The Man of Many Face

Christopher Guest takes his comedy very, very seriously

When Guest was a child, the 6-year-old son of a diplomat then living in New York, he used to look outside his window and peer at the people walking on the street below. He would then jump off the windowsill and imitate their walks. He would also give them voices, becoming these strangers, or at least who he imagined they might be. So often during his childhood, adults would say to him the same thing: "I'm glad you're amusing yourself, young man." He was. He still is.

When he was in college, at New York University, Guest found himself rooming with a fellow theater student named Michael McKean, otherwise known as Spinal Tap's singer-guitarist David St. Hubbins (and, before that, Lenny Kosnowski on Laverne & Shirley). They would arise at 8 every morning and begin "making the movie"--creating and becoming characters, performing for the invisible camera. By the time they arrived in class, they would be in the third act, cracking themselves up even as their classmates struggled to keep themselves awake. Guest and McKean annoyed those around them--"they thought we were manic"--but couldn't care less. "To us it was funny," Guest says, smiling, "and it's the same thing I'm doing now, except now it has a little more structure." Small pause. "Perhaps."

The perhaps is a wise addendum: Yes, Guest and Eugene Levy receive writing credit on Best in Show, which is about, more or less, nine oddball dog lovers who converge at the Mayflower Dog Show and prove far less manageable than their pets. But the film was completely improvised by its stars, among them McKean, Levy, SCTV veteran Catherine O'Hara, and Fred Willard, otherwise known as the most unappreciated comic actor this country's ever produced (just to look at him is to laugh). Levy and Guest gave them only the names of their characters and told the actors to fill in the blanks; the result is 90 minutes' worth of gold panned out of hundreds of hours' worth of shooting. Willard compares the process to playing tennis, a comedian's game of serve-and-volley.

This man goes to 11: Christopher Guest was, and remains, Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel.
This man goes to 11: Christopher Guest was, and remains, Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel.
This man goes to one: Christopher Guest as the serious director of Best in Show
This man goes to one: Christopher Guest as the serious director of Best in Show

As with all of Guest's films, including 1989's The Big Picture (starring Kevin Bacon as a wannabe filmmaker willing to sell out himself and everyone around him) and 1998's Almost Heroes (with Matthew Perry and Chris Farley as two bumbling explorers), Best in Show pokes gentle fun at those who take themselves so seriously they become buffoons. These dog owners are fools who eventually get in their own way; they're delusional, naïve, earnest to a fault, dreamers who ought to stay in bed. We love them, perhaps because we so pity them: Gerry Fleck (Levy), the man with two left feet (literally) who sings songs to his Norwich terrier; Meg (Parker Posey) and Hamilton Swan (Michael Hitchcock), yuppies who met at Starbucks and believe their weimaraner was traumatized after watching them have sex; and Leslie Ward Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge), the trophy wife of a fossilized old man. And then there's Harlan Pepper, played by Guest with a Deep South accent on loan from a Civil War museum. Actually, Guest says, he came up with the voice while driving through the mountains in his pick-up truck. At first, Harlan's voice made him sneeze, non-stop. He is not joking.

"I think my observations are about people who take themselves seriously, which isn't even that conscious," Guest says. "I was interviewed by a guy named Elvis Mitchell about two years ago for his NPR radio show The Treatment, and he truly was the first person--and I've done, oh, a thousand interviews--who said, "What's interesting about these movies is...,' and then he started to talk about how these people take themselves so seriously. I felt like Rain Man, a moron, because I said, "You're right, but I never thought of that.' I'm not being facetious. He really was the first person who said there's a running thing here, and since that time, I've actually thought about it, because I operate on a very spontaneous level, which may after the fact look cerebral in some way.

"But the way I play music is the same way I do these movies. It sounds like a tangent, but when I play as Nigel Tufnel, the solos I play are not the solos I would play as me, but they're channeled in some weird way so that it comes out as this guy. That's the way I do these parts. They come from this blank state of mind. So when Elvis said that, I said, "This is interesting, because I think you're right,' but it comes back to this issue of people who view themselves seriously, and maybe there's something funny about that. I hope I'm not one of those people."

Throughout the course of this hour-long conversation, Guest will repeatedly insist he has no agenda when making his films; he doesn't see them as parts of a significant sum. He swears he's not kidding. And swears again. "I'm serious," and of course he is.

As a child, Guest loved the Marx Brothers ("Groucho is the guy") and revered Peter Sellers, the ultimate blank slate upon so much great comedy was written. He cared little for the Three Stooges, wondering why grown men would choose to hurt themselves for a few cheap laughs. He preferred instead the grace of Buster Keaton and the ballet of Harold Lloyd; Guest found his comedy in the contemplative, rather than the combative. He also loved the surreal--funny walks, funny voices. He liked smart, and he liked serious. Comedy without a tinge of the somber is merely silly, and he will have little of that. Getting a laugh is hard work; comedy is not to be tended to by the frivolous.

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