks in Hollywood, at several different points, have insisted on trying to reboot it.
The latest iteration, arriving this summer, is part of what ABC calls its Fun & Games lineup. The conceit of the show is the same as the original. Dotty performers sing, dance, or otherwise for a panel of three celebrity judges. (The first episode features Will Arnett, an executive producer of the show, along with the actors Zach Galifianakis and Ken Jeong, both of whom, from the beginning, have the look of men reëvaluating their life choices.) In the first episode, which airs on Thursday, the panel uses the gong sparingly, saving it only for the most wretched and boring acts, such as a large white man wearing a gi and striking martial-arts poses to dance music. The scores don’t matter: at the end of the show, all the performers are brought back out, and one is named the winner and given a check for two thousand dollars and seventeen cents, upgraded marginally from the five hundred or so bucks that people used to win in the seventies. All of this, I suppose, is fine, though, based on the first episode, not reliably funny. The world neither asked for nor needs another “Gong Show,” the venues for watching our fellow-citizens make brazen fools of themselves now being countless.
Yet there is a reason to watch, if only to attempt to make some sense of the show’s host, a rakish late-middle-aged British comedian named Tommy Maitland, who bounds onstage on the first show wearing a tuxedo and amontera (a bullfighter’s cap), and tosses out such catchphrases as “Who’s a cheeky monkey?” and “You’ve got no proof.” Though the audience appears familiar with him, Maitland is not a real person. He is, beneath an accent and a prosthetic mask, Mike Myers—though nowhere in the show’s promotional materials is his name mentioned.
It’s not odd to see Myers, whose parents emigrated from Liverpool to a suburb of Toronto before he was born, playing an Englishman: he has enjoyed popular success playing an assortment of Brits, most notably the swinging superspy Austin Powers and the gruff, green cartoon ogre Shrek, whom he voiced in a Scottish accent over the course of several hit films. It is a bit odd, however, to see Myers at all. His last major project was the spectacularly ill-fated 2008 comedy “The Love Guru,” which Myers wrote, produced, and starred in, and which the Timesfilm critic A. O. Scott called “one of the least funny, crudest, coarsest, most pointless movies that I’ve ever seen.” Myers’s last live-action performance came a year later, when he had a bit part as a British general in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” (Since then, according to a 2014 interview with GQ, he has been playing hockey, painting, raising his young children, and working on a pet-project documentary about the talent manager Shep Gordon.) Now, nearly a decade later, on a forgettable summer game show, the kind of filler networks trot out every year, he brings to his new role what would seem to be an unnecessary level of energy and commitment. As Maitland, Myers struts around the stage, kicking his feet to the sound of the brassy house band and delivering outmoded bawdy jokes without a hint of ironic distance. Just getting into the makeup must take hours, and one gets the unnerving feeling that he, like Daniel Day-Lewis, brings the character home with him at night. He may be the first Method game-show host in history.
As with the original “Gong Show,” there is a generation out there that is too young to get it. Those of us who grew up in the nineties remember a time when Myers was one of the most popular comedic actors in the world. As a cast member during one of the golden eras of “Saturday Night Live,” characters like Dieter, an arty German TV personality, and Wayne Campbell, the forever-teen hair-band enthusiast from Aurora, Illinois, were the talk of school lunch tables and workplace water coolers alike. Along with Dana Carvey, who played Wayne’s shy sidekick, Garth, Myers leapt from late-night TV to the big screen with a movie version of “Wayne’s World,” in 1992, which made him a star. As his fellow “S.N.L.” cast member David Spade recalled in James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales’s oral history “Live from New York,” there was a moment after “Wayne’s World” when Myers and Carvey were more famous than the celebrity hosts who came on the show. After leaving “S.N.L.,” Myers fashioned Austin Powers out of the flotsam of sixties British culture, of James Bond and of the knockoffs that came after him, and for a moment around the turn of the millennium, the persona was, for better or worse, inescapable.
Myers’s characters are perhaps best remembered for their exclamatory catchphrases—“Party on!” “No way!” “Not!” “Yeah, baby!” “Oh, behave!”—yet, as with the role of Maitland, he brought to their creation and performance an auteur-like seriousness. Myers became known in the business as a “difficult” collaborator. He feuded with Penelope Spheeris, the director of “Wayne’s World,” over control of the cut of the film, and had a rumored, though long denied, falling-out with Carvey after tensions on the set. Later, he made sure to have a hand in every aspect of the Austin Powers movies. Famously, after finishing his voice work on “Shrek,” he insisted on rerecording all of his dialogue when he was unhappy with the original accent he had initially settled on. To some, this kind of thing could seem like a great deal of self-seriousness in the service of jokes about horniness, midgets, farts, and bad teeth. Yet his characters became as famous as real people, his comedy broad but the people he played entirely, eccentrically specific. That alone must be seen as an affirmation of Myers’s craft and process—of his genius both as a comedian and as a showman.
Tony Maitland does not appear to be destined to join the ranks of Wayne Campbell, Dr. Evil, or Austin Powers in the public consciousness. The days of “The Gong Show” are surely numbered, and Maitland’s Twitter following, which appears to be merely a promotion for the show, seems unlikely to swell. It would seem, then, that the ratio between the care to which Myers builds a character and the potential comedy that that character could possibly yield has reached its most unsupportable imbalance yet. What results, however, is a kind of admirable oddity—an elaborate private joke that he is mostly telling to himself.
contributing writer & producer for newyorker.com