For years, the Nantucket Film Festival has hosted a roundtable featuring notable performers from the realm of comedy writing and performing, all of whom have been selected by festival regular Ben Stiller. The list of previous guests is a diverse one that has ranged from Harold Ramis to Chris Rock. For the latest edition, which took place on Sunday, Stiller invited “Austin Powers” star Mike Myers to join longtime “Saturday Night Live” head writer Seth Meyers (who’ll take over the hosting duties of “Late Night” from Jimmy Fallon early next year) for a 90-minute conversation moderated by “The State” alum Michael Ian Black. As expected, it was a genuinely fun, lively affair filled with candid admissions and showbiz anecdotes. The event was recorded by the EPIX network for broadcast this fall. Until then, here are some of the highlights, including Meyers’ talk show plans, how Stiller’s shyness informs his performances, and the unlikely circumstances under which Myers was hired to play Shrek.
Meyers has big plans for “Late Night.” Black asked Myers how the legacy of “Late Night” — from David Letterman to Conan O’Brien to Fallon — has informed his plans for the program. “The legacy, for me, is that it has always been the really exciting piece of real estate after the other late night shows,” Meyers said. “People are already there after an hour of late night talk show. You want to do something a little different, a little outside the lines of convention.” He’s still sifting through various ideas. “I have to say that a month and a half into getting this job, it’s really strange to be theoretical about what it is you’re going to do,” he added. “I’d like to try to bring — not ‘Weekend Update,’ but sort of the written gaffes, like a ‘Weekend Update’ feature where someone comes out as a guest who’s not an actual person promoting something or telling a real story. I think it would be nice to have hybrid performers like Conan did in the early days. I really do like playing with the straight man character. I know the network’s impatient and we’ll figure it out as we go.” Black joked, “So you’re not going to have humans on the show?” Meyers shot back, “We might have one talking god.”
Meyers needs to get ready to open himself up. Black said that Meyers had told him backstage that he was afraid to appear on fellow comedian Marc Maron’s popular “WTF” podcast “because there’s so much he hasn’t worked out for himself.” But on “Late Night,” he’ll have to get used to sharing himself with the audience. “Part of the job that’s so scary is that I’m going from 15 minutes on a Saturday to every night of the week for an hour,” Meyers said. “It would be very hard to just sit behind the desk and talk about news. When I do standup I feel like I share more of my life than I have on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ so that’s been a helpful step. But I do have to be prepared to share. People who watch that show know if you’re married, if you have kids, all these things about you.” Stiller furthered that point. “People are going to connect with you on some level that maybe has nothing to do with what you do or don’t prepare,” he said, “but instead the essence of who you are.”
Not every character flourishes under the “SNL” dynamic. Stiller talked about feeling restricted by the television format when he worked on “SNL” in the late ’80s. “I could’ve stayed and toughed it out, but I wanted to pursue what I wanted to do, which was to direct comedy,” he said. Mike Myers added, “It’s not a director’s medium. When you watch the first ‘Wayne’s World’ sketch, we’re zipping back and forth, then the last one was just flat, with two chairs. Ben’s a stylist, and the show doesn’t like style.” Stiller, perhaps cognizant of recent “SNL” head writer Seth Meyers’ presence, clarified. “It wasn’t a director’s medium at the time,” he said. “I think it really changed over the last five or six years. What they’re willing to do and the chances they take. For me, I just saw the writing on the wall: I don’t enjoy live television.”
Mike Myers was inspired by Gilda Radnor — and acted with her as a child. “I did a TV commercial when I was 10 years old and Gilda Radner played my mother,” he said. “I was so grateful that the show was still around by the time I was old enough to be on it. I just wanted to be like Gilda.” Growing up, he said, “everything English was worshipped in my house, but at that time there weren’t English standup. Standup is, in essence, an American art form.”
The success of “Austin Power” inspired Stiller to direct and star in “Zoolander.” “It was an obviously brilliant character in movies that took a not necessarily realistic character and translated it into film,” Stiller said, “which means you have to somehow get the audience to go along with the character for more than five minutes. To see it done so well made me realize how I could do that.”
Unlike Meyers and Stiller, Mike Myers doesn’t have a “comedy clique” of people he works with over and over again. “Yeah, where’s your clique, man?” Stiller said facetiously when Black asked Myers about his lack of regular collaborators. “I’m a site-specific extrovert. Mostly, I’m an introvert,” Myers said. “I am most comfortable between action and cut. Other than that, I don’t know how to do anything.” Beyond that, he added, “I’m not good at getting back to people. It’s not arrogance; it’s ineptitude and low self-image in trying to get my way through the world.” He quoted author Kurt Vonnegut, who used to say that he’s not good at anything but he was good swimmer, writing, “In the water, I am beautiful.” Myers could relate. “For me, I’m happiest swimming,” he said.
Myers’ commitment to characters is absolute. The actor takes a Method-like approach to his performances that continues after the cameras stop rolling. “It’s annoying when you come to watch me film something, but I stay in character all day,” he said. “I have to. I’m Fat Bastard all day.” When the audience cracked up, Myers tacked on an impression of the memorably overweight “Austin Powers” character (“Shut yer pinhole!”). “It would be worse to see you out of character in that costume,” Meyers said. “That’d be like seeing the characters at Disneyland with their heads off.”
Also, Myers has some big ideas when it comes to comedy. “This might be long-winded and pretentious, but light is both particle and wave,” Myers said, then caught himself. “I’m not kidding, this will pan out,” he said. “The particle is each little moment that happens in a film and the wave is how they pan out in the overall story. One of the things I loved when I got the great opportunity to write movies was writing jokes and payoffs that come out of the plot.” He mentioned the unlikely example of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to illustrate his point, recalling his experience bringing his punk rock brother to the film and watching as the typically anti-mainstream viewer enjoyed the payoff of seeing Indiana Jones in a snakepit after learning that the character hated snakes. “You can get a joke based on stuff you set up,” he said. “It’s like setting up dominoes — it’s the harmony of both particle and wave. It’s not just comedy of put-down humor. Everything I’ve done has involved creating a universe. Something like ‘Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure’ is a masterpiece about a universe with particle and wave of overall story. That, to me, is thrilling.”
Stiller’s shyness informs his work. Black pointed out that Stiller’s low-key personality tends to play a role in his everyman humor. “You love temperament,” Myers said. “The idea of somebody having temperament who shouldn’t have temperament, I love that about what you do.” Stiller complicated that point. “As actors, there are so many contradictions in us as people — you know, you can have a big ego and still be really insecure,” he said. “You want to take that element of yourself that’s pretty imperfect and expand on that in a really funny way.”
Myers received the offer to voice “Shrek” under unlikely circumstances and played a key role in defining the character. I met Jeffrey Katzenberg at the premiere of ‘Saving Private Ryan,'” he recalled. “Both my parents were in World War II, so at the end of it I was just devastated, thinking about how they were the best generation ever and we’ve done nothing. Jeffrey comes up to me and says, ‘Would you ever do a cartoon?'” He didn’t mention that the role was originally written for the recently deceased Chris Farley, which meant that the Shrek character had a Canadian accent. After eight days of recording, Myers requested that they go back and redo everything with the now-famous Scottish intonation. “I had this idea that fairy tales are about class,” he said. “You’ve got the good-looking rich people and everybody else. I said, ‘Scottish is European. Eddie will be turning the American voice on its head with that idiom. But Scottish is a working class thing. ‘I got a lovely letter from Steven Spielberg saying ‘the Scottish thing is so much better. Thank you for caring.’ That’s why he’s Steven Spielberg. He loves movies.”