Mike Myers is the secret star of the summer in The Gong Show
A woman who plays the harmonica with a tarantula in her mouth. A guy performs the piano standing on his head. A couple spit bananas into each other’s mouths.
And that’s just in the first 15 minutes of the premiere of the rebooted The Gong Show. Talent shows are a dime a dozen nowadays, but there was only one uber un-talent show, and it ran on NBC in the 1970s.
The Gong Show was conceived long before YouTube, but the concept’s well suited for the bite-sized, Carpool-Karaoke world of social media.
Much of the current ’70s game-show revival, which includes Battle of the Network Stars and The $100,000 Pyramid, is bland enough to evoke a U.S. president of the era, Gerald Ford.
However, in the case of The Gong ShowThe Gong Show — airing Thursdays on ABC and Citytv — there is some spice: It comes in the form of host Tommy Maitland, who uses the Queen and the Union Jack as backdrops, just in case you don’t grasp that he’s British.
Unlike the manic original show’s host Chuck Barris, Maitland, whose favourite line is “Who’s a cheeky monkey?” is butter smooth. His jokes are all Graham Norton — full of sexual innuendo and saucy side-glances. “I haven’t had this much fun since Dolly Parton showed me how she keeps her guitar picks warm,” he says smugly.
The only similarity to Barris, who died in March, is that on occasion Maitland will wear a hat — in this case that of a matador. Barris wore an endless array of different hats, all pulled so low over his eyes, which became part of the character of the show.
“Turn on your telly and turn off your brain,” Maitland reminds today’s audiences, as he presides over a trio of fellow comic performers who serve as the judges; in the premiere, it was Will Arnett, Ken Jeong and Zach Galifianakis.
The premise remains simple. Unlike America’s Got Talent or The Voice, or any of the other variety shows that now populate the airwaves, there’s no hunt for future stars here — quite the opposite. The show instead finds amateurs who are truly awful and sees who can complete a performance before someone sounds the gong to put a stop to them.
The winner, or loser if you like, picks up a $2,000 cheque, about equivalent to the $500.32 that Barris offered four decades ago, if you factor in inflation.
So far the new version lacks legendary returning “talent” like Gene Gene The Dancing Machine or Murray Langston, who performed as The Unknown Comic with a bag over his head. In fact, the most remarkable act on The Gong Show is not any of the competitors.
The true talent is Maitland himself, who happens to be the alter ego of a completely unrecognizable Mike Myers.
The show credits give no hint who the host really is, and many viewers likely have no clue. But beneath the prosthetics, which likely take most of the day to put on, is a demonstration of one actor’s impressive, full-on crazy dedication to his craft.
The Canadian comedic star is known for creating characters that become rooted in our culture. Lovable slacker Wayne from Wayne’s World, in a basement modelled after his own in his beloved Scarborough, comes to mind, as do swinging ’60s super secret agent Austin Powers, and the Scots-tinged voice of animated ogre Shrek.
But Tommy Maitland is something else. Myers’ characters typically leap from the screen, — as the purple-trousered Austin Powers would say, “yeah, baby!” But this time he dials back on Maitland, understanding that a game show host is a cipher, not the attraction. In doing so he inhabits the world of a British show host so completely that the character is entirely believable.
The joke is so elaborate that the ABC News release about the show has a fictional biography for the host. It seems that Arnett had become friends with Maitland after meeting him at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Dying to work with the comic, he pitched The Gong Show.
Still, at times it feels like Myers is channelling Mrs. Doubtfire in a tuxedo. And he can’t escape his Myers-isms completely, particularly when he says “it blows” with that cheeky-monkey grin.
Why he decided to host a summer filler of a game show is a head-scratcher. But at this stage in life, Myers has nothing to prove — though he has been away from the spotlight since 2008’s wretched comedy The Love Guru, he certainly doesn’t need another paycheque.
He is playing not for a greater audience, but for his fellow comics. Or mostly himself. And he is likely snickering mightily underneath that prosthetic mask.
It’s unlikely the show will last. So catch it while you can before Myers gets bored. It’s not quite Roger Federer in his twilight years winning Wimbledon, but seeing the gifted performer go full-on Col. Kurtz in this comedic heart of darkness — where is he taking this? — is special, even if he doesn’t always hit the mark.
Not everyone has to be in on the joke. And Mike Myers, it seems, is perfectly fine with that.